Dream school?

I just finished reading “Banding Together,” by David Kirp in the latest issue of the American Educator. It’s all about how schools improve their test scores when labor and management work together, rather than battling each other. Facing, as we are, a “catastrophe”—that “puts United States’ future economic prosperity, global position, and physical safety at risk” according to a 2012 report published by the Council of Foreign Relations, (led by Joel Klein and Condoleeza Rice)—Kirp has some suggestions to make. Kirp mocks it lightly, with an aside on “physical safety?” but his main point is that the best answer is labor-management collaboration. He highlights the work going on in Union City, N.J. They have made a real turn around in test scores AND college graduation rates, he reports. He focuses on what he calls a “dream team” of 3rd grade teachers in one low-income school with lots of non-English speakers. In 25 years they went from one of the most “wretched” to shining stardom. He visited their school and judged it by his own Golden Rule (which I like), “I’d be happy if my own child went there.” The school as a whole, but the dream team in particular, has, for “year after year” outperformed others on the state achievement test, e.g. 93% in math. I was waiting to learn why these same 3rd graders stopped being at “the top” as fourth graders. Kirp, what happened? “This is a tale of evolution not revolution” Kirp suggests. (Maybe the 4th grade will improve over time?) He then describes how they get there—management and labor together.

The “essentials” he describes are probably on every superintendent and principal’s desk—including “challenging curriculum,” “hands-on help”, “reaching out to parents,” “high expectations,” and “close-grained analyses of student test-scores to diagnose and address problems.” But two are worth noting: preschool and an essentially bilingual approach to second-language learners. Whether these are dependent on labor-management cooperation was not clear. But otherwise the description he gives of what this new collegiality comes down to is mostly hair-raising—hours and hours and hours of filling out forms, making charts and graphs, poring over scores, adjusting and readjusting. The “dream team,” which meets once a week, takes the standardization the furthest—toeing a common line when it comes to almost everything. And everyone tests frequently on a tool designed to correspond to the State’s test.

Kirp is on the side of the angels, and over the years I’ve liked a lot of his work. But his blindness to what stares him in the face is chilling. Is this a fair description of the school he sends his own child or grandchild to? I doubt it. When he describes the 3rd grade math course of study—“understand fractions, know how to convert fractions to their simplest forms, estimate the volume of a rectangle, and use the metric system” I wonder if test scores are sufficient evidence for him that they’ve “got” 93% of it.

In short, I find Kirp does not bring to his observing skills what years of experience has taught him about what constitutes a good education. Nor does he use his understanding of statistics to questions some of the data he reports on. That students in Union City now score at approximately the New Jersey average may or may not be amazing. New Jersey is actually a rich state, with substantial inequality, which suggests that “average” can be deceptive. Nor does he mention anything about their education outside of relentless preparation for math and reading tests when he so confidently claims that these children can now “compete with their suburban cousins.”

In short, Kirp, a decent academic writer on our public school system, reminds me how easily we can ignore what we want to ignore. “Achievement” soon equals “test scores” and on and on. And then ignores telling us so much we need to know. For example, I was eager to hear more about the pre-school program, r whether kids drop out along the way or are often held-over in grade, whether teachers are paid by their students’ test scores, and whether all that energy and time, precious time spent on “data analysis” hasn’t meant the elimination of much of what Kirp and I wanted and got for our own children—art, music, sports, social studies, history and science.

I don’t blame Union City—for trying their best to beat the game, as long as we don’t fool ourselves into thinking that this definition of “well-educated” is a fair one. If we developed a broader vision of what constitutes “good data”—observing children closely for clues to children’s strengths and idiosyncratic styles, interest and oddities, rather than only their testing accuracy—I think that same Dream Team would dream up better things to do with their time together. But partnering well between labor and management has limits when neither one is free to raise serious questions about what it means to be successful.

5 Responses

  1. Spread Love and Fly

  2. Language problem here as well. “Banding Together” — how else can one “band” certainly not apart. Setting a bad example. Needs better editing.

    Sid S. Glassner

  3. Thanks for this, DM. I had read about this Union City “success” but didn’t understand the underlying issues until you shined this light on them.

  4. They love to use Union City as an example and it really is insane for two reasons. First off because a large part of the population are immigrants and come from a culture where hard work is the norm. More importantly though, it the discrepancy with the amount of money poured into Union City at the cost of other children throughout the state. Please take a moment to read a short story so to get a better understanding.

    In July 2000 then Governor Whitman, created The New Jersey Schools Construction Corporation (SCC) formely known as the School Development Authourity (SDA). This was an agency which oversaw the program of implementing construction with regards to 400 school buildings throughout the state. There were different procedures for districts seeking funding depending whether or not they were Abbott Districts. Essentially 6 billion dollars was allotted for Abbott districts, 2.5 billion for non-Abbott districts and 100 million for county vocational school projects.

    The SCC ended up being a prime example of waste and mismanagement. By late 2004, it became evident that there would not be enough funds to even come close to the original aim. Seventy five projects were determined near completion and a list of 59 projects that would move forward was developed. While I have deduced that there were references of first come first serve, I can find no clear cut answers as to how projects were chosen for the list. This list, nevertheless, is a great case in point on how incompetence is plaguing the education system.

    The importance of this list lies in its inclusion of a property in Union City. The school was then known as Christopher Columbus. It had originally been purchased by the city from a parish in the early 90s. It was renovated and served as an example of how Union City was infusing technology into the curriculum. It was a “new age” school. So much so that it gained the attention of Bill Clinton during his race for his second term and he held a campaign event there. Why did this school luck out and make the cut when it had been renovated in the last ten years, when there were schools that were never renovated? You may think this is where the question lies in including it on the list and it is a valid question, but it doesn’t end there.

    The SCC took title of this property in December 2004 after the lengthy process and red tape associated with attaining property. During that lengthy time in which every one was aware of the SCCs intentions for the property, the city allowed a beautiful apartment building to be built on the property. This in turn, increased the property value drastically than what was originally proposed. It went from being valued at $326,000 to $1,825,000. Why would the SCC choose this school to be included on the list of projects to move forward with, when it had become excessively expensive thanks to city permits?

    The brand new apartment building that never became a home for anyone was knocked down. It remained barren for a long time for a number of reasons but mostly because Chris Christie was elected and put a halt to all of the now SDA developments. Oh and despite putting a freeze on all projects spent a hefty $114 million dollars in overhead costs. Finally within the last year that school was built.

    If I am not mistaken Union City was able to build four beautiful brand new schools during the SCC/SDA era. Veterens’ Memorial School, Jose Marti Freshmen Academy, Eugenio Maria de Hostos Center for
    Early Childhood Education, Union City HS and the beautiful Collin Powell Elementary that was built on the infamous property mentioned above. All of this while neighborhoods surrounding Hawthorne Elementary School are desolate due to the SCC purchasing homes never to fix or build anything. On top of that, presently the kids don’t have a principal because he decided to speak up about the constant culture of diminishing resources.

    Now, why does Union City do so good. Google the images for their schools and then google some of Newarks. Oh and maybe because
    their mayor endorsed Chris Christie. Sorry the short story became long.

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