Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Whatever It Takes - At what cost?

Bridging Differences is back, and Diane Ravitch has some important commentary on Paul Tough's Whatever It Takes, chronicling Geoffrey Canada's Harlem Children's Zone.
Tough’s book is very hopeful. He cites a large body of evidence to argue that children will never fall behind cognitively if their parents and their environment provide them with enough stimulation and support from the beginning of their lives. This is the case, he says, no matter how poor their parents are, no matter how disadvantaged their circumstances. If we as a society do “whatever it takes,” we can close the achievement gaps and get every student ready for college or a good career.

However, and there is always a however, there is a depressing aspect to Tough’s book. As the author describes the situation, Canada is in complete sympathy with his powerful, wealthy board of directors, which includes hedge-fund billionaires. Not surprising. These directors care only for the numbers, and they don’t care how the schools get them. “The overall goal of the Zone might be liberal and idealistic—to educate and otherwise improve the lives of poor black children—but Canada believed the best way to achieve that goal was to act not like a bighearted altruist but like a ruthless capitalist, devoted to the bottom line.” (p.135).

The first principal of the middle school sounds like you, Deborah; she must have been reading your books. She is a progressive educator who worries about the whole child, about their social and emotional problems, and who wants the children to have a rounded education. But her school doesn’t get the test scores gains that the hedge-fund managers and the New York City Department of Education demand. She is removed and replaced by a KIPP-style principal. The wealthy men who run the board of the Zone are impressed by the KIPP model, which is described by one of them as “more of a military-style, real rote-learning, rote-behavior discipline thing,” because this model “delivered results.”

The new principal begins a regimen of test-prep, test-prep, test-prep, no-nonsense discipline. Drill, drill, drill. I won’t spoil the book for you by giving away the outcome, but I can only say that the school part of the book’s message was startling. Do poor black and Hispanic kids really need to be in “no excuses” schools that insist on rote learning and rote behavior? That take control of their lives and change their culture? Should this be the model for education for children of color in big cities? This was the message of Abigail Thernstrom and Stephan Thernstrom’s book "No Excuses," and it was echoed by a recent book by David Whitman, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism."

Catholic Charter Schools?

Should Catholic schools be allowed to become public charter schools? To avoid closing, several Catholic schools in D.C. have worked out a deal with the school system in which they will become public charters.