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How to help struggling schools: Do you believe in magic?

PDF icon Brooke Harris testimony 11/19/20120 bytes

“Education is not complicated,” say some lawmakers. Really?

We keep hearing the same confident claim in Lansing: the way to fix struggling schools is to get rid of the adults keeping the kids back – the school administrators, the teachers’ unions, the incompetent or corrupt school boards. Sweep them aside, replace them with business-like management and inexperienced but enthusiastic teachers, mix in a little technology, and you will see a miracle. If only it were so. But it is not.

I’m not a teacher (or any kind of school employee), but I am a parent. So I know that parenting is the most wonderful, the most difficult, the most rewarding, and the most challenging thing I have ever done. Parenting is not simple. From my time with kids, and my experiences helping out in schools and classrooms, I can also see that teaching is not simple. How could it be, when teachers must meet the needs of children who are gifted and who are struggling with learning disabilities, those who are well-slept and well-fed and those who are hungry after trying to sleep in the family car, those who are confident and safe and those who know fear every night?

Of course, some children find it within themselves to overcome adversity. But we didn’t build our schools to help only some kids – we built them to help all kids. So how do we do it?

Right now, the answer that is in vogue boils down to this: get rid of the “failing” or greedy adults, and any child will blossom. Or, at least, any child who is willing to take responsibility for themselves. As to the rest? Well, not our problem, seems to be the reply.

There is no question that some of our schools have seen poor management, and even corruption. Teaching and curriculum is not always very effective. But does this really explain why so many of our children struggle in our schools?

The “miracle cures” so often touted these days completely ignore the corrosive and persistent effects of poverty on our children and our communities. Yes, every child can learn, but some come to school carrying greater weights on their shoulders than others. It doesn’t take much digging to show how that poverty levels help explain more than half of student achievement. Schools cannot fix everything, but they can do a lot to turn this tide given the right strategies and the resources to implement them in the long term. Pretending that things like poverty, joblessness, and violence in our communities somehow don’t matter once kids walk into the classroom will not get us anywhere.

We see this belief in magic played out in the current proposals to expand the Education Achievement Authority. At the moment, the EAA has been running twelve schools for three months (they gave three others to charter management firms). We have already heard testimony (see attached file) in the Legislature that the computer-based system on which their curriculum relies does not work very well and in particular does not do what it claims to do in terms of giving students material that matches their ability levels. (In the last city where this system was used, Kansas City, the schools abandoned it after a few years because it was not generating any improvement in student achievement.)

The EAA was created by an agreement between the emergency manager of Detroit Public Schools and the board of Eastern Michigan University. The faculty of EMU, which has one of the best regarded schools of education in the country, learned about the agreement after it was signed, but they gamely hoped they would be able to get involved and make a difference. However, we have also heard testimony that, after an initial “getting to know you” session, EMU experts on teaching and curriculum were never consulted about how to help students in struggling schools. Apparently, the EAA management felt they alone knew best.

If this grand experiment was something worked out in consultation with the local community – if it was a true partnership designed to see what might work – we would respect the choice of the parents and citizens working to help their schools. But this is not what happened to those fifteen schools, nor would it happen in the 150 or more “persistently lowest achieving” schools which the EAA would have authority to take over under the current bills.

Instead, schools would be told to “do better” with whatever resources they currently have. If they cannot, then the state will come in and take over the schools, handing them to the EAA.

Who does the EAA answer to? Not the local communities. The EAA would be governed by a board appointed entirely by the Governor. Even the State Board of Education – the elected body charged by our constitution to oversee public education – would play no role. In fact, under the bills, the power to name the official who decides which schools should be taken over will be stripped from the State Board and given to the Governor. How on earth is this about the kids?

The bills have other worrisome provisions, most of which have nothing to do with helping struggling schools. But they would force at least some local districts to pay to maintain closed school buildings in case the EAA or a charter school wanted to use them. Other provisions would give the EAA the power to charter an unlimited number of new charter schools anywhere in the state – schools that would include selective admission schools, boarding schools, and schools sponsored by businesses, if companion legislation passed. Again, what does this have to do with helping struggling students and schools?

There are many proposals out there to help schools struggling with the burden of child poverty. A number of them are promising with good track records. But they do not work miracles – they require a sustained effort over years. They also require schools to have additional resources to implement these programs over the long term. As it stands, Michigan has been slowing bleeding its local public schools of the funds they need to do their work. There is only so far you can continue to do “more with less.”

It is long past time to have a state-wide conversation about real strategies to help all our children prepare for a changing, uncertain world. We need to stop believing in magic, stop laying blame because it is convenient, and start facing up to the task before us. Then, perhaps, we will finally be able to help all our children grow and prosper.

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