Sunday, April 29, 2007

Small is Better?

Cleveland is a city of contrasts – on the west side detached, clapper-board houses with neat manicured lawns and the Stars and Stripes fluttering from the porch, also opulent modern apartments, thirty stories high lining the banks of Lake Erie. Modern freeways snake through the city. Go to the east side and you’re in another world, as jobs went in the 1970s Cleveland became part of the ‘Rustbelt’, there’s abandoned brick built factories, houses showing signs of decay, abandoned cars and buses in the back yards, feral dogs and children, pot-holed roads. The two parts of the city are like binary stars that orbit around each other but never meet.

In the American education system every kind of ‘initiative’ has been tried – reconstitution, Magnet schools, open choice, Dream Schools, Fresh Start, Charter Schools, Vouchers and yet they still have chronic system failure. In a society that likes to think big and isn’t afraid of spending money, when it comes to education parsimony is the watch word, ‘throwing money at it won’t solve the problem’, on the other hand not spending money hasn’t worked either. I can’t help feeling that the patient is dying of malnutrition but all they want to do is try a make-over – new clothes, dental surgery, fancy haircut, anything but a square meal.

The latest thinking is ‘Small Schools’, try a High School with only 300 – 500 pupils. However, in many cases it has just replicated the problems only on a smaller scale. We visited an ‘Alternative School’, which attempts to engage with pupils who have been suspended or expelled. There were low class sizes, a limited school day and focused shorter tasks. Unfortunately the Youth Service who used to work with pupils were no longer there, due to budget cuts. The teachers worked under the conditions of the local contract.

There was a fairly bleak ‘punishment room’ with cubicles where miscreants were sent to ‘cool down’. Staff were finding it hard going and there seemed to be a lack of pastoral care. In the main school building every entrance was patrolled by morose, elderly, security guards, it didn’t make for a welcoming atmosphere. After Columbine there was federal money for security guards now the school had to fund them itself.

Later we visited a private Catholic School, in a tough area, they were attempting to get pupils used to a work environment, and they concentrated on businesses, hospitals and the service industry. A team of four pupils worked to cover a week in a workplace and the school received funding in return. The school concentrated on the core curriculum with a longer day for teachers – 7.30 am to 4.30 pm.

To be fair we were told that the expectation was not that the students would limit themselves to a menial job, some pupils had made it to college, but I couldn’t help thinking it was similar to the first half of the century and the ‘Training Schools for Coloreds’.

A high proportion of the teachers were interns – ‘training on the job’ i.e., a college degree but no formal education training. Some of them had worked 60 hours a week in their first year and had become excellent teachers. The problem is that devotion doesn’t pay bills and long hours and inspirational posters is no way to run an education system. Nationally a third of new teachers drop out after three years and a half after five years.

My host in Cleveland told me that in the 1960s teachers would habitually teach past retirement age, now all the teachers he knows are counting down the hours and minutes. I wonder why?


Having completed my BA at Liverpool University I somehow ended working for 18months in Cleveland Oh. It is a city devided in two. West Side suburbs are largely white middle class regions the east side offering ghetto style neighbourhoods to largely Black families. Lakewood High School I seem to remember had sports facilities that would be the envy of any school in the UK, and surpassing those offered by UK university's. If you see it at all stop off and have a drink McGinty's Bar opposite on the corner of Bunts road. It proved to be a great local for me when I was there 5 years ago!
Keep up the good work!
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