The School Closing Follies

We've now moved into an era in which politicians, philanthropists, and a school of education reformers now believes the only way to education salvation is to literally close schools and fire teachers.
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About 15 years ago I clipped out a cartoon from a newspaper that depicted a public school administrator explaining the latest school reform craze to his colleagues. He was holding up two models of schoolhouses. One was a large building and the other a one-room schoolhouse.

The caption read, "first we take the small school and put it in the big school. Then we take the big school and..." The sentence was left incomplete, but I'm sure you've figured out the punch line.

The days of re-configuring buildings, open classrooms, buildings interiors without walls, and portfolio assessments, belong to the Jurassic period of education reform.

They are well gone. At the start of each school year we expected a new catch phrase or slogan about learning and teaching to be thrown at us from the administrators on high. We listened, we complained, we yawned, and we went about our business of trying to educate our students. And yet, as disruptive and fruitless as these schemes turned out to be, I find myself recalling those days with feelings that border on the nostalgic.

We've now moved into an era in which politicians, philanthropists, and a school of education reformers now believes the only way to education salvation is to literally close schools and fire teachers.

The fervor of this movement evokes the reformist's zeal that has from time to time swept this country, ostensibly with best of intentions, and almost always with unforeseen consequences that prove a detriment to our society. This time around Carrie Nation has given way to Michelle Rhee. Given the current fevered pitch that accompanies the rhetoric of "reform," I have the sense that if the schoolhouses were still made of wood, Bill and Melinda Gates would be funding torches.

In the past two weeks the current Chancellor of the New York City Schools, Dennis Walcott, delivered his first major policy speech, in which he declared that after 10 years of mayoral control and $100 billion dollars of increased education funding, the Department of Education has concluded that middle school students are entering high school in large numbers unprepared to do high school level work!

Just last week Walcott's deputies announced that part of the solution to the problem would be to spread the misery by closing more elementary and middle schools. Madame Defarge, who now resides at the New York City Department of Education, has just knitted 20 more names of schools slated for the guillotine. They are slated to follow the almost 100 that have had their fates sealed.

A discussion with a group of the sub-species known as the classroom teacher would have elicited a number of truths that might have resulted in some meaningful changes in the running of our urban schools. It also would have saved the taxpayers their hard-earned tax dollars along with massive infusions of foundation funds that have had limited results at best.

The sooner these unpleasant truths are articulated far and wide, the better our schools and country will be for it. For those of you who do teach, I'm not telling you anything new.

Truth #1 If a student enters high school in my state (New York) with a 1 or 2 reading level out of a possible 4, they are functionally illiterate and won't receive a high school diploma unless the standards are either dumbed down or their grades are fabricated. A double period of English each day won't make a difference.

Truth #2 Allowing someone other than a special needs student to remain in a regular four-year high school until the age of 21 ensures that large numbers of "students" will make no progress because they believe that failure has no consequences. Many students sit on the fence. If they inhabit a world where there are no consequences for non-performance then large numbers of them wind up making minimal progress. A school system that offers endless chances because it believes it is benevolent, winds up being cruel in its own way.

There's summer school, night school, phony credit recovery, transcript manipulation, designed to inflate graduation rates. The students feel as if they are walking on a high wire with an endless series of nets under them. They have no fear of falling off. They are encouraged to live out an infantilized existence by a system that is supposed to be teaching them how to live life's lessons as an adult.

Truth #3 Teachers and administrators have the responsibility of overseeing the welfare of their students, but have no authority to keep miscreants out of the schoolhouse. There are no special schools or programs for students who have been incarcerated. They are dropped into a regular school as soon as they are released from jail with no regard for their future or the safety of others.

Truth #4 About 25 percent of the students in our high schools don't want to be there or take the courses that are required of them. The folly of making these students "college ready" has come at the expense of eliminating school shops, commercial diplomas, and vocational training.

Restore differentiated diplomas. Provide programs and schools for students that have made absolutely no progress after two years of high school, and watch how quickly our urban schools are turned around.

Truth #5 If the editorial board members of the major New York newspapers had to cover 5 classes in a New York City high school, they'd never make it to lunch! That's because they have no knowledge of how the schools are run or the actual working conditions. They've decided that the true path to success resides in the private marketplace.

They reify this view by running editorials and op-ed pieces written by non-educators who claim to be experts on education. If you read their resumes, they are usually business management experts or statisticians.

If I were to submit an op-ed to the Wall Street Journal, it wouldn't make it past their spam filter. But Fran Tarkenton offers a loopy view of why the schools should be run like the NFL, and it's prominently displayed.

Somebody at the Journal should have told Fran that the teachers aren't the players who "can't be fired." We are the coaches who are expected to turn everyone who walks through our classroom door into a star in a game where nobody is allowed to lose.

Try running an NFL team where every walk-on is expected to play and excel and see how long the league survives.

When these issues are addressed, we can begin to earnestly evaluate teacher performance.

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