Sunday, December 27, 2015

Stop Trying to "Fix Schools" & Just "Fix a School"

The education reform movement, which has become surprisingly pervasive and powerful in the past fifteen years, is founded on the mistaken notion that American public schools are "in crisis" and American education is "failing." This faulty narrative has opened the door to countless education reform initiatives that are often developed and promoted by corporate business entities and wealthy "edu-philanthropists" who think their business success enables and entitles them to impose their ideas on communities in the interest of "fixing schools."

This week in a piece for the Denver Post, I've taken on the naive approach of corporate and business education reformers and offered them advice on how they should "Stop Trying to Fix Schools, and Just Fix a School." My basic argument is centered on a neighborhood - rather than systemic or national - approach where reformers can address the basic needs and gaps in student achievement at the source - where students live.

Here's the full text:

Stop Trying to “Fix Schools” and just “Fix a School”

It’s been 32 years since an Education Department report declared America “A Nation at Risk.” It’s been 15 years since Microsoft billionaire Bill Gates began his education philanthropy, na├»vely believing his wealth and business acumen could solve the country’s supposed “education crisis.” It’s been 14 years since No Child Left Behind promised all students would achieve at grade level by 2014. It’s been seven years since the launch of the Common Core initiative to standardize education. It’s been five years since Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg gave $100 million to “fix schools” in Newark, NJ and turn that poverty-plagued system into a national model of education.

In all that time academic achievement has remained roughly the same, with national tests like NAEP and ACT indicating a relatively stable, or stagnant, state of education. Education laws and reformers like Gates and Zuckerberg have had little success in changing neighborhood dynamics that inhibit school achievement. Their shortcomings are reflected in the recent re-write of NCLB, Gates backing away from ideas like his “small schools” initiative, and Zuckerberg’s Newark experiment exposed as a colossal waste of money documented in Dale Russakoff’s The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools? Clearly, none of the actions of edu-reformers have been able to change the fundamental societal problems of poverty at the root of low achievement. And, there’s one simple conclusion. The education reform movement led by billionaire philanthropists would be far more effective and much less controversial if it focused on fixing “a school” and not on “fixing schools.”

Despite new standards, new tests, new laws, new accountability systems, and new ideas, academic results in poor neighborhoods remain, well, poor. And these results are no surprise to anyone. Recent news of continuing struggles in Aurora Public Schools and the apparent re-segregation of many Denver-area schools indicate specific socioeconomic and geographic challenges that require a “neighborhood focus.” Such an approach requires directly supporting struggling students with school supplies, tutoring, after-school programs, parenting classes, health care, food, and more. That’s the focus of an intervention program in northwest Denver called Blocks of Hope, where school and community leaders plan to attack the issues of poverty and struggling schools “one neighborhood at a time.” Poverty intervention and whole child/whole family support for education is modeled on Geoffrey Canada’s Harlem Children’s Zone. A similar approach has shown dramatic results at Camden Street Elementary School in Newark, New Jersey where principal Sam Garrison teamed with a wealthy business owner to improve the school through community building programs. Clearly, Mark Zuckerberg could have had more success in Newark if he followed the Garrison model and used his $100 million to directly support struggling schools.

Despite claims by reformers like Bill Gates and College Board president David Coleman, the establishment of common standards and yearly standardized tests have not improved education. The root causes of education failure often reside outside the school environment, and these are too often ignored by reformers. Non-school factors are the primary drivers of low achievement, and there is little doubt where these needs are greatest. There is no crisis in public education, but there are many crises in individual communities. Thus, declaring a crisis in "education" and instituting state and national programs is not helpful because it aims at too big of a target. There is no reason to declare a crisis in the thousands of successful schools. Education is not "in crisis," but 30% of schools and neighborhoods are. We already know which schools and students struggle. Thus, reformers and educators and media and legislators must focus directly on them.

Now that NCLB has been replaced by the Every Student Succeeds Act, and the federal government has returned education reform to local control, perhaps it is time for all those interested in “fixing schools” to act locally and simply fix a school. That requires looking beyond the charter school model. While charter schools are touted as a solution, they have not helped struggling communities, and they do nothing to improve neighborhood schools. Often charters simply weaken neighborhoods and increase segregation by leaving behind many children who cannot access schools outside their neighborhood. The charter school movement should only be considered successful if it succeeds at “motivating students” and not just when it educates “motivated students.” Programs like Blocks of Hope will address problems directly where they exist. Thus, true change will come when education reformers, including the billionaire philanthropists who have promoted a variety of wasteful and unnecessary initiatives, commit to supporting those students who need it most where they need it most. And that’s where they live.

Michael P. Mazenko works at Cherry Creek High School and blogs at A Teacher’s View. Follow him @mmazenko


Unknown said...

Really appreciated this article in the Sunday Post. "There is no crisis in public education, but there are many crises in individual communities"--very succinct and important for the public to understand. I hope you submit this piece to the NY Times or Washington Post so that it reaches national decision makers and the media workers who unwittingly or not continue to breed the false eternal "crisis" in education.

mmazenko said...

Thanks so much, Lee.

So far, the piece is getting a lot of play on social media. Hopefully, it leads to some positive discussion among the big players.

Kagey said...

I read the piece in the Post as well. I'm reminded of Tolstoy's assertion that happy families are all the same but unhappy ones are each unhappy in different ways. Maybe schools are similar? Functional schools all have the same good things going on, but dysfunctional schools each have a different day of problems, requiring a unique solution for each?

mmazenko said...

Thanks for the insight. Love that Tolstoy connection.