apologies to the social justice project for misdirected anger
Seems I hit a bit of a nerve on some people with the last entry. I understand some of the complaints--what's wrong with a little social justice here and there? etc. It's not that this assignment, standing alone, is so onerous. But it is part of a program that has consistently emphasized ideology, a particular and unbending view of urban education (that has, over the last 30 years, utterly failed, if we take the current situation as an assessment) and vague terms like "social justice" over concrete realities.
Social justice, at its root, is about change. We want to change the way our society works so that everyone can have the opportunity to create the lives they want. But if social justice succeeds only if change occurs, then we have to measure that change. We have to know if we have accomplished what we set out to do. If we don't measure, or even attempt to measure, all we are doing is patting ourselves on the back and convincing ourselves, without evidence, that we have done something good. Something good means change. Change must be measured.
So. What would be measurable social justice in reference to education? The ability for all students, regardless of income or race, to achieve at high levels. What is a "high level"? To me it is the ability to compete economically, socially, and politically with kids from suburban and private schools who have been drilled and tutored their entire lives. "Competing" means a) the ability to obtain a job with middle class, family-supporting wages, b) the ability to enter into and graduate from (there is an enormous difference between the two) 4 year academic institutions, c) the ability to obtain elite professional jobs reserved for only the most highly educated, d) the ability to run for, and win, public office. I am making no judgment as to whether anybody should or should not hold a,b,c, or d as goals. But withholding opportunity for others based on my own personal life preferences is morally reprehensible. I had all these opportunities. I chose not to take some of them. But I had a choice. Many kids don't, and that is unjust.
So now we have some social justice goals to work toward. Now we need to figure out how to achieve them. We could just sit around and think about it, and perhaps come up with one or two good ideas. But a much more efficient method would be to go out and see who is already achieving the goals we set out for ourselves. If we observe many different schools in many different places that are helping their kids obtain skill levels to accomplish a,b,c, and d, then we can analyze what each of these places has in common.
The tricky part is working backward from a,b,c, and d--we need to figure out what these goals look like in grade school, middle school, and high school. Let's focus on middle school for a second. We will use math and literacy test scores. This is a controversial move, but let's think through it. We have suburban kids being able to achieve certain levels on literacy and math tests. They are the ones who, currently, end up having the choices a,b,c, and d because of the special privileges life has afforded them. So if we have urban schools whose students achieve parity with, or outperform, these students on academic measures, then we have at least a rough indicator that a school is doing something right. Tests may not be the be-all and end-all of educational achievement, but let's face it: our kids should not be failing these tests. They are ridiculously, sadly easy. And they aren't some kind of tests from space with symbols no one recognizes. Math tests assess the ability to do math, reading tests assess the ability to read.
So, IF we can agree that tests show SOMETHING about how a school's children are being educated, THEN we can find the urban schools that are succeeding. It's an imperfect measure, but what else do we have? People argue that tests don't assess "creativity," "critical thinking," "passion," etc. But these things are essentially un-measurable. We can hide behind them, and say they are the only things that matter, but then we are back to the problem we started with: if we aren't willing to measure change, then we will never know if we have achieved social justice. And ignorance is the same as failure. Or we can accept these tests as imperfect but revealing.
Maybe I have lost some of you with the testing. If you can explain to me a better way to measure how students are doing on a large scale (social justice is nothing if not large scale), then please do so.
So now, the urban school systems that are succeeding at social justice as we have defined it here: KIPP, Achievement First, Yes Prep, Uncommon Schools. Individual schools: Roxbury Prep, North Star Academy, Amistad Academy, MATCH School, Excellence Charter School of Bedford-Stuyvesant, Academy of the Pacific Rim, Bronx Prep, Boston Collegiate, and on and on. I encourage you to look up any and all information you can on these schools. Look at their scores, look at their student populations, look at their gains, look at how many of their kids are going to college. It's astounding.
What do all these schools have in common? Dreaded things. Traditional curricula, long school days, long school years, excellent teachers on call 24/7, administrators dedicated, obsessed with, student achievement, discipline, uniforms, insistence upon doing homework, insistence on parental involvement, rewards, character development. No bullshit. Hard work. Year after year. KIPP Academy has been the top-scoring middle school in math and reading for 11 years. It just works.
These schools focus on academics, whole-heartedly. They give their students perspectives, but first and foremost they expect students to work their hearts out and learn and learn. It's brutal sometimes, but these schools are communities, the kids love them. They help one another, they participate, they want to do well, they have community meetings where they sing and dance and cheer. Go visit one of these schools sometime. It makes you cry.
The teachers in these schools are experienced. They are the best and the brightest. They come from often disastrous public school environments where they had to figure everything out on their own. My question is: why can't ed schools learn from these schools? Why can't they take what those teachers have learned (and what has been proven to work) and show it to us? Why do we have to do social justice projects when nobody cares about how effective we are at teaching children what they need to know???? I swear, literacy should be the first item on any list devoted to social justice, and yet it is like a ghost in the hallways at ed school.
I complain and whine because I am angry. I am angry because I want to be like the teachers in these schools, but no one at my school will tell me how. They are against charter schools, against long school days, against traditional education. Even when they know these things work. One of my instructors told me that KIPP was bad because it "makes kids go to school too much." But what if that's just what it takes to achieve true social justice? How can you be so hypocritical?
The anger heaped upon the social justice project is disproportionate because it represents the anger I feel all the time, with everything. With wanting to learn how to make a difference and being shot down at every turn. With caring about urban kids and being told that I really actually don't. With seeing students thrive and being told I am seeing wrong. I'm sorry this was so long. It's been exhausting to write and I should have left it for another time. I have to go to sleep; I have another day of mucking through my own mistakes, trying desperately, and failing, to be good.