Fixing What Ails the Schools
A week ago the New York Times delivered a long and dismaying examination of New York's public schools, two years after the launch of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's widely ballyhooed plan to improve them.
The "mixed progress" cited in the headline turns out, in the body of the story, to be much closer to: Nothing's changed. The Bloomberg approach, featuring a new system of governance, elimination of the old Board of Education and an end to social promotions, hasn't worked. Nor, according to the Times's survey, do parents expect much change. The plan appears to be a dud.
My mind goes back to the late Ron Edmonds, founder of the Effective Schools Movement of the 1970s, and his famous aphorism:
"We can, whenever and wherever we choose, successfully teach all children whose schooling is of interest to us. We already know more than we need to in order to do that. Whether or not we do it must finally depend upon how we feel about the fact that we haven't so far." Beautifully expressed -- but is it correct?
Bloomberg clearly thought he knew enough and cared enough to improve significantly the education of children in the city's lowest performing schools. He made a show of launching various aspects of his program in such venues as the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. During his 2001 election campaign, he said flat out: "I want to be held accountable for the results, and I will be."
He brought in hundreds of new principals, installed new leadership, reorganized the 32 districts into 10 regions, hired a parent coordinator for every school and raised about $200 million in private money to supplement the education budget. It doesn't sound like a lack of interest.
But 42 percent of the fifth-graders in Harlem's District 5 have been told they are in danger of being left behind. For third-graders, it's 52 percent.
Okay, the fact that a particular mayor launched an ineffectual plan doesn't refute Edmonds's notion that "we" can educate our children if we care to do it. Maybe Bloomberg simply assembled the wrong "we."
A point in favor of this view would be the relative (and sometimes startling) success of certain schools dealing with formerly low-performing students: the KIPP schools in New York, for instance, or the schools in several states that hew to the line of Yale's James Comer, or any number of charter schools. But precious few school systems are showing much consistent improvement in educating the children we know to be hard to educate: children of low-income black and Hispanic households, children of single-parent school dropouts -- children, in short, for whose pare nts school didn't work.
What is misleading about the Edmonds dictum is this: If you take any child of reasonably normal brain function, you and I can probably help him to learn. We can shower him with love and attention or get our educator friends to offer suggestions, books and supplies, have them spend time in our homes or on interesting outings -- and if we do all these things, there's hardly a child we can't influence for the better.
But that's a far cry from what Edmonds believed: that we could do it for all children if we cared enough. One way of thinking about it is to observe that even in an economy with 50 percent unemployment you and I could help any particular kid be among the half with jobs. But helping any child is not the same as helping every child; the jobless rate would still be 50 percent.
What is hard for us to get our minds around is that school improvement is fairly easy to accomplish for children whose parents were successful in school and are enjoying some success in their lives. Threats of retention, loss of privilege, even the prospect of embarrassment, can nudge such parents into more active participation in their children's schooling.
But for parents who have not enjoyed success or seriously envisioned success for their children, it takes more than reorganization and parent coordinators and such. It takes a consistent, nonjudgmental effort to reach and teach parents how to prepare their children for learning.
For in the end "we" -- if that means school systems and school professionals -- don't know enough because "we" can't know enough to change the culture in which hard-to-educate children are the majority.
Bloomberg may be starting to understand that reorganization and improved bureaucracies won't necessarily cure what ails our schools. But neither will Ron Edmonds's notion that all we have to do is care.