Monday, April 24, 2006

Lessons Learned

The school system in New York City, both public and parochial, has been in a state of flux for at least twenty years or more. I'm one of a few thousand NYC high school grads with a diploma signed by Anthony Alvarado, who in the mid-1980's was touted as the savior of the troubled, underperforming school system. He left after charges of misconduct. After Alvarado, came Ramon Cortines, and Rudy Crew, both highly regarded school reformists. They would be the last chancellors with true educational backgrounds. With the election of New York's first Republican mayor in many years, came the bright idea that schools should be run like businesses. A poorly performing division within a company would be shut down. A well performing division would be rewarded. Joel Klein, a lawyer with no experience in education save for a 4-month gig teaching elementary school math in 1969, was put at the helm of the New York public school system, a volatile organism of a million students, 83,000 teachers, and a $15 billion budget.

Yes, test scores did improve under his watch, but what do tests prove other than you know enough information to pick correctly from several choices? New York City still receives fewer education dollars per student than its upstate neighbors (thanks George!), which means underperforming school continue to lag behind because of insufficient support. Public school teachers are still paid less than private school teachers, and suburban teachers, which means the best teachers are fleeing the cities. And, underperforming schools are closing, including Wingate High School, the subject of a AP News story.

I'm not suggesting that schools like Wingate, even with a stellar list of alumnae like Jackie Robinson and California Senator Barbara Boxer, or a school like Erasmus Hall, whose equally stellar alumnae include Barbra Streisand, should remain open for sentimental reasons. I believe they should stay open, get some real money, put out the kids who express no interest in learning because they'd prefer jail over a job, and put in better (or hell, more) books, computers, and teachers to help those kids who do want to learn. Underperforming schools are found in largely Black and Latino, immigrant-heavy neighborhoods, and they are often the only available school to these kids. What message is being sent to kids in crappy neighborhoods when their one great chance at succeeding and improving their station is taken from them? Is it really fair to give more and more to those schools that are doing well? Will we not perpetuate a "culture of failure," as Klein has shared, by not doing all that we could to help these schools? What will really happen to the kids displaced by school closings?

I've shared in the past my reticence toward homeschooling because I fear it is isolating and may create a nation of kids who then grow up to create insular communities, and my lack of trust in the school voucher system because it says that public school don't matter. Not that school vouchers would help some of these displaced kids get into parochial school as many city Catholic schools, often seen as a superior alternative to crowded, unsafe, poorly-taught classes. Again, most schools slated for closure are in urban areas, heavily Black and Latino, heavily immigrant. The privatization, the corporatization of everything social is creating a sharp divide between the classes, and that is bound to implode.

So, what are we learning and what are we teaching our kids?

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