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Education Reform: Part II of ??? March 27, 2009

Posted by Suzanne Robinson in Education, Obama, politics.
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I sat down today (now, as I post,  yesterday) to edit what I intended to be the second of a two part post on education reform.  I needed only, I thought, flesh out a couple of ideas, add a few sentences to tie the sections together, make final edits, and call it a day and a project – one close to my heart – finished.  The first half of part II was to be entitled INNOVATION and would look at new teaching models – or rather a renewal of innovative teaching models of days past.  The first sub-section was to be entitled ‘Social Justice as a Learning Tool.’

I first encountered the Social Justice Teaching Method when I read about a Chicago high school called the Little Village Lawndale High School.  The school consists of four small schools on one campus, one of which is called the Social Justice School.  The Social Justice School teaches students through the lens of the struggle for justice and the hope for peace.  I was drawn to the methodology because it offers a means through which to teach poor and minority students in a way that speaks to their lives, and I thought that, given that the school was built in Chicago during Arne Duncan’s tenure,  it would also provide a lens through which to view his work.

The Social Justice Methodology aims to provide a a place where students can learn the basic and crucial skills that all our schools aim to teach, but in a different way.  For example, teachers teach critical thinking skills through projects centered around race, gender and economic equality – the things that touch these students, 98% of whom are minority students from low income families,  lives everyday.  Advocates tell stories of once alienated students becoming enthusiastic about learning, excited by the opportunity to explore concepts like their own identity, racial stereotypes, how advertising influences societal views about different groups, and what it is that makes a community.  Adam Doster tells this part of this story in his article ‘The Conscious Classroom’ in The Nation.   He tells that this concept of marrying learning to social justice and activism is being adopted by a growing number of educators across the country.  Where other reform efforts have failed, a growing number of educators and reformers say, this methodology, which grows from previous alternative methodologies of the 1960s, is engaging urban students who were previously alienated by mainstream teaching methods.  According to Stan Karp, an English teacher and editor of the Milwaukee-based education reform magazine Rethinking Schools, “Taking kids’ lives as a point of departure and bringing the world into the classroom really does seem to give a context and a purpose that is very motivating.”

While some conservatives denounce the movement as indoctrinating students with left wing ideology, advocates insist that teachers teach the same basic skills taught in mainstream schools, but do so in a way that helps students appreciate the need to learn.  Take math.  How many times have you heard students say that they don’t NEED TO KNOW MATH, that is has no impact on them. And while parents and teachers tell middle-class students that math is important in today’s technology economy, the Social Justice teachers can make clear math’s relevance to their student’s lives and do so in a way that makes the subject interesting.  One example Doster uses to illustrate the increased learning fostered by this method is that, “a math teacher can run probability simulations using real data to understand the dynamics behind income inequality or racial profiling.”  Now that brings the power of math home to students who know these evils all too well.

And the method is spreading.  Since 1992 the Children’s Defense Fund (CDF) has run modern freedom schools in cities nationwide, with a model curriculum focused on five components: high-quality academic enrichment; parent and family involvement; civic engagement and social action; intergenerational leadership development; and nutrition, physical and mental health.  More than 64,000 children (and their families) have been taken part in this program in the roughly the last decade.  

Frustrated teachers of poor and minority students across the country are coming together to discuss ways to bring social justice issues to their classrooms, drawing on the works of those who have long studied the problems of urban schools, such as Johnathan Kozol, author of Savage Inequalities and Amazing Grace – books that bring the realities of these schools to life in a way that breaks the heart and frustrates the mind.  Teachers who are terribly frustrated with the reform efforts of the Bush years, which many believe have only heightened the inequalities in public education, feel it is necessary to ‘speak frankly’ with their students about fairness, about justice, about the hope of a peaceful life.  And these students, who see injustice and violence before them every day, appreciate that this new way of learning is relevant to them, that it takes them into account.

It all makes sense to me.  And while there remains a lack of research on the benefits of this methodology because it is so new, studies that have been conducted do show a significant increase in learning in relation to students, particularly low income students, who have not had the benefit of this new way of engaging students in real life learning.  But this methodology, while it is making inroads in several cities, hasn’t yet made its way into mainstream conversations about school reform.  And so I was excited to read about this new school in a poor Latino neighborhood in Chicago.

Then tonight, because I didn’t have a clear view of Secretary Duncan’s thoughts on this new way of teaching some of the students under his charge who need the most help,  I did a bit more research.  And the story, I think, is worth telling.  It is a provocative story that demonstrates well some – but only some – of the challenges we face in education today.

This story began when a group of Latino mothers on the west side of Chicago came together to demand a better school for their children.  Studies illustrate time and again that given school’s educational quality often reflects the socioeconomic makeup of its district.  That unfortunate circumstance is the catalyst for this story.  Educators call for parents’ involvement in their children’s education.  This is a story of dedicated involvement.  It is also a story of racial and socio-economic discrimination – on the part not just of the powerful, but of some of the folks in every faction involved in this saga.  It is a story of a continuing struggle, an intransigent bureaucracy, an allegedly racist CEO on his way out, a story of hope even in the face of overwhelming resistance, of vision, and of a new CEO who gets the school opened.  It is a story of strong advocates, poor administration and a dishonest principal with good intentions, of symbolism and determination and belonging and not belonging and gang violence and hope and despair.  And this story all takes place before the school at the story’s center graduates its first class of students.  The school remains a place of hope, as it should, and – as much as anything – it demonstrates well the vast difference between a theoretical vision and real life implementation because, like life, it is nothing if not messy.

In 1998, parents in the Little Village neighborhood on the west side of Chicago – mostly first generation Mexican immigrants who live in the most densely populated part of the city –  came together and petitioned the local government to build a school in their neighborhood because their big city high school was overcrowded, underperforming, rife with gang violence and the accompanying metal detectors and police, a drop-out rate of nearly 40%, and students, perhaps the lucky ones, being bused all over the city.  And these parents didn’t just want any old school, rather they wanted a school that taught the students about about the struggle for justice so relevant to their lives (including the struggle that the parents had to undertake to get the school built).  The Chicago Public Schools (CPS) agreed to build the Little Village Lawndale High School.  But the school did not come into existence easily.  CPS promised to begin work on three new schools, two  ‘selective enrollment’ magnet schools in the more affluent north side of the city and the Little Village school.  Work began on the two North side schools, but CPS did not begin work on the school promised to this neighborhood, rather district representatives told the parents, when they went back to ask why their school wasn’t being built though the others had been,  that there was no longer any money to build their school.  Rather than take any responsibility, CPS advised the advocates to lobby their state legislators.

The parents didn’t give up.  After two years of struggle and broken promises, a group of community organizers, parents, grandparents, teachers and students went on a 19 day hunger strike to force the issue.  They set up a tent city, which they referred to as ‘Camp Chavez,’ on the school site and waited for Paul Vallas, then the CEO of the CPS to take them seriously. According to Jaime de Leon, one of the hunger strike organizers, when the strike began, Vallas refused to come to the site or acknowledge the strikers.  In fact, he allegedly said that he did not want to come to Little Village ‘to meet with a few women who are refusing to eat.’  But the media began telling the story and, within a few days more than 500 people were living at Camp Chavez.  CEO Vallas buckled under the scrutiny and pressure and, on the sixth day of the strike, he made a visit, but he did not commit to building the school.  The strike ended out of concerns for the strikers’s health.  Just a few months later, in August 2001, CEO Vallas resigned, Mayor Daly appointed Arne Duncan to fill the post, and Duncan pledged to fulfill CPS’s promise to build the school.  According to an article written to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education on Education Week‘s website, Duncan says he would have made sure Little Village got a new high school even if there hadn’t been a hunger strike.  “It was the right thing to do,” Duncan said. “It’s a community with a growing population. I saw tremendous need.”  Duncan said, too though, that prevalent view in Little Village that the school system has discriminated against Latinos is wrong. Rather, he said, “the district constantly faces the challenge of providing new schools in areas of the city where there is overcrowding, and “that is frequently in the Latino community.”  But this doesn’t explain the building, without need for community action, of the two schools built in more affluent areas while the Latino community was shut out.  Still, he lived up to his promise and the Little Village school was built at a cost of $61 million, more than has been spent to build any other school in Chicago’s history.  The school was so expensive to build because it houses more than just a high school.  The campus is open at nights and on the weekends and offers many resources for the community, such as a health clinic, an adult education program, and a distance learning facility.  And the cost was not born solely by Chicago tax payers.  La Raza and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation contributed generously to its construction.

As David Stovall, Assistant Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education at the University of Illinois at Chicago and a member of the design team for Little Village,  writes in an article on the ‘Rethinking Schools’ website, CPS under Duncan’s leadership included parents in the planning process (though they, of course, fought hard for this inclusion every step of the way).  The result of their collaboration is one campus containing four distinct schools, with each school operating autonomously, while sharing after-school programs and other services vital to their community.  There is a school of math, science, and technology;  a visual and performing arts school; a world languages school; and the social justice school. 

But, at the time the school was being planned and built, the then CEO of the Chicago Schools had instituted what he termed ‘Chicago High School Redesign Initiative (CHSRI) guidelines, which required that all proposals from the community go through another ‘bureaucratic maze,’ the Transitional Advisory Council (TAC), which, in turn, would make recommendations to CPS.  Matters were made more complicated, he notes, as CHSRI (the redesign initiative) was incorporated into a new Renaissance 2010 Project, a project implemented by Arne Duncan that aims to close 60 Chicago public schools and reopen them as 100 new ‘performance schools,’ which are public charter schools, though many will be privately operated and will lack union representation.  As Stovall, who has been involved in the school project from the beginning, explains it,  

“Performance schools are managed and funded by the district under a five-year ‘performance agreement’ that provides ‘greater autonomy’ in exchange for meeting certain performance targets like test scores.  Under Renaissance 2010, ‘performance schools’ are funded under a different formula than the CHSRI small schools, resulting in a significant decrease in funding for programming and institutional support.”

 Pauline Lipman, Professor of Policy Studies in the College of Education, University of Illinois-Chicago, asserts that the goal of Ren10 is to “reshape the educational geography of Chicago by aiding the gentrification of particular neighborhoods and, in effect, increasing educational inequality.”  And many in Chicago agree.  The community insisted that theirs was not a Ren 10 school, that its genesis preceded the implementation of Ren10, and that their school grew out of community efforts.  CPS resisted.  The parents fought back.  Finally, concerned about the demands and funding cuts as well as a fear of gentrification, the advocates requested a meeting with the new Chicago Schools CEO, Arne Duncan.  Stovall reports that Duncan told them they were ‘misinformed about Renaissance 2010’s relationship to gentrification.’  Displeased with the meeting’s outcome, the Little Village community organized public hearings to express their concerns.  In the face of strong community opposition to their status as a Ren 10 school, CPS reinstated the Little Village school’s status as a ‘neighborhood small school,’ but the school is still listed on the CPS website and in its ‘new schools development directory’ as a Ren 10 project. 

Stovall maintains that under Duncan’s leadership, CPS continued to say one thing while doing another and, in 2005 – the year the school opened its doors, he wrote the battle on the ground is far from over. “This struggle, he said, to maintain our vision for a neighborhood school demonstrates the importance of using community action to hold school authorities accountable in the battle for quality, inclusive education.”  

Because CPS required that the school be at least 30% African American, black students from the neighboring North Lawndale neighborhood joined their Latino neighbors in the school.  Stovall argues that this inclusion will serve a catalyst for much needed cultural, ethnic and racial collaboration, but there is a darker side to the story.  Though 30% of the students come from the predominately African American North Lawndale neighborhood and the school is officially called Little Village Lawndale High School, the sign in front of the school reads simply Little Village High School, and admission controversies have changed the school’s meaning for residents of both communities.   “To those who are denied access, the impressive spire and $61 million campus represent what their children are not able to receive,” writes  Joanie Friedman in her informative essay Contested Space:  The Struggle for the Little Village Lawndale High School, which appears on the website Area Chicago: Art/Research/Education/Research, and was originally published in the summer 2007 issue of Critical Planning, the UCLA Journal of Urban Planning.  Where racial collaboration was the goal, the scarcity of educational resources has driven, instead, more racial tension.  But the goal remains, as students from the two communities come together in their new school.  

So how are things going at Little Village Lawndale High School?  Surprisingly, this information is the hardest to find.  The city’s Office of New Schools holds the school out as a shining example of success.  Student attendance and achievement are up, but I am having a hard time finding numbers.  The Social Justice School recently won an award for its work in developing a strong sense of  ‘civic engagement’  in its students, topping all the other schools in the city.  And, it seems to offer a good amount of transparency, with a website that even includes the day’s assigned homework.  

Unfortunately it has not escaped the problem of gang violence that is too prevalent in Chicago’s schools, particularly in the Lawndale community.  The new year brings bad news of more gang violence, which in February required that the police be brought in, the school be shut down for a week, after school activities cancelled, and talks will soon be underway about heightened security on campus.   There is good news, here, too, though.  The students at the Social Justice School hosted a forum attended by nearly 500 Chicago students, mostly African American students, on how to decrease gang violence in their neighborhoods.  There were few adults in attendance, and their leadership is impressive, suggesting that the Social Justice school really is training leaders.  The decision to have four separate administrations and four separate principles, though, leaves four different approaches to student discipline, which, as the recent outbursts make clear, must be addressed.  

The worst news comes from the adults in the school.  There is already too little continuity, though I have yet to find how teacher turn-over rates there compare with other schools city wide.  The principal of the Math and Science school is leaving at the end of the year to join Secretary Duncan in Washington. And Rito Martinez, the principal of  The Social Justice School is being fired because he lives outside the district, which the Inspector General’s office evidently discovered by hiring a private detective to follow him for three months (he claimed to live in the Little Village neighborhood).   

I am struggling at the moment with websites that I can’t get to load, and am frustrated because this is critical information that I want to know and to share. The CPS website offers little information about any of its schools, and I am experiencing problems with the State Department of Education’s website.   I will keep at it today and update this post this information as I find it.  It looks, though, as if the students are doing well.  

This story and others I’ve read about about Chicago schools under his leadership, leave me with a mixed opinion of Secretary Duncan.  He did uphold the school district’s promise to the Little Village community.  And he does talk of supporting social justice in learning.  But talk is just talk, and it is also clear that he favors a corporate model of schooling, preferring, among other things, private charter schools free from teacher’s unions.  He argues, first, that the role of schools is to provide employees for America’s corporations, and works hard to bring corporate methodologies into our schools.  This is at odds with my vision of excellent education that brings, in addition to business skills, a breadth of knowledge to its students and an informed citizenry to the public arena.  And I am confused by the president’s choice to surround himself with so many corporate types.  It wasn’t so long ago that, in the story I’ve tried to tell here, he would have played the role of the community organizer, fighting for the right of parents to have a school that embraced their values.  Arne Duncan is not that man and, I think, does not fully share that man’s vision.  And I question how much of what President Obama cites as Duncan success stories are really stories of success.  For example, while President Obama cites as one example of Duncan’s stellar leadership the declining drop-out rates that occurred every year Duncan ran Chicago’s schools, he does not indicate whether graduation rates rose correspondingly.  My fear is that they did not.  Many criticize Duncan for simply kicking ‘difficult’ students out of the schools,  leaving them no opportunity to quit on their own.  In a scathing article on the Truth Out website, Kenneth Saltman, Associate Professor of Educational Policy Studies and Research at DePaul University in Chicago and author, most recently, of “Capitalizing on Disaster: Taking and Breaking Public Schools,”  who is certainly not alone in his criticism, writes that,

“Under Duncan, Chicago took the lead in creating public schools run as military academies, vastly expanded draconian student expulsions, instituted sweeping surveillance practices, (and) advocated a growing police presence in the schools….  A recent report, “Education on Lockdown,” claimed that partly under Duncan’s leadership “Chicago Public Schools (CPS) has become infamous for its harsh zero tolerance policies. Although there is no verified positive impact on safety, these policies have resulted in tens of thousands of student suspensions and an exorbitant number of expulsions.”

I have so much hope for our president that it colors my vision.  Had President Bush appointed Secretary Duncan, I have no doubts that I would have quickly ripped him to shreds for abandoning our children, gotten a good night’s rest, posted my blog on time and be out shopping for a new bicycle right now. Yet, time and again I find myself searching for ways President Obama the benefit of the doubt.  The choice of Duncan is another that I do not like, yet I find myself restrained in my criticism, actively searching for indications that he will do well by our children.  President Obama is a deliberative man who does not speak in particulars until he is sure of what he wants to say.  He is undoubtedly familiar with the criticisms voiced by many Chicago residents who disdain Arne Duncan as a neoliberal reformer who will destroy our public schools as he moves toward the privitization and corporitization of schools.  Yet he chose Duncan to lead the nation’s schools.  The choice, like others he has made, leave me feeling confused and saddened.  I never thought for a moment, that as president,  Barack Obama would adopt an ultra-progressive stance.  He cannot.  He is restrained as the leader of all Americans.  But neither did I think he would embrace a capitalist model of education.  I am deeply disappointed and skeptical as I write today.  But I will be back next week, looking at other issues that we face in our efforts to improve education and educational opportunity.  And I will have looked more closely at some of the criticisms about Secretary Duncan as well at the writings of some who praise his efforts.  I hope that I have some good news to report.

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Comments»

1. pauline lipman - March 29, 2009

Read the latest Rethinking Schools for a story on Duncan’s leadership of CPS and the implications for the Dept. of Education as Obama’s Secretary of Education: The reality behind the myth of the Chicago success story. .

Suzanne Robinson - March 30, 2009

Thank you! I will read it.


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