Monthly Archives: January 2010

STAMPEDE TO THE TOP: A RACE TO RUIN

Several things happened this week that gave me pause:

First I saw on CNN the story about a little fourth grader in Texas who hung himself in the school restroom.  The child psychologists all attributed his death to depression and the economy and the pressure he likely felt as he made his way through school.  But he was nine.  And while depression may be on the rise (like obesity and diabetes and other childhood illnesses) it hardly explains such an extreme response.

I wondered…  what was it about his school that added to his hopelessness?  Or what could have been different for him?  Were his talents and interests nurtured?  Or had he been reduced to a test score and a proficiency level?

Then I started my class at USD on Tuesday.  I am teaching a course on Education Reform.  In an attempt to introduce the students to El Milagro, I shared an I-Photo slide show of our kids over the years.  It captured the spirit of children dancing and singing and celebrating.  Talented.  Diverse.  Exultant.  But there were no pictures from this school year.

So I wondered… what kind of climate have we created for the children of El Milagro lately?  Is it a refuge from the stress of their struggling families? Or have we pushed ourselves too far out on that assessment ledge… and in the name of someone else’s definition of accountability… hung our toes over the brink?

Then I listened to President Obama talk about his vision of education in the State of the Union.  In it he said:

“This year, we have broken through the stalemate between left and right by launching a national competition to improve our schools. The idea here is simple: instead of rewarding failure, we only reward success. Instead of funding the status quo, we only invest in reform – reform that raises student achievement, inspires students to excel in math and science, and turns around failing schools that steal the future of too many young Americans, from rural communities to inner-cities.”

I wondered… isn’t that a frighteningly narrow definition of “school success?”

So then I started reading Yong Zhao’s book entitled  “Catching Up or Leading the Way where he states that China is going the opposite direction as the US right now.  That they value outputs and student achievement for sure, but they value the inputs too.  Zhao urges American educators (of which he is one) to rethink the preoccupation with testing and national standards:

“America is at a crossroads. We have two choices.  We can destroy our strengths in order to catch up with others on test scores, or we can build on our strengths and remain a leader in innovation and creativity.  The current push for more standardization, centralization, high-stakes testing, and test-based accountability is rushing us down the first path.  What will truly keep America strong and Americans prosperous is the other path because it cherishes individual talents, cultivates creativity, celebrates diversity, and inspires curiosity.”

I wondered…What are we doing for our children?  Are we handing them musical instruments to play their hearts out on, inviting them to dance, coaching their teams, encouraging community service, investing in their health, encouraging them to think, inspiring them to invent and innovate, handing them a camera to capture their youthful energy in photographs?  Or are we drilling them on test taking skills?

The Race to the Top may actually be a stampede over the edge of the cliff.

I wondered… what have we learned from that tragedy in Texas?

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Filed under El Milagro, gifted children, innovation and change, President Obama, public education, school reform

ON THE ONE YEAR ANNIVERSARY OF PRESIDENT OBAMA’S OATH

One year ago this morning.  Hope.

Today, I am not so sure.  But I haven’t given up yet.  I am still astride the bandwagon.  I have seen signs of the change that history promised.  Then I realize, change is in the eye of the beholder:

I had hoped for an end to war.

I had hoped for an end to Wall Street’s hammer-hold on our nation’s leaders.

I had hoped for jobs and for the arrest of the economy’s free-fall.

I had hoped for clean air again.

I had hoped for harmony; an end to partisan bickering.

I had hoped for health care for our children.

I had hoped for a better plan than this blind obedience to endless testing in our schools.

I had hoped for miracles.  Hundreds of them.  Each laid out– day by day by day.

So much has happened in one year it is easy to forget the spirit of pure joy I felt on Inauguration Day.  There was the return to Afghanistan and Professor Gates and the Rick Warren thing and Gitmo and Coppenhagen and bail outs and declining polls and double-digit unemployment and stalled health care plans and tea party whackos, and Arne’s Race to the Top of God knows what. And Haiti. And CNN’s incessant commentary.  Most of it unfavorable.

I’m wondering… if it has taken me twenty years to learn how to be a decent principal, how long does it take to learn to be the president?

I’m wondering… What really does happen to a dream deferred?

I’m wondering… what can I DO?  As I wait for America’s resurrection.  Besides just hope.

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ZERO IN-TOLERANCE

The airport security line at San Diego’s Lindbergh Field was as long as I have ever seen it yesterday.  It stretched from the central hallway of Terminal One, past the baggage claim area, up the escalator, across the footbridge to the southeast parking and halfway down I-5 to National City.

Well maybe not that far.

But it was the expected overreaction to one Nigerian douchebag who tried to launch a rocket from his briefs to bring down the very airplane he was sitting on, and instead lit himself up like a silvery flare. Overreaction is a political calculation designed to confuse systemic bravado with actual security.  It’s what we do. And so we stand in line.

It is the same mindset that has fueled the sweeping logic of “zero tolerance” in public schools all across America.  After a series of tragic assaults from Santana to Columbine, administrators and legislators decided to actively pursue a policy of zero tolerance for weapons or violence– or even just persistently obnoxious behavior.  So kids that brought a loaded “glock” to school got themselves expelled.  As did kids who brought unloaded guns.  Or long knives.  Or swiss army knives. Or butter knives for their box lunch.  Or the nail file that their mom had given them.  And pretty soon zero tolerance reached to laser pointers and paint brushes and swizzle sticks.

There is no doubt that the first job of educators is to keep children safe, but zero tolerance polices have become so draconian, that the number of suspensions and expulsions have skyrocketed in virtually every urban center of America.  (An article in District Administration: The Magazine of School District Management states that while current Secretary of Education Arne Duncan headed the Chicago schools, expulsions ballooned from 32 to 3,000 in the ten years between 1995 and 2005!).  Many of the students who were “zero tolerated” out of the schoolhouse door… never made it back. And this is because such a disproportionate number of zero tolerance suspensions and expulsions  are children of color and kids who lack the resources to solicit proper legal representation.  And since public school students are often treated as if they are protected by a different constitution than the adults who are supposedly protecting them, violations of their due process rights are sometimes not even called into question.  After all, that is zero tolerance.

So what have we accomplished with metal detectors and security guards and armed teachers and district policies void of not only tolerance– but also judgment?  For sure, some juvenile offenders have been caught or found out or at least deterred.  But on the whole, we have made school campuses much less safe.  Instead of safe havens, we have created green zones.  Bunkers.

Just as the “war on terror” is partly a war on terror and partly a war against individual freedoms, enforcing zero tolerance has too often violated students’ individual rights in the name of campus security.  The consequence of which is mistrust and oppositional behavior.  And sometimes more violence.

Jim Freeman, the project director of the “Stop the Schoolhouse to Jailhouse Track Project in Washington, D.C., works with urban districts to change these kinds of codes and policies. The stated mission of Freeman’s organization is:

“To end the use of school policies that push young people out of school and into the juvenile and criminal justice systems. Through research and analysis of school discipline data and policies, communication strategies, and policy advocacy, we are eliminating the needless exclusion of young people from their schools through the use of suspensions, expulsions, and arrests.”

Freeman cites a landmark study in 2006 by the American Psychological Association that alerted districts that the zero tolerance logic was flawed.

“While the standard claim was that zero-tolerance policies would improve school safety, the schools were no safer than before zero tolerance.  What the report showed was that zero-tolerance policies turned schools into inhospitable environments that didn’t promote school safety.”

recent article by Ron Schachter suggests that a degree of both compassion and discretion have returned.  There are alternatives to suspension and expulsion.  There are better ways to pre-empt student behaviors that could lead to more serious consequences. Those alternatives are having huge positive effects in major urban districts including LA Unified and Denver Public Schools: decreasing office referrals, suspensions, expulsions, and arrests, while increasing academic achievement.

More and more districts are recognizing that their zero tolerance policies do not connect kids to their school.  If instead, children are provided opportunities to reflect on their mistakes, to “right their wrongs”, and to insure their classmates and teachers that they can be trusted…  tremendous growth is possible.  Offenders give back.  Restorative Justice.

Think about that as you wait in line for TSA to complete their full body scan on your next flight to Sacramento.

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Filed under gun violence, public education, Uncategorized, zero tolerance policies