I want you to read something. It’s a PDF of a commencement speech from Hunter high school in New York this year; it truly floored me:
People are falling over themselves to heap praise on charter schools. They are these bastions of education excellence. They are the solution to all of our failing schools. Politicians believe they are the solution; there is a movie documenting how badly parents want to be in them. Truth is charter schools can fail just as easily as any other public school. The premise that a charter school will swoop in like superman and instantly improve all the kids reading scores just shows how little people understand the problems with the education system in America.
I’m a product of the “Charter School” system. I went to Bronx Science, one of the “specialized” high schools in New York. And like the young man in that hunter speech I know damn well I didn’t work my hardest to get there. At thirteen my biggest skill was scribbling my homework on a moving subway on the way to school. I got into Bronx Science because I knew how to take a test—scratch that I was trained how to take a test. I went to a progressive private junior high school that took weeks teaching us how to do well on standardized tests. I was no smarter than your average thirteen year old I was just lucky to be in an environment better than the average thirteen year old.
The thing is though being in Bronx science put me into another very unique cohort. What was unique was not their level of intelligence. A theory better bore out most likely by measuring success after high school of people of similar sat scores from non-specialized high schools (academics research idea right here). No, what set us apart from the majority of our peers is that we felt our education was special—and not just us, but our parents and community all thought our education was special. Yes our school had better funding, an active alumni and access to better resources, but that was because people believed it and we were special. I believe effective education is shaped by the environment. I suspect that if you randomly chose a mediocre public school called it a charter school kept the faculty but had everyone have to struggle and fight to get in, there would be an up tick in test scores equivalent to the average “charter” school. The point is the supposed performance bump in educational test scores have less to do with the school program and more to do with the investment the family and community have in the child.
Don’t get me wrong having good teachers matters, having an excellent administration in the school matters too, but what happens outside of the school matters just as much if not more. The smartest kid put in the best school in the world will still fail if their family and the community does not appreciate education and fully support them. If everyone told you that your school was failing would you embrace the education taught in it in any strong way? Would you try to make the most of your time there? After graduation would you give back to the school to make sure the new class had just as much if not more opportunities than you did?
Our education problems didn’t arrive overnight, and neither will their solutions. There is no formula or test that is going to fix things. Part of the problem is people believe that a simple solution exists. If we just model ourselves after that successful school our kids will do better. You want to solve our education problem it is going to take everyone educators, parents, administrators, students, alumni, and the entire community. I get it people want results and they want them now, understandable their child’s future is on the line. The problem is a High school filled with 4 years of students who can’t read is not going to change because you change the principal, or a set of teachers. The hard reality is that many children have already been failed by our education system. I’m saying that many of them cannot catch up before they reach “graduation age.” The sooner we accept this, the sooner we can address those students’ needs.
People are afraid of the social scarring of holding kids back in grades. It is a stigma, and it is a stigma attached to the kids. Currently it is felt that the stigma is worse than making sure the child knows the fundamentals they need to succeed. This creates pressure to socially promote many students. Social promotion has its own dark side though, and I’m not talking about questionable ethics of “reward”, because this is not a reward for those students. What social promotion does is it takes a young child who was already struggling with the material as is and puts them in a situation where even more is expected of them. This further disconnects the child from their studies and many begin to act out as a result. Kids begin to act out in education when they are not engaged and they’re not engaged when the difficulty of the curriculum is well beyond their fundamental skill set.
So what do we do? You can’t just get rid of the teachers and the principals. Charter schools aren’t the answer. Funding individual schools will help but that isn’t the solution either. Fundamentally there needs to be more schools. This means new physical buildings. In New York someone had the clever idea to start putting three schools into one building and calling them new schools. This is not a minor point. Class size is a fundamental problem. There is a physical limit to the amount of engagement a teacher can have with a number of students. This is particularly true the younger the student is. It is also important to have a certain amount of physical space. The space gives students and faculty the room to creatively use space fluidly. Overcrowding of schools increases the need for rigidly defined protocol for activities. If a debate squad can’t prepare because the only space available is being used by the basketball squad and theater group the school has lost one more opportunity to engage those students. Increasing the number of schools allows for more creativity in curriculum as well. If there is only one school to service an area it means the variety of needs of that area all need to be serviced by that one school. These needs may be conflicting and may best be served by offering a variety of school experiences in on area.
By no means is this to suggest building more schools will solve the problems of education. Like I said it’s not that simple. There are behavior issues that need to be addressed, curriculum that needs to be debates, and yes a bunch of uncommitted teachers that need to be out right fired. What matters though is people need to start cherishing their schools and their education. I can think of no better way to start that process then to start with a sparkling new school filled with faculty and students all believing things can be different.