Monday, July 20, 2009

Summer Reading

Earlier this summer I read Charles M. Payne's So Much Reform, So Little Change: The Persistence of Failure in Urban Schools on John Thompson's recommendation. I suppose most people would find it as depressing as the title suggests, but I found it a joy to read, because it tells the truth about the past 25 years of urban school reform, starting with the essential fact that we've been focused on it for 25 years (at least). It is amazing how easily we forget that.

Overall, the "big idea" of Payne's book is "Your big idea is insufficient." Thus, for example:

...I am not in principle against the idea of freeing certain schools from bureaucratic oversight under certain conditions, but I don't see any Big Magic in autonomy itself as opposed to the way it is implemented. To the extent that we keep implementing reforms with the idea that there is some one program that is going to make all the difference; to the extent that we keep implementing reform without adequate support or without a spirit of persistence, a determination that we are going to give the work a fair chance to take root; to the extent that we keep implementing good ideas in a spirit of contempt for the practitioners who have to make them work; to the extent that we keep implementing reforms without any capacity for mid-course corrections, without any understanding of the relevant historical context; to that extent we can expect to get implementations that miss the point. How we do this may be as important as what we do, arguably more so. One of the foundational studies of the current discussion of urban school districts (Snipes, Doolittle, and Herilhy 2002) found that successful districts and unsuccessful districts say they are doing the same things; the difference appears to be in the way that they do what they do. (p. 190)

The foundations of the book are rock solid: the author's first hand work with the Comer School Development Program and the research of the Consortium on Chicago School Research, the gold standard of data on urban school reform.

Payne appreciates that to understand urban schools, you have to hold in your head a lot of superficially contradictory ideas; e.g., high standards are essential, and students will rise to them, except when they don't, which is more often than not. But when do they? There is no simple answer, just a complex interplay of factors. Payne manages to lay out the landscape without succumbing to the urge to simplify, rationalize or resolve it. I imagine some people will find it infuriating. I found it to be true.

If you've not worked in American urban public schools, this is the one book you should read to start to grasp the milieu.

I just finished Hope and Despair in the American City: Why there are no bad schools in Raleigh by Gerald Grant on a tip from Diane Ravitch.

Grant is the author of The World We Created at Hamilton High, an essential memoir/study of the impact and (hopeful) aftermath of desegregation and societal upheaval on one Syracuse, NY school. Jennifer had read Hamilton High in Richard Schoenwald's legendary Society and the Arts class at CMU, and I'd read it off her bookshelf at some point. She just referred to it as "the only book about education I could ever stand to read," and I regard it as essential to understanding urban high schools pre-Nation at Risk.

Grant does have a "big idea" here: there may be no easy fix for inner city schools segregated by race and class, but the problem gets a heck of a lot more tractable if you desegregate your schools. The core of Hope and Despair is a study of the Wake County Public Schools, which have a policy of capping the poverty rate in each school at 40%, using magnet schools and rather aggressive reassignment policies to maintain that balance.

We can't do that in the northeast, because the boundaries of our school districts isolate urban areas and moving students across the city line is still considered a political third rail. A rail that the Educational Equity Project, for all their bluster, wouldn't dare to touch with a thousand foot pole. For that matter, the Broader, Bolder Approach people don't bring it up on their website either. And to be sure, it is not a complete solution. But it is a big step, and it has been done. It scales! Wake County has almost seven times more students than KIPP (137,706 vs. 20,000) and just about 10,000 more than the entire state of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations (148,474).

When we dig further into the South's decreasing achievement gap vs. the North, their desegregation is going to be a big part of the story if we're honest. When you read something like this:

There is some of that in the book. Chapter 7 notes Weast's decision to divide the county into an affluent Green Zone and a low-income Red Zone and move more resources into the latter.

We can't do that in the Northeast because of the way we've historically defined our school districts.

A lot of people are getting excited about the prospect of creating tiny, outstanding apartheid schools in our cities. And it might even be possible! On a small scale at least. But really, is that the direction we want to go?

Grant's argument is relatively simple, but in this case, not overly so. He does keep it straightforward, historical and empirical, yielding a much tighter, less ideological and more persuasive book than, say, Jonathan Kozol's The Shame of the Nation. Grant focuses on and illuminates a simple truth we'd rather avoid.

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