Monday, May 07, 2007

Blockading the Streets

You can detect a certain nervousness in America, there was that long retreat into old moral certainties during the Reagan era, favourite TV program ‘The Waltons’, nostalgia for those old westerns like ‘Bonanza’ where the good guys beat the bad guys, or ‘Happy Days’ where young people didn’t give lip and the most delinquent kid on the block was ‘The Fonz’. In the aftermath of 9/11 Bush was able to wrap himself up in the flag of patriotism and win re-election.

In America there is a mind set about public spending that is fed and manipulated by the media – every dollar spent is a dollar that could be better used by a more efficient private enterprise supplier and people who work in the public sector are feather-bedded and cosseted. Every cent must be ruthlessly accounted for, yet this doesn’t seem to apply in business, witness Enron and when Bob Nardelli left Home Depot after five lacklustre years this was helped by a payoff of $210 million.

Whilst public services have felt the chill wind of recession this hasn’t been the case for the super-rich, although incomes rose gradually between 1979 and 1998 the top 5% experienced a 64% increase. In 1980 a company Chief Executive earned 42 times more than the average worker, by 2004 it was 431 times more.

As federal government cut back on funding to the states during the 1970s a greater burden was placed on taxpayers to fund local services. In 1978 California passed ‘Proposition 13’ which limited rises in property taxes, from being the best-funded state for education by the 1990s it was one of the worst. In cities like Los Angeles schools were forced to use a shift system to educate children.

Grants and business ‘sponsorship’ are a way of life for American schools. However, they take up a huge amount of staff time and are usually time limited so a scramble for new funding can ensue. Getting out the begging bowl to big business is no way to fund schools. There’s also the fact that ‘sponsorship’ is never neutral and often involves highly dubious practices. Cable firm Channel One provided schools with free videos and televisions all the school had to do was agree to watch ‘informational’ programmes that contained adverts. Channel One sells the adverts for $200,000 for a thirty second slot.

The most shocking fact is the gross inequity in funding between different school areas. Because it is based on a regressive property tax wealthy areas have a low tax but a high take. So in Chicago 2002-3 (87% Black and Hispanic, 13% White and 85% low income) they spent $8,482 per pupil and in nearby New Trier (2% Black and Hispanic, 98% White and 1% low income) it is $14,909. Detroit (Black and Hispanic 95%, White 5% and 59% low income) spent $9,576 per pupil versus Bloomfield Hills (Black and Hispanic 8%, White 92% and 2% low income) $12,825. In New York (Black and Hispanic 72%, White 28% and 83% low income) they lavished $11,627 against Manhasset (Black and Hispanic 9%, White 91% and low income 5%) $22,311.

What does it say to children when they are educated in crumbling school buildings with outdated equipment? That isn’t universal many schools in poor areas are adequately funded but a large percentage aren’t. Of course the cry goes up that, ‘throwing money at the problem won’t solve it’. If you have a dysfunctional school with a disorganised Principal, demoralised teachers and disaffected pupils that may be partially true. However, not spending money isn’t a solution either and in expensive private schools (George Bush’s old school spends $30,000 per pupil) do they start from the logic, ‘we’re not going to lavish money on our children’s education’?

Some American High Schools have gone down the vocational route and concentrate on educating their pupils to be electricians, plumbers, office workers and nurses. In some cases they work as interns at companies and earn money for the school. Marlowe Academy in Kent has gone further down the route by abandoning subjects like History, Geography and Modern Languages. I don’t have a particular problem with this if it helps children to acquire a skill but in certain schools there was a ‘hewers of wood and drawers of water’ attitude – that’s all our children can achieve. What about the academically orientated or the late developers? Can you really imagine the scenario the staff at Eton call in Mr. Fortesque-Smyth, ‘Your son is irredeemably stupid, we’ve signed him up for work experience at Tesco to stack shelves’? Maybe not. On the other hand someone has to empty the bins, clean the streets and wash the latrines but why not educate them to love literature, paint and dream dreams?

The seminal court case that ended ‘separate but equal’ education was Brown .v. Board of Education in 1954. The reality of ‘separate but equal’ was that white children attended well-funded High Schools but most black children went to ‘Training Schools for Coloreds’ with no expectation of a college education. Today classrooms are either 97% white or non-white, integration doesn’t happen. There is also the sad irony that the ‘Martin Luther King Schools’ are invariably in the poorest areas, suffer from inadequate funding and hardly ever contain any white children. In many cases they are in ‘Academic Emergency’ or ‘Academic Watch’ due to low test scores. Currently there are more black boys in the prison system than in college.

When it comes to the teaching profession once again the media sets the tone. Films like ‘Freedom Writers’ portray the ‘hero’ young teacher who goes to a school with the unteachables and manages to inspire them to reach an Ivy League University. The reality is that one in three teachers leave after three years and half after five years. Teaching lags behind other professions both in pay and status. The curriculum has become very prescriptive with teachers using ‘set texts’ and test driven basic-skills programmes like ‘Success For All’. In many literacy lessons there were fragments of text for comprehension and little engagement with real books.

America is famous for initiative and enterprise, you’ve got to hand it to them they’ve tried reconstitution (sacking all the staff and reopening), ‘Dream Schools’ (sacking some of the staff and reopening), Open Choice, Magnet Schools, Charter Schools, Vouchers and yet the failure of the system is still apparent.

Another main feature is the use of Superintendents who come into school districts promising to be ‘tough’ offering ‘no excuses’ and ‘zero tolerance of failure’. The turnover rate is high, after a few years they move on or get fired and so the cycle begins again. The inspiration for this approach came with the rise to prominence in the 1980s of Joe Clark the principal at Paterson High School, New York. He wasn’t afraid to discipline the black pupils and he patrolled the corridors of the school with a bullhorn and a bat. Education Secretary William Bennett described the school as “a mecca for education”. After Clark threw out 300 students whom he described as ‘leeches’ and ‘parasites’ test scores rose. A recent trend has been for city mayors to throw out the elected school boards and appoint their own people, this was recently declared unlawful in an important test case in Los Angeles.

There’s no denying that schools and individual teachers make a difference the problem is that managerial fixes cannot solve fundamental problems that are rooted in society. In Britain ‘school improvement’ almost became reduced to a tick list of ready made solutions that didn’t take into account the needs of the particular school. Also if you make a system more selective through vouchers, charter schools, academies or selection you leave other schools with a high proportion of the disaffected, under achieving and poorly motivated, it sets them up for failure.

‘No Child Left Behind’ is to education what flogging with a cat o’ nine tails was to penal reform – cruel, arbitrary and ineffective. The impact on schools is devastating, just imagine National Curriculum tests for Year 6 writ large across Years 3 through to 12. The high stakes tests in reading, writing and maths are combined with targets for attendance. You can see at first hand in many schools the narrowing of the curriculum as Art, PE and music are jettisoned. Formal education is moving down the year groups I saw some disaffected seven year olds reading pretty dull texts. Testing reinforces failure for certain children and is incredibly stressful for teachers and pupils.

The supporters of ‘No Child Left Behind’ will point to the exponential rise in test scores, but given the price of failure – close the school and reopen with new teachers – that isn’t surprising. The model for NCLB was the so-called ‘Texas miracle’ where high stakes testing led to a huge rise in test scores. Local newspapers have begun to investigate some schools with massive improvements and found glaring irregularities, like standing behind a child until they wrote down the correct answer. What does rote learning produce? Durham University undertook a longitudinal survey on the conceptual understanding of English 11 year olds and found it had fallen considerably between 1976 and 2003.

Charter schools educate over one million pupils in over 40 states and have been heralded as ‘innovative’. They can be ‘for-profit’ or ‘non-profit’, in some cases businesses like Edison run them or parent groups administer others. Despite the extravagant claims there has never been any statistical evidence to prove that charter schools achieve better results. I saw some excellent charter schools that were attempting new ideas to reach disaffected pupils that had dropped out of the system, I found others that offered a fairly dire ‘basic skills’ education and another that was attempting to create a selective girls school by applying for grants from business foundations.

There have been some fairly high profile failures, schools in Baltimore were given over to a charter and then taken back into public administration. In 2006 auditors in California reported on ‘Options for Youth and Opportunities’ run by Joan and John Hall. They were accused of over claiming $57 million in public funds. The Halls received annual salaries of $600,000 and the lease of sports utility vehicles. Ohio suspended all charter school applications after problems with White Hat management.

Charter schools have run into union hostility because they have refused to sign up to local teacher contracts. In New Orleans all the reopening schools have been Charters, fuelling suspicions that they are a stalking horse to weaken union organisation and remove schools from public accountability.

Hurricane Katrina should have been America’s wake up call – global warming, race (Kanye West ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people!’), poverty, lack of public funding for infrastructure, the diversion of funds to the war in Iraq and the leadership of George Bush.

People still cling to the ‘American Dream’ fuelled by the notion that anyone can aspire to become a company CEO or President of the nation. There are the feel-good stories about Bill Clinton - from a trailer park to President and Arnold Schwarzenegger - from penniless immigrant to movie star and then Governor of California. The reality is different, social mobility in America has stalled, if you are born poor you are likely to stay poor and the inequitable, under-funded public education system is unlikely to change that.

In his book ‘The Shame of the Nation’ Jonathan Kozol advances the argument that the battle for Civil Rights and the catharsis of the Vietnam War meant there was an inevitable hiatus, the combatants paused for breath. We were driving north through a black ghetto in Mark’s brand new Merc, with public housing being cleared out from Chicago for yuppie apartments, he was plainly riding the crest of this particular wave. Suddenly, as though crossing a border, we moved into the wealthy suburb of Evanston and he pointed out his old university, recently he’d been persuaded to join the library committee. At their first meeting they were given a target of $30 million to raise for new books, no panic, one of the members stated the ball rolling with a donation of $15 million. We drove on he pointed out where his ‘frat house’ and then ‘they’ve replaced the fences now, we tore them down and blockaded the streets.’ What!? After the Kent State shootings in 1970 most of the universities were occupied and shut down, he was still on some CIA files somewhere because when he came back from a holiday in Mexico he was interrogated at the border.

The very last school I visited was a ‘Blue Ribbon’ national award winner, 60% of the children were from poor families but the rest had parents in professional jobs, it was unusual because there was a 50 – 50 racial divide, white and non-white. In most schools I visited it was either spot the white child or spot the black child. There was some fantastic topic work on display and they had brilliant art, PE and music programmes. However, the neighbourhood was changing and exam results had fallen. I hope they manage to survive, it was a vision of how good American schools could be.


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