The Language of School “Reform” Distracts Us from the Needs of Children and Their Schools

Despite its name, if you drive along Lakeview Road between St. Clair and Superior  in Cleveland, Ohio, you cannot see Lake Erie.  Today your view will be of boarded up houses.  About a third of the two-family  houses that line Lakeview and the sidestreets that cross it are boarded up. If you go to Zillow’s real estate map, you’ll find that most of these houses are listed as “foreclosed–auction.”   There are lots covered with weeds or grass where there used to be houses before the foreclosure crisis.  Sometimes enterprising neighbors have planted a garden in an empty lot next door.  There is a four block interval between the recently bulldozed lots that were once the sites of two different public elementary schools—boarded up for years before they were demolished.  The most viable institution is St. Aloysius Catholic Church at the corner of St. Clair Avenue, but the only other two institutions left on this mile-long stretch of Lakeview itself are a convenience store surrounded by cracked asphalt and gravel, and the Virtual School House, a charter school that advertises on the back of Regional Transit Authority buses.  The Virtual School House occupies an ancient, decrepit nursing home that was toured several years ago by a not-for-profit group considering it for rehab as permanent supportive housing for the homeless, but the building wasn’t really considered suitable.

I have driven along Lakeview Road twice in the past month.  Both times I have thought about the children living in this neighborhood.  I know that their standardized test scores are likely lower than we would wish at the public school that is much farther away than before Lakeview Road’s schools were demolished.  I am certain their school is considered a “failing” school.  Low-performing.  In need of turnaround.  Perhaps closure.  I have thought about the irony, on my trips down Lakeview Road, that these days we are likely to define the “education problem” in such neighborhoods as the teachers.  Our policies blame those who would choose to teach here.  Schools in our cities fail these days because of teachers’ seniority rights and the cost of any raises they have been able to negotiate. It is all set up to benefit the adults at the school and to meet their needs, but we need to fix things so that these schools put students first. Right?

I have lived in greater Cleveland for almost 40 years, and certainly I am not surprised by what I can see in any particular neighborhood.  But my drive down Lakeview Road a month ago made me come home and pull some books off my shelf.  I looked at Organizing Schools for Improvement: Lessons from Chicago, a study by Anthony Bryk and the Consortium on Chicago School Research that examined essential supports that will be necessary in 46 “truly disadvantaged” schools in Chicago. In a school district where many schools are troubled with poverty, the researchers identified these 46 schools that are poorer than the rest. The families they serve are 96 percent low income: 64 percent of adult males in these families are unemployed; the median family income is $9,480; and the percentage of families living below the poverty line is 70 percent. Bryk and his colleagues prescribe strategies for improving the schools that serve children in such neighborhoods, but they point out that realistically,  “At both the classroom and the school level, the good efforts of even the best educators are likely to be seriously taxed when confronted with a high density of students who are in foster care, homeless, neglected, abused, and so on.  Classroom activity can understandably get diverted toward responding to these manifest personal needs.  Similarly, it can be difficult at the school level to maintain collective attention on instructional improvement when the social needs of children continue to cry out for adult attention.”

I sat down and read the whole of Thomas Sugrue’s history of post-WWII Detroit: The Origins of the Urban Crisis: Race and Inequality in Postwar Detroit.  I learned that after the Great Migration, African Americans struggled to get good jobs in the auto plants except during the labor shortage of the war years.  Even a list of chapter titles connects the dots: “‘Detroit’s Time Bomb’: Race and Housing in the 1940s — ‘The Coffin of Peace’: The Containment of Public Housing — ‘The Meanest and the Dirtiest Jobs’: The Structures of Employment Discrimination — ‘The Damning Mark of False Prosperities’: The Deindustrialization of Detroit — ‘Forget about Your Inalienable Right to Work’: Responses to Industrial Decline and Discrimination — Class, Status, and Residence: The Changing Geography of Black Detroit — ‘Homeowners’ Rights’: White Resistance and the Rise of Antiliberalism — ‘United Communities are Impregnable’: Violence and the Color Line — and Crisis: Detroit and the Fate of Postindustrial America.”

Then I re-read sociologist Patrick Sharkey’s relatively new book, Stuck in Place: Urban Neighborhoods and the End of Progress toward Racial Equality.  Sharkey locates public schools as merely one part of a complex urban ecology: “Inequality does not exist exclusively at the level of the individual or the family; rather, various forms of inequality are organized or clustered in social settings like neighborhoods, schools and political districts, and these social settings represent crucial sites at which American inequality is generated, maintained, and reinforced.  Perhaps the most powerful evidence… is that a wide range of social phenomena such as violence, joblessness, and physical and mental health outcomes tend to be clustered together in space… Our nation’s educational system is just one of many institutions that link individuals’ residential locations with their life chances.”

Today, however, we prefer to adopt the rhetoric of the marketplace as we think about urban schools.  Blame teachers.  Blame their unions.  Bring in charters.  We have adopted a narrative that posits that if we offer school choice, parents will become their own entrepreneurs who will propel their children out of the neighborhood on a wave of opportunity.  It is appealing rhetoric and the story itself embodies a happy ending that is unlikely to happen very often on Lakeview Road.

Finally I went back to one of my very favorite books on public education and opportunity, Mike Rose’s Why School?.  Rose cautions us to be precise in the language and metaphors we use to frame our educational challenges: “Citizens in a democracy must continually assess the performance of their public institutions.  But the quality and language of that evaluation matter.  Before we can evaluate, we need to be clear about what it is we’re evaluating, what the nature of the thing is: its components and intricacies, its goals and purpose.  We should also ask why why we’re evaluating.  To what end?  Neither the sweeping rhetoric of public school failure nor the narrow focus on test scores helps us here.  Both exclude the important, challenging work done daily in schools across the country, thereby limiting the educational vocabulary and imagery available to us.”

Rose quotes historian Michael Katz who writes about the arrogance and distance of policy strategists who pose market solutions like the Virtual Schoolhouse on Lakeview Road: “Market models seem appropriate to us when we deal with strangers—with the alien collectivity rather than the familiar individual.”

Instead Rose suggests we adopt the language of school investment and improvement—the same kind of basic support that Anthony Bryk and his colleagues in Chicago imagined for their 46 “truly disadvantaged schools.”  Here are Rose’s words:  “Poor schools need stability and shoring up of the resources they do have.  They need long-term development of teachers and principals who are familiar with their struggles and committed to the students in their communities.  These schools need to be tightly connected to social and health services—for many of their students carry big burdens—having some of those services on the school site, if possible.  The schools should become focal institutions in their communities, involving parents and networking with existing community groups and agencies working for educational and economic improvement, becoming a neighborhood meeting place and a center for civic activity.”

The right language helps, doesn’t it.  Let’s use it to demand leadership for change.