What If Our Schools Are Working?

Thousands of protesters showed up at New York City's Brooklyn Technical High School on January 26 to protest against the closing and reorganization of 19 public schools.
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Thousands of protesters showed up at New York City's Brooklyn Technical High School on January 26 to protest against the closing and reorganization of 19 public schools. Three hundred parents, teachers, students, and local politicians testified that the closings were arbitrary and ignored the struggles and successes taking place in these buildings. The hearing went on until after 2:30 in the morning, when the Panel for Educational Policy, whose majority is appointed by Mayor Michael "Money Bags" Bloomberg, did exactly what it planned to do at the start; it voted to rubber stamp the closings.

The panel's decision will mean phasing out six comprehensive high schools, including Jamaica and Beach Channel in Queens, Paul Robeson and William Maxwell in Brooklyn, and Alfred Smith and Christopher Columbus in the Bronx. This is part of Bloomberg and Chancellor Klein's campaign to replace the comprehensive high schools with small mini-schools and charters. Since 2002, Bloomberg/Klein has closed, or is in the process of closing, over ninety schools. What the Mayor and Chancellor were unable to explain was why if smaller schools are the panacea for educational problems six of the schools being closed in this round were small high schools created in previous rounds of school reorganization.

A study by the Center for New York City Affairs at the New School discovered that Bloomberg/Klein were stacking the deck so it looked like comprehensive high schools could not perform as well as smaller ones. For example, in 2003, academic honors programs were removed from Columbus High School, which is now failing, and assigned to mini-schools located in the same building that are now offered as a model success story for small schools.

When new mini-schools are created they accept few special education and non-English-speaking students, so their standardized scores look good. Meanwhile the remaining comprehensive schools are forced to accept larger numbers of students having difficulty, lowering their scores and creating more problems. Higher achieving students try to avoid the comprehensive schools and the situation grows worse until the comprehensive schools are targeted for closing.

New Yorkers can anticipate new mini-schools being placed in the old buildings. But despite new names and administrators, little else will change. There are large numbers of troubled students in New York and they will have to be sent to school somewhere - and those schools will become new additions to the failing schools list. This is what happened to Beach Channel High School when Far Rockaway was reorganized. Now it is Beach Channel's turn.

When the New York State Legislature renewed mayoral control over New York City schools last year, a condition of approval was that provisions be made so that parents would participate in decision-making. Last night proved that this provision was a farce. Just because parents are allowed to speak does not mean that anyone in the Bloomberg/Klein machine will listen.

If the State Legislature has any courage, they will rescind mayoral control of the schools. Unfortunately, there is too much Bloomberg money floating around for many of the legislators to risk taking a stand.

Part of the problem with American schools is that no one wants to confront the real problems - not Bloomberg, not Klein, not President Obama, and not his hatchet man Arne Duncan.

Since the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk, charged that the country was threatened by a "rising tide of mediocrity" in public schools that would cripple its ability to compete in international markets, there have been five "Education Presidents" and innumerable education governors and mayors in the United States. George W. Bush campaigned on the slogan "Leave No Child Behind." Barack Obama has been using the promise of federal grant money to get school districts to sign up for his "Race to the Top." But what if the fundamental premise of the 1983 report is wrong? What if American schools are working exactly the way they are intended to work? What if every student is not supposed to learn and succeed?

A big part of the problem with American schools is that there is a conflict between the goals of democracy and of capitalism. While "democrats" feel an obligation to teach everyone, capitalists are more concerned with the "bottom line" of profitability. In their world, there is a competitive market place that sorts out winners from losers, and there will always be losers.

In a society where education is organized to achieve capitalist goals, mass public education has two primary purposes. It sorts people out, determining who will be recruited to the elite, learn and succeed, who will receive enough basic training to make an acceptable living, and who will be pushed to the margins of society. It does this through an elaborate system that includes racially and economically segregated school districts that receive different levels of funding, magnet, private and charter schools that sift-off the highest performing or most cooperative students, and rigorous testing and tracking within schools.

In order to do this type of sorting successfully, American society and its schools must convince parents and students to accept the legitimacy of a system where social and economic rewards are so unequally divided and many people are considered superfluous. Even though a sizable percentage of the population is predestined to fail, young people are repeatedly taught in school, and generally come to believe, that failure is their own fault.

Blaming schools, students, and teachers, while exempting our social system from scrutiny, allows those who support the status quo to propose relatively inexpensive, but ultimately ineffective, solutions to the problems affecting education. Instead of spending money to lower class size, build new, safe, welcoming schools for all children, enhance the development of teachers throughout their careers, and support research on promoting learning, they vote to raise standards, reshuffle curriculum content, create new tests, and demand fool-proof teacher certification criteria. Few people ask what will happen in communities where 80% of the students who complete high school are unable to earn diplomas.

Can anything be done to change our schools and society and eliminate some of the gross inequalities? I am not sure. But a first step is to admit that the problem is not that schools are failing. Unfortunately, they are working exactly the way they are designed to work.

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