Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Frustration #2: school reform discussions mostly miss the point

A professor thinks she understands the entire problem with the school reform movement--it's a dodge for avaricious real estate developers to get their hands on property.  See "Ed school dean: Urban school reform is really about land development, not kids" from the Post.  It's facile thinking like this that sometimes gets me very critical about academia, when the work is severely disconnected from the real world, and academic ideological posturing.

It also feeds into the conspiracy trope that shapes most of the community response against school reform, and leads to continued failure to address the real problems.

Yes, in DC, which is a strong real estate market with extranormal demand, there is a soupcon of real estate speculation driving what's going on.  But the Fenwick piece doesn't even address the charter school acquisition, financing, and construction regime, which is much more voracious than redevelopment efforts focused on deaccessioned schools.

Although there is no question that real estate development is an issue with school campuses in DC, and it has been for 30 years, as the school system has been shrinking, and it started out with more buildings than it needed anyway, as the result of having two parallel school systems under segregation.

Why is it that "reform" movements in other cities occur, in weak markets, schools are closed, and there is little if any developer interest?

You aren't going to see much happening with schools closed in Chicago or Philadelphia, because there are plenty of other properties already available, without the encumbrance of the public process.

The problems with school reform are much bigger than real estate speculation

1.  Urban improvement and the retention of families with choices is the primary focus of school reform efforts in most cities.  That's not a bad thing.  That's not about land development, or if it is, the relationship is very indirect.  It's not clear to me how much of the focus is on improving schools for the least advantaged. 

There are two strains to the movement:

a.  Improve the traditional public school system;

b.  Create "competition" to improve the schools through the development and support of a separate "charter school" movement, independent of the traditional public schools.

Some people mistake the focus of school reform on the advantaged as the result of the need to support real estate development, when it is more about center city and neighborhood stabilization ("Neighborhood Schooled" from the Washington City Paper) and general "Growth Machine" agenda setting.

2.  Anti-unionism is a big element of school "reform."  The flip side of school reform initiatives are usually an a general anti-labor union thrust, especially with regard to public sector unions.  Don't get me wrong, there can be plenty of problems with teachers unions.  The Washington Teachers Union, with its history of corruption and ineptness in its capacity for representation, is a prime example.  But "poor teaching" is produced by the system that is in place already.  It's hard to blame that solely on teachers or teachers unions.

Most of the foundations and many of the public officials supporting change tend to have an anti-union agenda.

3.  Reform efforts, focused on testing and teaching to the test, end up being mostly focused on what we might call "social control," especially for least advantaged children.

It's been decades since I've read Schooling in Capitalist America, but the basic thesis is that the public school system was created to socialize people for their roles in the labor force. From the paper:

The three basic propositions of the book deal with human development, inequality, and social change.

Concerning human development, we showed that while cognitive skills are important in the economy and in predicting individual economic success, the contribution of schooling to individual economic success could only partly be explained by the cognitive development fostered in schools. We advanced the position that schools prepare people for adult work rules, by socializing people to function well, and without complaint, in the hierarchical structure of the modern corporation. ...

Second, we showed that parental economic status is passed on to children in part by means of unequal educational opportunity, but that the economic advantages of the offspring of higher social status families go considerably beyond the superior education they receive. ...

Finally, our historical studies of the origins of primary schooling and the development of the high school suggested that the evolution of the modern school system is not accounted for by the gradual perfection of a democratic or pedagogical ideal. Rather, it was the product of a series of conflicts arising through the transformation of the social organization of work and the distribution of its rewards. In this process, the interests of the owners of the leading businesses tended to predominate
but were rarely uncontested.

4.  The primary reason that most school reform efforts show little success is that the biggest problem in urban education is that so many of the students are from impoverished families.  Those students and families need a lot more than more testing in order to improve their circumstances and improve in school.

Few public system reform efforts address poverty.

And that's why school reconstitution efforts have no positive impact.  See "With 'reconstitution,' DC officials hope for school turnaround" from the Washington Post.  Sure maybe some of the teachers and administrators aren't performing, but the predominate issue is that they are dealing with extremely impoverished children with many barriers to success as a result of multi-generational poverty.

5.  Charter school creation efforts feed into anti-government ideology about the  government provision of public services.  You can call this privatization ideology.

That in fact is why charter schools were created for DC, during the Speaker Gingrich years in Congress.  It was an example of unleashing the value of competition and reducing local government involvement.

Local officials were okay with it because they saw charter schools as a way to attract and retain middle class and upper income families.  And they didn't really have any other "good ideas" on how to improve the local school system.

But privatization issues produce "noise" that can hinder civic and community organization efforts.

6.  Creating charter schools is problematic because theoretical competition doesn't necessarily have any "positive" impact and transformative effects on the bureaucracy and other problems present within the traditional public school system.

7.  Pro-privatization initiatives end up being mostly about benefiting those organizations focused on access to government contracting and funding streams, be it from managing charter schools, financing them, selling them services, or textbooks, get access to public funds in ways that can be very troubling.

This is a problem with traditional schools as well.  See "Race, politics and the schools" from the Baltimore Sun

8.  Most of the touting of charter schools vis-a-vis public schools fails to acknowledge that the successful charter schools do more than testing, they are providing additional resources to disadvantaged children and their families.

This is the model adopted by the Harlem Children's Zone (see "The Harlem Project" from the New York Times).  Note that rich businesspeople as board members have from time to time encouraged HCZ to take a more "social control" approach to their education work.

Dallas is implementing an HCZ approach for the feeder school to Lincoln High School as part of the city's Grow South initiative.  See "Building a cradle-to-success pipeline for South Dallas" from the Dallas Morning News.

And Richmond, Virginia is working to integrate health services and other supports into schools, as a poverty reduction measure.  See "Officials laud using schools for health services in Richmond" from the Richmond Times-Dispatch.

9.  Note that when teachers and other stakeholders say that the problems with education for the disadvantaged are the result of poverty, the response by reformers like Michelle Rhee is not to support the provision of additional resources, but to "blame the messenger," stating that they are using poverty as an excuse.

10.  Charter schools and voucher efforts displace community, organizational, and social capital that could be directed to improving the public schools.  This makes it even harder to improve traditional school systems.  Also see "Civic Capacity and Urban Education" by Clarence Stone.

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At 5:48 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

All good points.

However, I'd say getting workers into the capitalist system is exactly what we should be doing -- as a positive.

Basic reading/writing, ability to take orders etc. And dress for themselves w/o looking like a thug.

As I've said before, I suspect for BM far more DC public school grads end up in prison than graduating from college. We don't need enrichment -- we need high school grads that aren't straight on the prison track.

What I don't understand from your analysis is why we are spending a billion doing these school renovations. Certainly they suggest the Growth Machine is more behind them, as that billion could have been better spent in creating real families.

At 7:34 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Good point. It's the construction complex sure. But it's also pandering etc. to various local communities.

I have written before that it seems to make little sense to rebuild some of the high schools, like Dunbar, when for the most part, the high schools except for Wilson are mostly running at 1/3 or less capacity.

It's a waste, a big waste.

But as you know, accounting for capital expenditures is different from annual spending.

2. The other point about "social control" is that testing isn't enough to educate students for the new economy.

I need to update this entry with another Post article link plus a NYT piece from Sunday.

At 9:07 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

I wonder if a BID type model, where you skim 5% of the property tax and use it to fund local schools would help. Random thought.

At 3:09 PM, Blogger Mike Walster said...

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At 12:38 PM, Anonymous Brian said...

Regarding Charter Schools thought you would like:

"The closest Hirschman ever came to explaining his motives was in his most famous work, “Exit, Voice, and Loyalty,” and even then it was only by implication. Hirschman was interested in contrasting the two strategies that people have for dealing with badly performing organizations and institutions. “Exit” is voting with your feet, expressing your displeasure by taking your business elsewhere. “Voice” is staying put and speaking up, choosing to fight for reform from within. There is no denying where his heart lay.

Early in the book, Hirschman quoted the conservative economist Milton Friedman, who argued that school vouchers should replace the current public-school system. “Parents could express their views about schools directly, by withdrawing their children from one school and sending them to another, to a much greater extent than is now possible,” Friedman wrote. “In general they can now take this step only by changing their place of residence. For the rest, they can express their views only through cumbrous political channels.”

This was, Hirschman wrote, a “near perfect example of the economist’s bias in favor of exit and against voice”:

In the first place, Friedman considers withdrawal or exit as the “direct” way of expressing one’s unfavorable views of an organization. A person less well trained in economics might naively suggest that the direct way of expressing views is to express them! Secondly, the decision to voice one’s views and efforts to make them prevail are contemptuously referred to by Friedman as a resort to “cumbrous political channels.” But what else is the political, and indeed the democratic, process than the digging, the use, and hopefully the slow improvement of these very channels?

Hirschman pointed out the ways in which “exit” failed to send a useful message to underperformers. Weren’t there cases where monopolists were relieved when their critics left? “Those who hold power in the lazy monopoly may actually have an interest in creating some limited opportunities for exit on the part of those whose voice might be uncomfortable,” he wrote. The worst thing that ever happened to incompetent public-school districts was the growth of private schools: they siphoned off the kind of parents who would otherwise have agitated more strongly for reform.

Beneath Hirschman’s elegant sentences, you can hear a deeper argument. Exit is passive. It is silent protest. And silent protest, for him, is too easy. “Proving Hamlet wrong” was about the importance of acting in the face of doubt—but also of acting in the face of fear. "


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