School Culture and Declining Resources
School Culture and Declining Resources
The principal problem confronting today's educators is how to raise the achievement of poor and otherwise disadvantaged youngsters in our public schools. This is the issue that dominates the waking lives (perhaps their dreams also) of New York City's Joel Klein, Washington's Michelle Rhee, Paul Pastorek and Paul Vallas in New Orleans, and probably just as many other inner city school superintendents as there are out there, all trying to replace the classroom failures of too many poor and minority children with successes.
It is this so far seemingly intractable problem that has given rise to all, or nearly all of the educational reform efforts of the past generation. In particular and most importantly it has accounted for the remarkable growth of Princeton student Wendy Kopp's 1990 Teach for America program, that which has by itself brought tens of thousands of young, idealistic college graduates into needy minority inner city classrooms.
And it has accounted for the creation of a new type of urban public school, schools such as the American Indian Public Charter School in Oakland, the Amistad Academy in New Haven, the Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Chicago, the KIPP Academy in New York's South Bronx, the District's SEED Public Charter School, the MATCH School in Boston, and the University Park Campus School in Worcester, all described by David Whitman in his recent book, "Sweating the Small Stuff: Inner-City Schools and the New Paternalism."
Now these two, as well as other urban school reform movements, have come accompanied by the voices of those who would deny them their legitimacy, in particular the voices of the leaders of the teachers' unions and any number of educational writers, including Gerald Bracey, Richard Rothstein, David Berliner, to name just three of the more well known among them.
These voices say that first teacher salaries (and thereby the prestige and attractiveness of the profession) have to be raised. And they say that first the other needs of kids, including medical services, proper parenting at home, the presence of adult role models, safe neighborhoods etc. have to be met.
The people of the Whitman or “no excuses” schools don't deny the existence of the "other needs." They say, however, that if they waited for these needs to be met, say by probably costly public policy initiatives, they would lose this and probably future generations of children during the waiting.
And they have a point, don’t they, when they say that, Joel Klein, Michelle Rhee, Paul Pastorek, the founders of KIPP, MATCH, Achievement First, Aspire, Edison, Green Dot, IDEA, Imagine, Noble Street, and Uncommon Schools?
So what can we do? Are we forever to be divided regarding what to do first, discipline in the classroom or neighborhood policing, between doing nothing and not doing enough? I began thinking about all this while reading an American Interest interview with David Landes, the author of "The Wealth and Poverty of Nations."
The opposing points of view of Landes and Jared Diamond, the one emphasizing culture, the other geography as the principal explanation for differences of prosperity among peoples, might profitably be compared to the opposing points of view, say, of Michelle Rhee and David Berliner, of Michael Goldstein and Jonathan Kozol, the ones emphasizing discipline, structure, motivation (what we might call cultural features of schooling), the others community and neighborhood support services and such (what we might call the resources available to the kids).
During the AI interview with Francis Fukuyama Landes repeats again that a nation's prosperity can most of all be attributed to the strength of a nation's culture. The location along a river, access to a natural port, richness of land and natural resources, all those things that he calls the luck of the draw, may very well account for an initial prosperity. But only those nations whose cultures are strong will continue to prosper long after the luck has gone.
According to Landes past national failures have been much more failures of culture than failures of resources. I would say the same about school failures.
Without entering into the argument that opposes the thinking of Landes and Diamond I think we might draw some relevant and profitable conclusions to the analogous situation opposing the present educational reformers and educational writers, especially those among the latter who are defending the educational status quo.
Couldn't we say that the lives of too many of our poor and minority youngsters are totally without the abundant resources of our middle and upper class, mostly suburban youngsters? And that most of all these resources may be summed up by these youngsters having well off parents and other caring adults in their lives, those who bring them to doctors' appointments, music lessons, after school band and soccer practices, to all and any other such enrichment activities, those who travel with them, send them to summer camps, take them to cultural events of all sorts?
Just as Easter Island can no longer count on the return of its wealth of trees and forests, Texas its abundant oil reserves, Georges Bank its cod fishery, these kids in our inner city schools can not count on, and are not going to suddenly have, caring, capable, and relatively affluent adults in their lives to take care of all those physical and emotional needs otherwise clearly not being met.
So what do we do? Do we go on lamenting the fact of the absence of vital support resources, while looking to hypothetical efforts by state and federal governments to provide them? Or do we seek to otherwise replace with something else the long absent and yes vital resources that these kids are without? I don't think we have a choice.
When the land and the other natural resources have been exhausted there remains the culture of the people. If the culture is strong, as it has shown to be in many nations, Japan, for example, throughout the past 150 years, Finland since the early 1990s, following the collapse of its primary trading partner the Soviet Union, Israel almost since its founding in 1947, and the United States, perhaps, in the future, as its own wealth of natural resources goes further into decline — if the culture is strong the nation will survive, and survive well.
Now for too many of our underprivileged kids we have only the schools as a resource and we have no choice but to strengthen the learning culture therein. We have to make the schools into places that provide if not replace many of the essential things that kids need and don't have in their lives outside of school.
The group of schools, described in Whitman's book and now numbering in the hundreds, if not thousands, are doing just this. They are providing a culture of achievement, emphasizing the importance of student motivation, the work ethic, the working towards a goal, good teaching, sufficient time on task and the like, all those “cultural” traits that will enable these kids, who are mostly without, to be with and to succeed.
These schools are telling us that a strong school culture can go a long way towards replacing the absence of caring and capable adults as well as material resources in these kids' lives outside of school.Explore posts in the same categories: Uncategorized