Charters vs Public Schools: Challenging the Pedagogy of Poverty

In: African-Americans|caciquism|education|Labor|latinos|Public policy|racism|Uncategorized

14 Jul 2011

Some of the schools I attended as a youth were fully unionized public schools and rank among the best in the nation. If charter schools (technically public) are supposed to be better than real public schools, then why aren’t affluent communities like Irvine, CA and Winnetka, IL clamoring for them?

Because affluent communities already have resources and a learning-ready population! They tend to have more motivated, educated parents, fewer social ills (gangs, poverty), and the financial ability to keep their “bad kids” from being funneled into the prison system. They also tend to attract and keep high-quality teachers and principals for the long-haul thanks to better working conditions and often better salaries. The charter schools that do well (and some are doing just as bad regular inner-city schools) tend to attract the kids who have more motivated parents (the ones who are just dying to find a better school for their kids) and they get extra resources. The populations at these charters, even when they appear to be the same, are ultimately really different. In addition, they are getting something that is golden: a fresh start. That shouldn’t be underestimated. Anytime you take an old, gigantic apparatus like the public school systems of Chicago or NYC, and try to reform it, it is going to be difficult. Obviously, breaking off schools into their own little Islands where they get more support and freedom will make a difference. This is an argument that I have with my small-church evangelical acquaintances who bash Catholics every so often. No, evangelization as described in Acts of the Apostles is not to be found in every Catholic Church. And yes, hierarchy and bureaucracy can be stifling in some dioceses. But I know some Catholic Churches that are less hierarchical and are invigorating, fun places to be. Those churches tend to be insulated from hierarchal garbage and have good pastors. It’s the decentralization and freedom to create that the vibrant, small evangelical churches share with vibrant, big Catholic Churches. It’s not the job security or lack of it that makes the difference between a good church and not-so-good church. But I digress…

Inner-city charters will never be just like public schools located in affluent suburbia. Social ills do matter. Just look at little suburbs like Cicero, IL that are famed for being just as bad, perhaps worse, than the Chicago Public Schools. It is not the same to be a teacher in South Chicago as it is to be one in Beverly Hills. And it never will be. As schools are more and more segregated by race and class (apparently, Charters are exacerbating this problem), and as long as our policies refuse to tackle social inequalities head-on, it’s going to be hard to teach in poor neighborhoods.

Teachers in urban districts do have to work twice as hard. Partly because many kids aren’t getting the kind of extra help at home that many get in wealthy, educated communities. In addition, you need teachers with street smarts that understand the things that are really happening with their students–not aloof, social workers or psychoanalysts, but teachers who can keep it real. Many teachers also gets stifled by bad principals and bureaucratic BS.

Educators like Martin Haberman have been saying this for ever (I strongly recommend reading Star Teachers and Star Principals if you are interested in the kinds of qualities teachers need to excel in tough, urban environments) and have even advocated a pedagogy of poverty. I was trained by Dr. Haberman when I helped to recruit the first class of the Academy for Urban School Leadership (AUSL) here in Chicago. We put those principles into action–at least for AUSL’s first iteration (I’m not sure what happened with AUSL being chosen as the group to pick up the pieces after school-closings, that was well after my time). But our teachers weren’t just held to higher standards they were given amazing support and a chance to mentor new teachers along the way. Interestingly, the big, bad, teachers’ union was never a problem. In fact, the secret of AUSL was that we knew that keeping good teachers absolutely requires making them feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves and that their job would be a stable thing, not something to be cut at the whim of a principal or a bureaucrat. Unfortunately, what passes as “teacher-quality” policy in America these days, tends to be an irrational hatred of teachers’ unions. The solution, many suppose, is getting rid of all the bad, union teachers and replacing them with teachers that can be fired quickly if they don’t meet standardized testing goals.

Great teachers are ones that teach kids to learn. Scores matter in this day and age, but you can’t get good scores if you have an environment where teachers feel unsupported by their principals and do not get the professional development and healthy environments they need to excel. I have never met a star teacher that was motivated by the fear of being fired. Good teachers keep the craft new and find the freedom to experiment pedagogically. But we can’t continue to pick out imbecilic, knee jerk tactics/buzz words that work for some teachers and not for others (e.g. home visits) in order to sound new and fresh in the media–of course, it is good PR for lucrative contracts going to cacique (poverty-pimping) organizations. Look, most teachers ARE minimally good teachers and do things like home visits when it makes sense (see this article for a good argument to that effect). Bureaucrats that enforce standardized tactics by fiat are exactly the reason why many good teachers who find themselves teaching in public schools end up running in horror from a Huxleyan nightmare.

In my experience, urban schools with talented, sharp principals that can lead, do well, charter or no charter. They are the movers and shakers that fight for resources for their students and nurture supportive, creative environments for teachers to succeed. In short, they lead their teachers to the promised land. Yes, there are some burned-out teachers that probably should retire. But what profession doesn’t have some percentage of burnouts? But lack of leadership on the part of principals is more toxic. When I consulted for New Leaders for New Schools, I was shocked by the lack of star principals in the pipeline. Where are all the reformers when it comes to principal quality? A school, a family, a business, a church–whatever the institution–is only as good as its leader.

The jury is still out on charters, but I don’t see how weakening support for teachers by union-busting and advocating for transient teachers that are ill-prepared, upwardly mobile educational tourists from places like Teach for America, is going to attract and more importantly keep the kinds of star teachers we need in the inner-city. We need well-prepared, well-supported, teachers that can excel in urban environments over the long-haul, charter or no charter. We also can’t continue to skirt the reality of racial and class inequity that continues to be just under the radar of public discourse.

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While some people look at cockroaches as disgusting pests, We view them as resilient organisms that predate humans and will likely outlive us as well. People of color, the poor, the downtrodden, and the oppressed, much like cockroaches, are often despised, feared and in some cases have been the objects of extermination.

We started this blog as an attempt to understand the complicated world we live in. Things have changed since the old days of conquest, colonization, and slavery. Anonymous living, consumerism, and mass media have made it difficult to identify the forces that make modern-day oppression possible. Thus, posts here tend to focus on corruption, media, bureaucracy, ethics, economics, law, human rights, etc...in short, We try to take a second-order inquiry into assumptions and systems that some of us take for granted. We also take time to challenge stereotypes that function to place us in a box. Occasionally, We just rant.

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