Monday, July 28, 2014

"A Model Of What A Good School Can And Should Be"

Three years ago, I wrote a post here called "The Path of Punishment" in which I used the revelations of a massive high stakes test cheating scandal in Atlanta's public schools as a jumping off point. In that post I riffed on the inevitability of cheating in the sort of competitive reward-punishment environment created by such education initiatives like the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind and the Obama administration's Race to the Top, both of which tie federal funding and teacher pay and promotions to the narrow range of data produced by these tests of dubious value, unless your goal is simply to identify the socio-economic class of the child being tested. 

Since that time, similar cheating scandals have been uncovered across the US, including Philadelphia, Toledo, El Paso, Baltimore, Cincinnati, Houston, St. Louis, and Washington, DC and dozens of other cities. For the most part, the cheating has happened in districts with high levels of poverty, by far the number one driver of low standardized test scores. I'd assumed that the cheaters had been primarily motivated by the fear of losing their jobs if they didn't achieve the impossibly idealistic goals mandated by federal law. I didn't really think teachers and even principals had cheated for the relatively meager bonuses they stood to receive for "success," although the half million dollars in bonus pay awarded to Atlanta's superintendent causes me to suspect her motivations, because, well, it's half a million dollars.

Last week, I read with fascination and regret, Rachel Aviv's recent piece about the Atlanta scandal that appeared The New Yorker. Three years down the road, legal justice has been meted out, teachers and principals have been fired, the middle school at the center of the controversy is now an abandoned building, and the trials of those at the "top" are winding their way toward convictions. Oh, and the entire state of Georgia, not taking the lesson, is now embracing the same sort of competitive reward-punishment environment that lead to the scandal in it's largest city.

Aviv takes us back to the days before the scandal when Parks Middle School was one of the few community anchors, a "jewel," in the midst of a troubled neighborhood, serving a mostly poor and black student population. This was one of those school districts the corporate education "reformers" point to when they assert that American schools are failing: with 2/3 of its population in poverty, only about 40 percent graduated from high school, a fate that obviously isn't shared by children from more middle class school districts. In 2001, a new "father figure" principal named Michael Sims took the helm:

Sims focused nearly as much on building a sense of community as he did on academics: he renovated the school, hired guidance counsellors, and replaced the "P" that had fallen off the sign at Park's entryway. He told students that they were representing their school even when they were off campus. If they got into a fight over the weekend, they would be suspended on Monday. The school provided computer classes to parents, who had been so removed from their children's academic lives that it was a struggle to get them to sign progress reports. "We had to trick the parents and give away this, that, and the third in order to get them in the building . . . Some of them looked like they were on drugs -- not the fun drugs but the ruin-your-life drugs."

Inspired by Sims, teacher Damany Lewis, a man who stands at the center of the cheating scandal stepped up his game not only as a teacher, but by acting a father figure himself:

Parks started to feel like a place where both teachers and students, nearly all of them black, could expose their vulnerabilities. "All our little problems that we grew up hiding from the rest of the world -- it became our line of communication," Lewis said. He told students to dump their laundry into the back of his pickup truck, so that he could wash it for them, and encouraged them to sleep at his house when their mothers were absent or high. (Few had fathers in their lives.) He became football coach, and if practice ran late he dropped students off at their homes. Several ended up calling him Dad. He told them, "I don't know how you feel about me, but I, at least, feel like I made it. If you want to know if you can make it, look at me." . . . Parks set up after-school programs and hired tutors. A 2004 documentary called "Expect the Best" explained that Parks, which had previously functioned like "day care," had become a "model of what a good school can and should be." The video shows Lewis on his porch, playing chess with a student who had moved in with him. The narrator of the video explains that the student, Antonio, was living with his math teacher "because his mother is in no shape to support or care for him."

In other words, Parks was functioning as public schools in troubled neighborhoods should: as a stabilizing force, a place where kids could feel safe, respected, and loved. Not only that, but their standardized test scores were improving, but not fast enough to meet the "utopian" standards of No Child Left Behind. So, of course, the principle Sims was fired. The message was clear: test scores above all else. The story Aviv tells after that is one of teachers cheating not for their own survival, but for the survival of this school that was serving its community in ways far beyond merely teaching the rudimentary skills of reading and ciphering. It's easy to stand on a pillar of judgement and to condemn these educators for erasing their student's wrong answers and replacing them with correct ones, but after reading this piece, I can't honestly say that I wouldn't have done the same thing were I in their shoes.

I'm not a public school teacher, but I know a lot of them, and our conversations often turn to the various aspects of a corporate education "reform" movement that's rapidly making public education into the sort of competitive reward-punishment factory that leads inevitably to these sorts of scandals. Most of these teachers do not work in schools with extraordinarily high poverty rates, but all of them still talk proudly about the things they do "between the cracks" to help their students, to help their student's families, and to provide a well-rounded, personalized education despite the make-work "rigor" and tough-love "accountability" being peddled by these education hucksters. None of them are manufacturing artificially high test scores, but all of them are, at some level, "cheating." Maybe it's giving their kids extra outdoor time. Maybe it's letting a child with personal challenges off the hook for homework. Maybe it's engaging in discussions with students on topics of interest to them, rather than what the official curricula demands. And often it's taking care of the social and emotional needs of students at the expense of time that is "supposed" to be used for test prep.

From reading Ms. Aviv's article, it's clear that many, if not most, of Atlanta's cheating teachers were doing it, not for personal gain, but for reasons similar to the subversive what's-best-for-the-child motives of the teachers I know in middle class schools. Of course they went too far, but as one of the key participants suggests, he came to view it as an act of civil disobedience, despite his reservations, with the idea of keeping this school, this "jewel" in the heart of a troubled neighborhood, alive and serving the children who needed it even if they couldn't produce test scores high enough, fast enough for the corporate rat race that had been foisted upon it.

It didn't work. Parks Middle School has been shuttered and the students scattered to other schools in other neighborhoods where they are still being judged failures according to arbitrary standards. I imagine the building now sits empty and abandoned, no longer a "jewel," but rather another graffiti covered eyesore that the children pass every day on their way to someplace else.

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Unknown said...

Heart breaking article. Of course the teachers went too far, yet I agree that we shouldn't judge them harshly. Who wouldn't go 'too far' when faced with closing their doors, especially on those students. Once again the system fails the people who need it most.

Elspeth Denchfield said...

Totally agree Jaclyn, so, so sad. It is I suspect very similar here in the UK. I work in Early Years like our dear TT and I am always so worried about the children that leave us, far too young of course for formalised education and the start of this ridiculous, inhumane failure of an education system that aims to fit children into its form rather than form itself to fit children. And all we can do is keep speaking out and working in ways that best support our children in their great task of self-consturction whether it suits the guys that make the rules or not. Thank you again TT