The one best system…
was the title of a book about American urban public education. It sits on my shelf, partially read.
My education “shelf” is actually quite short – a quarter of a shelf out of 30 something. There’s Small Schools by Mike and Susan Klonsky (read and reviewed), So Much Reform, So Little Change by Charles Payne, untouched, I really should read it. Pillars of the Republic by Carl Kaestle, great book about the early history of public education in America (I think Eric Foner was his advisor). Teacher Man, McCourt, unread. Accountability Frankenstein, Sherman Dorn, barely started (I’m going slow because I think he is pro-reform, and I’d rather not learn that that’s true). Playing for Keeps, Deb Meier et al, skimmed through. The Death and Life of the Great American School System, carried on many a trip, cover still not cracked. Diane Ravitch. An Incar pamphlet in defense of public education in Connecticut that I must have picked up 30 or so years ago. The Pressures of Teaching, a highly readable anthology of short essays by real teachers, edited by Maureen Picard Robins (so ok, I’ve only read a couple of the essays). It’s Not All Flowers and Sausages, by Miss Mimi, adorable, and between the blog and the book I’ve read most of it.
And that’s it. I’m not counting guides to the standards (THE standards? Ha!) Or Ed Psych books, or any of that sort of thing. And I’m counting no math books, no math teaching books. There’s a bunch more of those.
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But this wasn’t supposed to be a post about my bookshelves (as proud of them as I may be). My point is, we don’t have one best system. We have different systems of education for different kids. And even in the big cities, we have multiple forms of education.
Let’s start by stripping away the Catholic schools. Their curriculum, how close is it to ours? The religion classes, the uniforms… Different culture, different education. And the other parochial schools, that probably fall all over the place.
Then the upscale private schools. Different class. Different books. Different expectations. Different culture.
And once we are left with just public schools, we have at least two, maybe three systems. I only have a rough idea of the similarities and differences – but I am confident that the substance and style, the curricular content and social values, are distinct enough to support, at least roughly, these classifications:
At the fringes of Queens and on Staten Island, much of what happens as far as curriculum and culture looks, rumor has it, a bit suburban. Ethnically/racially these schools are less Black and Hispanic. At the high school level, this is the land of large schools with pep rallies and football. There is probably a range of achievement levels (mislabeled? ability levels), with honors classes in each grade. There may be functioning PTAs, perhaps in some cases with serious dough. This is not a world touched by school closings or the “turnaround” model. I hesitate to say more. I don’t teach there. They are saddled with the same nasty central administration that we have. But I suspect a different world overall.
In chichi parts of especially Manhattan there are schools that look more like the low end (socially) upscale private schools. They are probably more integrated than the schools on the fringe, but work with a clear upper middle class sense of place and status. In many the curriculum leans progressive (D2). Some support more of an honors model, some a more mixed academic model (heterogeneous grouping they call it, but given who goes to those schools in the first place…). Put Stuyvesant and Anderson at the non-heterogeneous extreme. The high schools in this group, with a few notable exceptions, are smaller, by choice. In any event these schools are distinguished by what they teach, and what they don’t teach. Tons of higher order thinking. Enriched content, whether project-y or hard. And less test prep. Extra curriculars. And in some cases some serious PTA involvement, including some serious cash. I’m sensing this is a land where school choice is popular.
In the Bronx and most of Brooklyn, in large parts of Queens, and in most of Manhattan above a distressingly mobile line, education looks different. The world looks different. There’s a lot more poverty. Streets, infrastructure more dilapidated. More crime. Different mix of stores selling a different mix of products. To poorer people. Overwhelmingly Black and Hispanic. The schools physically may not look that different from the other groups (though they may be less likely to have functioning playgrounds). But the curriculum is not even close to the same. Test prep ranges from moderate to mind-numbing. Extra curriculars are more limited. The culture has two extremes – out of control, or uniformed, disciplined, “yes sir, no sir.” These are the places where art and music, foreign language, even social studies gets cut out of the curriculum. These are the places where charter schools, the ultimate in New York for “yes, sir” and uniforms and long days and consequences and test prep til they puke, where charter schools are considered a good choice. The comprehensive, larger elementary and middle schools get dumped on.
In high school effective “school choice,” after the massive mini-school-ization, is between the Academy for Medicine, Animation and Pataphysical Science on the one hand and the High School of the Shiny Object on the other, and it turns out that they both teach the exact same test prep and give away diplomas with the exact same credit recovery.
Personnel are different, too. New York City Teaching Fellows get jobs in the third group of schools. Most wash out. Those who stay, some try to move to the other parts of the system, some stick. Teach for America temporary teachers only teach in the third group, and usually for just two years. They are totally absent from the other parts of the system.
And of course NY-style Charters are only established in the neighborhoods with the third group of schools.
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Now, it’s the one best system. Is it? Could it be? Is one part worth copying?
Ok, maybe. But let’s be careful with what we copy. School Choice in Manhattan produced so many nice options. School choice in the Bronx has been an excuse not to fix anything.
So forget the form. If we start thinking about what parts of the curriculum (not standards) can be exported from Staten Island or Manhattan, what parts of the socialization can be made common, then we might be back on track.