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.

Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Brilliant piece in Bethesda Magazine on a Title I elementary school

In the face of recent reporting about improprieties in graduation results for DC public schools, proof pretty much that DC's so-called educational reform project has failed, at least as it relates to low income African-American students (also see writings in Guy Bradenburg's blog--he is a retired DCPS math teacher), I happened to come across the November/December issue of Bethesda Magazine, the "lifestyle magazine" (comparable to Washingtonian for DC) for Montgomery County, Maryland, which has a very long article ("Hope Lives Here") about Daly Elementary School in Gaithersburg.

For years I argued that DC's school reforms were misguided, that we ought to be considering and following the best practices in nearby Montgomery and Arlington Counties (and elsewhere, "Powerful story of how Bristol Virginia elementary school deals with extremely impoverished students," 2015 blog entry).

Montgomery County is known for acknowledging learning gaps between students of color/low income students and white/higher income students, and providing additional resources to those schools, which include more support and teaching staff, six weeks of additional learning activities in summers, and other supports.

Like Montgomery County, DC has parent/family liaisons ("Fawning coverage of DC school "reform" doesn't push better practice forward") but it is only recently--last year--that the city has begun to add summer schooling for Title I schools, and it is not widespread.  The first year had 11 schools, and this year two more schools have been added (but 15 programs if you double count schools with elementary and middle school aged students).

The lengths the principal, teachers, and support personnel go to at Daly Elementary is quite impressive and communicate how difficult the challenge is to ameliorate the impact of multi-generational poverty on educational attainment.

I talked about the article with someone who works for DCPS and also worked for a time in Montgomery County and they said:

1.  DC has more resources, but how the resources are used is different

2.  DC is much more bureaucratic, whereas what happens in Montgomery County is much more human centered--there the principals and teachers have the power to act, while in DC it's more about test scores and following the rules, that the likelihood of conversations even happening in DC at the school or administrative level the way they are recounted in the Bethesda Magazine story is infinitesimal.

For example one example is how the Daly School principal realized that for many students they can only count on eating enough food when they eat breakfast and lunch at school, so she opens the school up for meal service even on "snow days."

The person I talked to couldn't fathom how to bring such a practice about in DCPS, figures it doesn't even cross people's minds--although DC has a summer feeding program for children for exactly this reason.

This gets back to something that has always bothered me about the lionization of former DCPS chancellor Michelle Rhee. 

When she would say stuff and teachers would counter, "but the students are poor;" Rhee would be dismissive and pejorative, saying "you're saying the students can't learn," when the teachers were trying to say "given the levels of poverty we need more and better resources."

Rhee never acknowledged that what tends to separate successful charter schools from other charter schools and public schools is additional resources, supports, and instruction time.

Instead, the predominate response was more tests, more instruction time devoted to taking tests, and more pressure to diddle with test results and whether or not students passed classes and proceeded to graduate.

It is damning that it was USA Today, not the Washington Post, which broke the story about significant test score cheating in DC elementary schools during the Rhee years:

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At 9:25 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

Good piece, very different demographics than DC despite the shared school lunch metric.

Ive always seen Rhee/Teach for America as "raising the status" of teachers. I realized pretty quickly that I was smarter than the teachers in my elementary school; in private school I could not say that. No question that in the 70-80-90s quality of teachers went down as well as a result of jobs opening elsewhere for women.

But throwing money at individual teachers, removing union, and throwing money at buildings (in DC) only has so much effect.

In DC on the absence, you can see two local HS doing OK (well three but I am not including Wilson) so there is something on the technical side that can be changed.

You can it "neoliberal" which isn't very precise, I'd say this is "wonkliberal" which is an obamas-era practice of throwing a wonk on a problem to create a solution.

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Well, there is a lot to unpack here.

1. Neoliberalism and market competition.

Over 26 years I've gone back and forth on this issue. In the early 1990s, I favored the charter school initiative because traditional schools were so bureaucratically resistant.

But I came to realize that the mere presence of competition wasn't enough to spur traditional schools towards improvement (I won't say "reform").

There is a very good book out of the NSF project on urban education that was run out of GWU, called _Black Social Capital_. It makes the point that people were more concerned about contracts and employment, less about high quality outcomes.

2. Better teachers.

Yes, but at the same time, having smart kids spend a couple years teaching a la TFA wasn't enough, especially as you need about 4 years of practice to be good at both teaching and classroom management. Most of them didn't teach long enough to get good at it.

The thing about firing poor performing teachers, I understand the point, but at the same time it absolved the traditional school systems of the responsibility for "producing" or making the teachers "bad".

They likely weren't "bad" at the outset, they were made that way.

And yes, in other countries teaching is more respected, people are paid better etc. (e.g., Finland) and it makes a huge difference.

I went to a suburban school district and it seemed that my teachers were pretty intelligent. Never went to a private school so I can't compare, but I am sure there was a difference.

We did write papers, and I had the initiative on my own (I think anyway, but I went with some fellow classmates) to go use the university library that was a few miles away (Oakland U).

There definitely would be a difference in teacher quality compared to traditional schools in center cities.

But remembering back to K-6 off and on in Detroit, I had good teachers and principals there. (AND AT LEAST ONE TERRIBLE ONE. I had three experiences there, in second and third grades at different schools, one negative and the other illuminative, that still shape me today, + one in sixth grade, leading me to "question authority" to some extent even then--although it grew even stronger over time.)

But that was 50 years ago! Given the Marion Orr _Black Social Capital_ argument, I am sure sure sure that it degraded significantly.

- continued -

At 11:04 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

3. charter schools and parents.

While now I am not in favor of charter schools theoretically, because it diverts resources and social, organizational, and community capital away from improving traditional schools, I can't criticize any parent who chooses a charter school with the aim of providing the best opportunities for their children.

As we know, plenty are bad, but some are doing things different. The school one+ block away from us does do some outreach to the blocks around the school. They used to do more, but they still do stuff, when they built a playground they put it in the front yard and it is open to the neighborhood, etc.

But I live pretty close to Coolidge HS and Whittier ES and neither do any of that. (Although both now do stuff on the neighborhood listserv.).

More than 12 years ago when I was in the H St. neighborhood living close to Wilson ES and that's where our community assn. met, I suggested that Wilson (and all other ESs) should do the equivalent of the PPS "How to Turn a PLace around" workshop as a kind of engagement technique to build links between the neighborhood and the school, because most of the residents didn't have children, and therefore weren't connected to the school.

OTOH, now I argue that schools are the basic civic asset neighborhood building block and planning needs to be reoriented that way.

But not just in impoverished areas...

And now I am formulating an argument similar to my library argument that schools need to also be "cultural centers" as far as the facility is concerned.

4. Wonks.

Why are so many wonks so shitty at figuring out the problem? Obviously Rhee completely missed the point, well not completely, but pretty close.

Like with policing and the false lesson that "police can't do anything to reduce crime" based on the shift to 911 based response systems, we learned the wrong lesson.

It was about the resources we had, how we used them, and how we dealt with place (broken windows... and as you know I make a distinction between BW and Zero Tolerance Policing, which is completely different).

The big difference in the successful charter schools, besides the fact that they choose their students, is that they have more resources, more committed teachers, less bureaucracy, more instruction time, and usually, more parent/family involvement.

That is what a wonk should figure out is the key difference between higher and lower performing schools (cf. Harlem Children's Zone).

Instead the focus is on TFA, firing legacy teachers, and testing, testing, testing.

I have dozens of blog entries dating to the Fenty era about this.

If Michelle Rhee is the best wonk response to educational improvement (not reform) then we are f*ed.


At 11:20 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

At 2:10 PM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: TfA and "status of teachers"; I'm saying that TfA in particular is trying to raise the status of teacher -- Ivy League, smart motivated, etc. That all may be good but in urban schools not what is needed.

The only critique of the MoCo piece it is falls into the "Great White Savior" complex a bit too much.

W/R/T Rhee and DC, I think she "succeeded" here because she managed to put forward a useful proposal on charter schools.

Rather than allowing charter schools to be for the "rich", she allowed charter schools to be for poor people who do care enough about education they don't want the ghetto around.

I'm not sure out "outcomes" as your link suggests are any better, but yes removing the most disruptive kids from a school is a win.

But then you've got to ask what to do with those most disruptive kids and families.

The MoCo solution isn't going to work for them either.

RE: Wonks. Well politics is about splitting the corn, and trying to find other ways (wonks, the "market" etc) to do that job isn't always going to work.

Tinkering on the edges isn't going to work when you need radical redistribution.

At 3:56 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

To me, Rhee was more about preferencing charter schools. But that's my take. From a branding and brand promise perspective, she did change the perception.

OTOH, a lot of people argue that Fenty lost reelection because he lost a lot of lifetime Washingtonians because of how the schooling issue was dealt with.

I didn't get the white savior feel from the article, just the dedicated teacher feel and the lengths they'll go to, but I see your point.

And yes, it doesn't work with disruptive kids, other than that they have class sizes under 20.

The disruptive kids thing requires a whole other approach. Wouldn't claim to have the solution...

In DC, and putting kids in AP classes whether or not they wanted them, the teachers complain that the students there without commitment make it difficult to work with the students who are committed.

What the DCPS person thought was interesting about the MoCo article is that they discuss the issues with families like incarceration etc. She said here they know about it, they deal with it, but they don't talk about it openly.


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