10 Ways School Reformers Get It Wrong
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While national data over the past decade confirms that there has been some improvement in total graduation and dropout rates, it remains the case that failure rates for low-income whites, African Americans and Hispanics still hover at 60%. Post-graduation testing reveals that fewer than half of high school graduates are college ready. This has long been true in state after state, especially in big cities. The state and national high school failure rate of close to 40% is not an indication of total system failure, but results from the high incidence of failure in low-income communities. The United States continues to rank near the bottom of developed nations on measures of social and economic mobility.
3. Teachers are not the cause of the problem. In the context of persistent failure in poor communities, clearly teachers are not the cause of failure, nor is the school curriculum. We never blamed teachers in the past for the same levels of failure. Neither breaking the teacher’s union nor ultra-sonic testing nor privately purchased, online lessons will solve the problem that is both present in the failure of poor kids in schools and reflected by it; namely the dunghill of poverty that far too many kids are forced to grow up in.
4. School failure once matched economic needs. There was a time of course when academic failure in school matched economic needs. Jobs were available throughout the production system, both helping to generate national wealth and serving those who enjoyed it. It could even be thought that if more kids succeeded in school, the socioeconomic system as it was operating would not have been well-served. Structural conditions of school achievement match the structural race and class parameters of the larger society. Indeed, not until after World War II did schools identify cognitively based skills as the core of their mission. The major curricular purposes served included retaining labor long enough, teaching discipline—so much so that school critics often saw the school regimen as factory-like – and Americanizing immigrants. Not until the 1960s movement toward social welfare programs did the goal of high level school achievement even begin to include African American children. And for children of Italian and Irish origin, work opportunity was only just beginning to have a relationship to school success.
In the past, the failure rates were much more functional: attendance at school taught useful habits of mind and behavior for an industrial economy. This is not in sync with today’s national needs and opportunities. Therefore, it is more important than ever to identify the true nature of educational failure in this country so that the remedies put in place are not a quick fix magic bullet, but rather a long-term strategy and investment in low-income communities that refuses to accept the distorted version of school reform at the top. As a result, by today’s standards, trends in high school dropout and graduation rates over the last decades paint a bleak picture.
5. Increased testing does not improve failure rates. Despite the heavy push toward testing and 20 years of increasingly tough testing, we know now that the failure rates don’t change with intensified testing. With or without tests, schools have a hard time generating a readiness to learn, the self-esteem and confidence it takes to learn, and the belief that the school rewards system through college is applicable. Poor kids don’t believe schools care about them and history tells them they’re right, as do their peers and older siblings. Middle-class kids come to school with a readiness to learn, strong self-esteem as learners and belief that the school promise system applies to them. They don’t learn that at school. Successful reform must include dealing with generating that three-part readiness -- the self esteem, the confidence and the fundamental positive belief -- in the whole school population. It’s interesting that programs like the Harlem RBI after school curriculum, which focuses on baseball at the core of learning, reminds us that kids don’t come to school stupid. The things they’re interested in lead them to learn a lot and apply and develop their skills in so doing.