kitchen table math, the sequel: failing school reforms

Tuesday, January 23, 2007

failing school reforms

I just finished reading Katherine Boo's article, "Expectations" from the Jan. 15, 2007 issue of The New Yorker." It's worth reading the entire article. The main theme of the article is an attempt to follow the path of a failing Denver school, Manual High School. It follow two main threads -- the new Superintendent of the Denver Schools, Michael Bennet, and two of the students -- Julissa and Norberto. You get a sense from the article the enormous task of trying to improve the education kids get in the inner city.

Near the beginning, we get this telling passage,
"Last year, Manual High was one of the worst schools in Colorado. Nine out of ten students failed the state writing test; ninety-seven of a hundred failed the math test; one in five freshmen graduated. This wretched showing belied the fact that, for a decade, Manual High had been the object of aggressive and thoughtful reforms. The most recent was a million-dollar intervention by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, begun in 2001, which turned each of Manual's three floors into an intimate mini-school, with its own principal. In these environments, some students had a sense, for the first time, that their teachers knew and cared for them. But in many classrooms the mutual affection came at the expense of academic rigor. Discipline was weak, gang ties intensified, and in five years a student body of eleven hundred shrank by nearly half. The academic performance of the vestigial students --"the dregs," as one counsellor put it -- barely changed."

So far so good. Next we learn about the newest in the long line of reformers, Michael Bennet. A middle-aged white guy with no education experience -- a former lawyer and corporate turnaround expert. Bennet is made superintendent when a friend becomes Denver's mayor. He takes over in July 2005 knowing next to nothing about public education or underprivileged students. Probably for the best or he might not have taken the job.

There are 150 schools in Denver. The first thing Bennet does is raise graduation standards. Teachers and principals object - they fear higher standards will cause even more kids to drop out. Bennet visits Manual High and concludes the place is a disaster. Within a couple months, he announces that Manual High will be closed at the end of the school year.

Protests erupt. You might wonder why students would want to continue to attend this lousy school. But they do. Enter Julissa and Norberto. Norberto has spent a couple months in jail for dealing drugs. When his gang doesn't visit, he decides to quit the gang. But now he's balancing school with drywalling with his father. Julissa has no father, her older pregnant sister is the valedictorian at Manual. Julissa writes poetry to Bennet, "You might as well put us in jail because your plan sets us all up to fail."

Norberto is good at math, it seems, especially the kind of math needed for dealing drugs,
"how you divide and price the ounce, given your profit-over-cost calculations" (real world applications, anyone?), but he's pretty much failing everything else.

Bennet goes into the community to advocate for his changes,
"Think about it," he said. "What other public institution would we let sink to this level? If the Mayor says, 'I'm going to pave one hundred and fifty alleys,' then comes back the next year and says, 'Well, I spent all the money and only got to two, I'll get to it next year,' we'd go crazy. But when we spend three quarters of a million dollars in a school ostensibly teaching a subject, and only two kids in that school learn anything, we think that's normal. And I think that's because we've allowed ourselves to confuse the sytem's lack of quality with the kind of kids who are in our district."
Bennet appears to be trying to do everything at once, feed the kids, keep class size down, hire good teachers, improve the curriculum, keep the kids in the school . . . . He pushes for teacher merit pay; he adopts KIPP type policies; and performance begins to creep up.

But our friends at Manual need to find a new school. Bennet regrets his hasty decision that alienates the community and learns to work with parents. Still, there is a huge looming disaster -- what if a big chunk of Manual students drop out? People are accusing Bennet of being racist. He decides that Manual will be redesigned and reopened a year in the future, with community input, but that isn't going to help the current class. Bennet "grasps" some contradictions, "one way to avoid charges of racism was to continue to neglect bad schools for minority children."

The Superintendent, with his aides (and Julissa, who has been hired over the summer as a student leader) go door-to-door, like a political canvas, to try to get kids to stay in school.
"Out of panic, and of motivations that involved personal vanity as well as social justice, a safety net was being strung under a school system's hardest cases -- one involving parents, mentors, fast-food restaurant managers, United Airlines executives and city-council members who knocked on doors, an engrossed media, nonprofit organizations, and student leaders like Julissa."
OK, this has gone on long enough. You get the idea. The article lays out a plan that looks like it might work in some of the worst schools in the country.

Bennet is painted as putting in a superhuman effort. I can't see Hartford's superintendent slogging through the streets in a door to door canvas of the worst students in the worst school. If that's what it takes, I'm depressed, because we haven't got that kind of commitment around here. I mean, its encouraging what's going on in Denver, but . . .



Doug Sundseth said...

"Still, there is a huge looming disaster -- what if a big chunk of Manual students drop out?"

For accuracy, you'd need to add "another" between "what if" and "a big chunk". Manual is a rathole.

Even by comparison with a school like Denver East (also located in a poor part of the city), it is notable for its terrible education. (See this page for comparison of Colorado schools. Manual can be found in Denver school district as "Arts Manual".)

When a school is this bad, and school choice as easy as it is in Colorado, only the unmotivated will still be in the school. Given this culture, the kindest thing to do is to shut down the school. Only if you force the people to scatter to different schools is there any chance to make a real change. (Even then, I don't have much hope for this group of "students".)

LynnG said...

I agree completely. The counsellors called the remaining students the "dregs." Still there was huge resistance to closing the school and the superintendent was accused of being racist.

It gives one pause. Such a terrible school is almost certainly better off shut, yet it was a struggle to close it. Why? I think that was one of the many questions that the reporter was trying to answer.

It's so incredibly complicated. The remaining students, like Julissa in the article, were on familiar ground. Most of the remaining students did not choose another school. Most chose to drop out. Through an incredible effort, many were convinced to switch to another school. Some of it was image -- If I am failing at the worst school in Denver, how can I hope to pass at a better school? The introspection and self-flagellation of these kids was, is, heartbreaking.