Cookie-cutter school reforms cement class and race divisions and hide the black genius in our backyards.
In 1992 and fresh out of Yale, David Levin was on his
way to becoming what has become a stereotype of the Teach for America recruit: white, privileged, well-meaning and utterly unprepared to manage his class of mostly poor students of color in Houston.
Then he watched educator Harriett Ball in action. Even sitting down in front of the chalkboard, she was a physically imposing woman, over 6-feet, skin the rich color of coffee, shoulders bouncing, neck bopping to the beat. A youtube clip showed the classroom wizard at work:
“Not the two liter,” she says in a smoker's rasp. She thrusts a two-plus inch acrylic fingernail toward the kids. "But the one liter. How long is a decimeter? That's a half a hand.” Her Texas drawl unfurled. “And the centimeter? My nail bed. Come on, brag to me. Look, look! That's what I sayyy-yed.”
She applied units of measurements to their local landscape: how far from the McDonald's? How big is a coke bottle, a paper clip, bag of sand? The kids and Ball chanted the final verse in unison: “It doesn't matter, how long or short it is. It doesn't matter how heavy or hot it is. I know how to measure! So ask us, it's our pleasure!”
Ball mentored both Levin and his fellow TFA enlistee, Mike Feinberg, according to Post reporter Jay Mathews' admiring book on the origins of KIPP, “Work Hard. Be Nice.” The pair used Ball's techniques, chants, “finger rolls” and behavior-management to create the nation's largest franchise of public charter schools called Knowledge is Power Program (named for one of Ball's chants.)
As it built into a national network, KIPP students’ test scores soared, attracting media attention, and then millions in corporate and public support. It seemed, they had perfected the “formula” for student success-- at least for poor, black and brown kids anyways: Long hours, militaristic discipline, constant and scientific assessment, and teachers working around the clock. For many deep-pocketed reformers, these elements have become the gold standard for how “urban” students can and should learn. Public schools that do not show similar “results” are being privatized or closed.
The franchise approach to urban school reform raises some uncomfortable questions about class, race and community. It is creating two permanent tracks of schooling: one for the wealthy and one for the black and brown, and poor. It also raises questions about what public schools should be for poor and black children. Are they organic, self-sustaining parts of the urban fabric? Are they charities? Are they for-profit companies?
My family is among of the unlucky Ward 5 residents whose neighborhood middle school has been closed. When we shopped for a middle school, my husband suggested we enroll our son in KIPP. A black friend, a lawyer who worked in education, warned against it: “That's like prison! They make those kids walk on lines like they're in the chain gang!” Although I know kids who have thrived there, it's a perception I've heard repe ted by countless teachers, education policy folks and even school district leaders. An education consultant advising white middle class parents told The Post’s Emma Brown that she tells her clients not be fooled by the high test scores-- KIPP and its imitators would not be a “good fit.” We have to ask ourselves why.
Wealthy and middle class schools are all about developing an independent voice and passions, exploring ideas and creativity. It treats children as individuals of innate value with powerful destinies to be realized. Many charters franchises (throw in the for-profit B.A.S.I.S.) often emphasize compliance, repetition, “drill and kill.” I am uncomfortable sending my child on that track. So how could I advocate it to other people's children who happen to look like mine? Why should we allow such policies to be applied to the whole traditional neighborhood system?
To apply this external mold on children, whether it is through standardized tests or a charter franchise, is to treat them as “gaps” to be bridged. It also creates awkward expectations for how black people should be treated.It's like when strange white men introduce themselves to my husband with a soul power grip instead of a handshake or white women address me (and maybe every other black woman) as “girlfriend.” To have those assumptions about how urban minds work baked in the bread of how schools do business is dangerous. It also fuels and reifies racial and economic segregation.
For kids who are falling behind, extra interventions and classroom time are needed--and much appreciated. But certain types of interventions aren't always welcome. Fingerprinting systems at one charter that one 16-year-old said reminded her “of juvenile hall,” many punitive disciplinary methods that show a contempt for the poor who lack the resources to defend themselves.
And, these interventions definitely don't come free. Right now, the price is being paid by idealistic young teachers who have the luxury of living as missionairies for a few years after college with their students calling their cell phones around the clock. And of course, it is heavily subsidized by corporate philanthropies eager to make a point about unions and private management.
Charter chains and TFA have important roles to play, but at a certain point we have to start thinking of public education less as a charitable enterprise or for-profit business and more of a core value in our communities. Schools should begin by building on what assets the community values and what their goals are for their children's future, not what the franchise decides are best practices. Schools should be part of the ecosystem of a community, one that replenishes itself and stands on its own feet. The conversation has to shift away from recruiting the nation's best charter operators, and instead recruiting, nurturing and retaining the next generation of Harriett Balls.
To modern eyes, Ball's methods seem dated, but I have no doubt they were the culmination of years of loving and learning from the children in front of her. She was a genius at seeing herself in them. She knew they could hold on to who they were while at the same time becoming better. Up until her death in 2011 at age 64, Ball was very supportive of her proteges, but she "warned them that if they just copied her routine, they would not be doing their students much good," Mathews wrote. She was right. I'm sure the first McDonald's hamburger was delicious.
The reasons why Ball declined to join Levin and Feinberg in starting their education franchise was even more telling about who gets a seat a the table. “But Harriet, it was all your idea. You created this,” Levin said, according Mathews. Ball refused. “I can't do it. I have four kids. I have a mortgage and no child support...I'll be here for you. But if it doesn't pay my bills, I have no one to go to. You're young and you can start over. I don't have that luxury.”
Would a 46-year-old black, single mother of four survive in today's corporate school reform climate? Will the next generation of homegrown geniuses get proper protection and investment? A big part of the puzzle of school reform is making sure they do.
Natalie Hopkinson is a contributing writer to The Washington Post. You can reach her at NHopkinson@hotmail.com. Join her, Allison Brown Consulting and The Root DC for a discussion on race and class in D.C. public schools at noon on June 15 at Hill Center, 921 Pennsylvania Ave. SE.