Tuesday, May 09, 2006

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.


At May 10, 2006 5:57 AM, Anonymous Barry G. said...

Me again.

I think what you wrote should be your paper, albeit in slightly different form.

But that's not what I meant to write about.

You state: "People argue that tests don't assess "creativity," "critical thinking," "passion," etc. But these things are essentially un-measurable."

I hear this all the time with respect to math. I hear lip service from the propagators of fuzzy math about Singapore's math program (Singapore scoresd No. 1 on TIMMS of about 40 countries in math and science for the last decade). They say "Oh, Singapore's program is good, but they don't have the creative problems that we give our kids in the US". When I ask for an example of the creative problems they feel are lacking, I get no response. But what they mean are open-ended, ill-posed problems, or problems for which students have not been given enough education regarding the underlying skills and concepts in order to solve them. The latter is supposed to foster "discovery" of what they need to know, and help the student construct from his/her innate knowledge rather than to be fed "pre-discovered mere facts".

Well, the tests states are devising are now designed to measure such crap. Rather than prep kids into techniques that will lead them to algebra, they are schooled in the methods of "guess and check", in which they try different numbers until they come up with a solution that works. On "constructed response" questions (those that require a written answer--i.e., they must show their work and justify their answer), students who actually know enough about algebra (or techniques that Singapore uses prior to algebra)to solve the problem without resorting to guess work are penalized. The rubric for scoring such problems requires that students must make at least 3 guesses to show they have mastered the "concept and skill" known as "guess and check".

I say again, students are being done a grave social injustice. And as usual, students from middle class backgrounds whose families can afford tutoring, or Sylvan, or Huntington, or private schools, do better than those students whose families cannot afford such services, and who actually believe the schools have the best in mind for their kids.

At May 10, 2006 7:08 AM, Blogger TMAO said...

In your analysis of the school programs you have isolated as successful you must also include this critical component: The unparalleled, unreplicatable, unreported, unmonitored ability to expel students on the large scale.

At May 10, 2006 7:12 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

This is the best post I have ever read on any blog. It is shocking to me how many "well-meaning" people don't get this.

At May 10, 2006 11:00 AM, Blogger Instructivist said...

Your definition of "social justice" makes eminent sense, but that is not what its vociferous proponents have in mind. "Social justice" is a highly ideological code phrase for socialism/communism since the latter are now unutterable.

Also see here: http://discoverthenetwork.org/viewGroups.asp?catId=12

At May 10, 2006 5:02 PM, Blogger Engineer-Poet said...

"The anger heaped upon the social justice project is disproportionate because it represents the anger I feel all the time, with everything."

I think "social justice" is symptomatic of the problem you correctly diagnose:  you want to fix the problem by giving each student a real education to develop their abilities (individual justice), whereas "social justice" is a euphemism for giving money and power to those deemed most Politically Correct and thus able to exercise power on behalf of those deemed disadvantaged.  Can't have a power structure to work for the disadvantaged if there are no disadvantaged, can you?

At May 10, 2006 7:03 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Liz here from I Speak of Dreams. Really great post. TMAO and I have agreed to disagree on the subject of KIPP. His school has accomplished wonderful things, without expelling (separating, nonre-enrollment etc.) as many kids as some of the programs you mention.

But I'm suspecting it's a false dilemma. Can we have demanding schools that don't wash out kids (especially in the K-5 range) for behavioral reasons? I don't have an answer, it is only a question.

At May 10, 2006 8:51 PM, Anonymous Lori Jablonski said...

To answer Liz, of course we can.

What can we learn from KIPP? That achieving real results is possible but it is also enormously hard work, even when the school has the ability to expel (or never serve to begin with) the most difficult to reach kids. That it takes money, which accounts for all the corporate fundraising. That it requires parental involvement, which is why KIPP makes the parents sign homework and discipline agreements. That it requires dedication from talented teachers, something so important that KIPP insists theirs be on call 24/7 (whenever I read about this I can’t help but think of the schoolmarms of old, required to keep curfew, stay single and pledge their chastity).

To ramp up initiatives on the scale needed to bring real change will take...are you ready?...a renewed commitment to public—truly public— education on a massive scale. It cannot be based on corporate charitable giving, burning through eager young teachers, and hit or miss choice options. To make longer school days (maybe even Saturday sessions) feasible and effective on a sustainable level across the land we may need to consider double shifts, additional trained support staff and social service providers in the school building to immediately aid the children with serious social and behavioral issues and those with ghastly home lives. We will need to be ready with alternatives and interventions in the event that parents refuse to help or, for a variety of reasons, are not prepared to help in the manner KIPP-like programs require. And yes we need more and better-prepared teachers and we need to figure out how to keep them once we’ve invested in training them.

I’ve written before of the three young men who entered my classroom last November, refugees (asked to leave, expelled…I don’t really care what you want to call it) from the Oprah-featured charter school down the road. They arrived without records and needing to pass the high school exit exam. One of our administrators believes we have taken in at least 85 students in a similar manner. In 16 days two will graduate having successfully met our requirements, while also attending night school to make up classes we believe they missed when attending their charter high.

KIPP and the others named here boutique programs. Boutiques aren’t bad, but they only serve a relatively few. Boutique schools so dependent on corporate giving may be tempting, but they are hardly democratic public institutions. I worry that with so many reformers refusing to acknowledge the nature of their remedy, we are only exacerbating the gross inequities for those left out. We can and must do better.

At May 11, 2006 8:18 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just to jump in on the tail end and address a few of Lori's concerns... One of KIPP's mottos is "No Excuses". Which means for the kids, as well as ourselves. KIPP adheres to the same principles as regular public schools, to take away all excuses for why low-income minority kids can't achieve at the same level as all other kids. KIPP schools operate in public spaces, with the same class sizes as the city, and they spend LESS money per pupil than the city does. You talk about corporate giving: the reason KIPP has to solicit private funds? Because there is a funding gap; charter schools receive less money per pupil from the city than what regular public schools receive, so they have to fundraise to make up the difference. There is no selectivity in the admission process; there is a blind lottery, with no regard for a student's past academic and behavioral records. Now, I would agree that perhaps KIPP as a model is not the best fit for every single child. It would be a disservice if every single school in the country looked like KIPP. But its basic principles of excellent teachers, high expectations, and hard work should be in every public school in the country, and they're not. Until we reach the tipping point where school systems are taking notice of what works and effecting large-scale change (which is the whole point of education reform, after all)- and it has begun- I will always support local change and growth of these schools outside the system.

At May 11, 2006 9:33 AM, Blogger TMAO said...

Annonymous wrote:

"KIPP schools operate in public spaces, with the same class sizes as the city"

Nope. There is a KIPP school on my campus. They are allocated 8 classrooms for 140 students. My public school is allocated 22 for 550 students. Do the math.

"and they spend LESS money per pupil than the city does"

Wrong again. They receive less than a public school in federal funds but more than compensate in corporate endowments. Look at kippschools.org for discussions of the $14 million GAP endowment, or talk to ANYONE who works in those schools for further evidence.

"There is no selectivity in the admission process"

Sure there is. Preferences are given to families. Yes, there are lotteries, but not initially. Initially, the schools go door-to-door to recruit, telling kids they need to be A students to attend. Build up a foundation of strong families, with uber involved parents and kids with past records of success, grandfather in siblings, and you're good to go.

Additionally, they can expel, non-retain, counsel-out at will, which functions as a form of selectivity.

"But its basic principles of excellent teachers, high expectations, and hard work should be in every public school in the country"

You're absolutely right. Let's talk about that and get past the P.R. fallacies and outright lies that dog all discussion of charter and public schools. We cannot move forward until we all spit the Kool-Aid back into the bathtub.

At May 11, 2006 10:56 AM, Anonymous Eric M. Kendall said...

I agree very much with the comment from "Instructivist" and "engineer-poet" above. "Social Justice" is all about the "leveling impulse" of egalitarianism or, perhaps more tellingly--"distributive justice." It's all about equality defined not in terms of opportunity, but in terms of outcome defined in a very materialistic sense.

At May 11, 2006 3:41 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi, Anonymous here again (i.e., Kool-Aid Drinker). I will be the first to admit when I'm wrong. Apologies (and thanks) to tmao for comments. I was mistaken about KIPP schools, as I am only familiar with KIPP Academy in New York City. You're right, not all of them operate under the mandate of "no excuses" in public education- and they should. KIPP Academy does operate in public space, with the same class size as the city, and does spend less per pupil than the city. It is a union school that offers city benefits to its teachers. The same is not true of all KIPP schools. In the same vein of admitting mistakes, I would like to point out that the Gap endowment in question does not fund the KIPP schools; it is used for the recruitment and training of its leaders, and it does not supplement public dollars that educate kids. You're right, we should be focused on how to improve public school education for all children. I hesitated in responding to tmao's comment because that's what the debate should be about, not about getting caught up in PR fallacies and outright lies, but I did want to correct my (and tmao's) misinformation. There is no magic bullet. But there are schools out there (charter and non) that are working for our kids. We know why- it's not rocket science- and we need to implement successful strategies now.

At May 11, 2006 4:11 PM, Blogger PrajK said...

Excellent Post. But I think there are some subtle problems with your argument:

1) It isn't clear that the goals of education should be to to have all students achieve at "high levels" as you defined them. Should all schools actively try to prepare people to run for public office? If so, why?

Rather, secondary school education should ensure a minimum level of achievement that all students should reach: literacy, numeracy and a basic understanding of American history and the duties of citizenship. The most depressing aspect of our current educational system is that students who fail can barely read, much less compete for "elite" jobs.

2) KIPP and the other schools you mention are amazing and do manage to get their students achieving at "high levels." But instead of focusing on the precise management practices of these schools, we should initiate district-wide changes that would allow schools like KIPP to exist. Right now it is almost impossible to create a charter school--whether it is run like KIPP or not. Put Learning First by Paul T. Hill describes this type of school system:

3) Ironically enough, it was Noam Chomsky who once said that:
"Political thought, especially on the left, is a sort of masturbation fantasy where the world of fact hardly matters."

I suspect that many profs of education care more about advocating policies that make themselves feel good, not the poor children who most need their help.

Again, great post. I really like your blog. Keep up the good work!

At May 29, 2006 9:29 PM, Anonymous Quincy said...

The one thing you need to realize is that "social justice" is about anything but justice. It's about creating a society in which the creation and distribution of wealth is morally acceptable to the advocates of social justice. It's about control. It's about making people into what they "should" be, not what they want to be. It's not about fairness, and it's certainly not about respect for the individual, which are the core tenets of real, individual justice.

Worse, the very concept of social justice is rooted in the idea of luck. Those who have were lucky, or in our parlance, fortunate, so it is their duty to help the less fortunate (less lucky). This is the ABSOLUTE WORST message to communicate to kids who are poor in bad neighborhoods. They need to learn that bad circumstances can (and should) be overcome, and are not an absolute barrier to a better life.

Worse still, social justice teaches students that to get more wealth, they have to take from others. The truth is that while the rich have gotten richer in this country, so have the poor. They have TVs and can buy so much food that obesity is more of a problem for the poor than malnutrition. Seriously.

When you leave this so-called school of education, forget everything it has taught you about justice, social and otherwise. Start with the core of being a good teacher, treat each of your students with respect and dignity. Treat them as individuals, and realize that you're arming them to go out into a world made unjust by many people, including the adovcates of social justice.

At May 30, 2006 7:27 PM, Blogger David said...

"We want to change the way our society works so that everyone can have the opportunity to create the lives they want"...one of the main things keeping people from having "the opportunity to create the lives they want" is specifically the grotesque failure of the public school system. Yet the ed schools, which are kind of the General Staff of that system, choose to spend the time of their students on scrapbook-making and on political/philosophical/economic issues totally outside their purview, rather than seriously attempting to do their job.

If schools of structural and aeronautical engineering conducted themselves in such an irresponsible fashion, we would read daily about bridge collapses and major airline crashes. The malfeasance of the ed schools has equally severe consequences; they just aren't as dramatically visible.

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