Wednesday, June 22, 2011


So have you ever read something on the web that just riles you up so you slam out a rebuttal comment (or two). But even after you say whatever, this is bs and I'm not thinking about it anymore, you just keep on fuming and posting and fuming?

That's what happened to me yesterday over here. After posting 4 times and really not getting my point across as far as I can tell, I'm resolved not to say anything more. But I'm still fuming, so I think I'll post on my own blog.

Here's the quote that was posted, in case you didn't follow the link above. It's from Diane Ravitch's Book "The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education":

“Do we need neighborhood public schools? I believe we do. The neighborhood school is a place where parents meet to share concerns about their children and the place where they learn the practice of democracy. They create a sense of community among strangers. As we lose neighborhood schools, we lose the one local institution where people congregate and mobilize to solve local problems, where individuals learn to speak up and debate and engage in democratic give-and-take with their neighbors. For more than a century, they have been an essential element of our democratic institutions. We abandon them at our peril.

Business leaders like the idea of turning the schools into a marketplace where the consumer is king. But the problem with the marketplace is that it dissolves communities and replaces them with consumers. Going to school is not the same as going shopping. Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child. They should be able to take their child to the neighborhood public school as a matter of course and expect that it has well-educated teachers and a sound educational program.”

Look, I'm all for stronger neighborhoods and better schools. I think a sense of community with everyone is totally critical to raising kids. And by everyone I mean the kids that are "at risk" with sucky parents as well as the super-smart nerds with overly driven parents. That's one of the issues I have with homeschooling. We might not be in our neighborhood school, but economic and social diversity is real in every City School my kids have gone to. Way more than if we had moved to Timonium to solve our school problems with our zoned school.

But really, what planet is this woman from? She's supposed to be an expert in urban schools and she's thinking about democracy in broken neighborhoods, to say nothing of broken schools? There's no democracy in a place where people are afraid to talk to the police even after they see a kid abused by their parents or shot by a rival gang.

There are some neighborhoods in Baltimore where her prattle rings true (I'm thinking Roland Park and Mt. Washington), but those schools are in fine shape so choice and zoning aren't the issue there. Really, the vast majority of kids in Baltimore need an escape from the same-old-same-old of the established social order of their streets, which just carries on in failing neighborhood schools. Democracy? This stratifying social order is more like bondage as far as I can tell.

But really, there's just one sentence from this quote that I want to scream at, and yell at ,and banish from existence - "Parents should not be burdened with locating a suitable school for their child." Really? Parents shouldn't be burdened by the responsibility their kids force on them? Really? That's the whole big deal about being a parent. All of the sudden you need to become responsible. Do some parents fail? Yes; almost all to some degree and it's tragic, but you are responsible. The state can support you, the schools can help you, your community can pitch in, but kids are a burden (and a joy) that you have to handle. Look into schools, figure out who their friends are, make rules that they hate, go to PTA and teacher conferences. It's what makes you a parent.

I'm shaking my head in disgust. This is the expert that fights to save our schools. Really? Baltimore is making progress and these platitudes make people who have no experience in the reality of City Schools think they know the real answer. Really? Please.


  1. Re: parents not being "burdened" with finding a school. Perhaps that's a poor choice of words. But should it be the parents' responsibility to sift through 100 bad schools to find the one that will be good for their child? Or should it be the school district's responsibility to provide all 100 schools with adequate resources and ensure they are all good schools? I am probably setting up a straw man argument, but that I think was Ms. Ravitch's point. And it is grounded in long-term thinking, not short-term.

    That I believe is the real conflict here: working for long-term or short-term good. In the short term, it is good for parents and students to get out of failing schools and into better schools with greater opportunities and fewer impediments to education. I think few people would dispute that. What Ms. Ravitch is talking about is long-term, the strategy of always-popping-up new charters while neglecting the neighborhood schools is damaging to the communities built in and around those schools, and the new community is not nearly as strong. Sticking with the neighborhood school model is a long-term strategy, where people make sacrifices to their own well-being for the good of society.

    Now this is absolutely an extremely hard choice, and most people would choose the well-being of their children over society. But it is important to recognize the conflicting elements of these two strategies and see that Ms. Ravitch is not totally wrong-headed, just prioritizing the long-term growth of our educational (and democratic) institutions.

    For my perspective: I work at a neighborhood school whose community has been destroyed this year. This is at least partly due to charters and transformation schools taking up students that would have come here, so our enrollment is declining within the last year. I bear them no ill will directly, but I do believe that the system has set up more schools than is necessary to educate all Baltimore's students, so some schools will be destined to lose enrollment and fail. With this change, we have lost several million dollars last year and this coming year, which makes it very difficult to sustain the high quality programs we (I included) have built. Decisions are being made based solely on budget concerns and not on what is best for students. About 50% of our school faculty is gone, which has utterly destroyed the fabric of community that had been built up in the school. And plans are in the works for a new marketing strategy for our school directed by BCPSS once the school has 'turned around', when we not once saw their help with a marketing strategy focused on the great things going on at our school before. Resources are being dumped into the new schools, to get them off their feet (and my school will be like a new school now with the changes going on); resources that are not being given to neighborhood schools.

    What we really need is some way to work for the long-term good of our schools and society without requiring such big sacrifices in the short-term good of our students and their families. Any ideas?

  2. @Nick -
    I totally appreciate your viewpoint from the reality of a City School that probably lines up within the norm of Baltimore as a whole, racially, economically and socially. The bone I was picking was with people who think that a solution that's workable in a rich neighborhood is a good solution for every neighborhood in the city.

    But with that disclaimer let me address your points. I absolutely do think parents should be sorting through school options - I think the choice booklets do a pretty good job of making this not too big of a task, although charters weren't listed at all in the middle school book we got 1.5 yr ago. Then add in calling people to try to get real life opinions. I don't think we're talking about 100's, but thinking about 20 schools seems reasonable to me. I would like to think that eventually they all have pluses and minuses and you're just trying to match that to your kid's needs. Right now there's a fair amount of safety concerns and lack of programs/services that took a buch of schools off the table for us, but I don't think that always has to be the case. Actually, cruel as it is, if a school has too much bad-mouthing in the community kids won't choose to go there and in the long term it's probably not a viable school.

    I don't see the long term vs short term arguement that you do. I see it as evolving and adapting schools as times and kids change. I'm not sure about elementary schools, but asking kids to choose an area of interest and do more focused schooling seems good for middle and high school kids. It draws them into school and helps them see the point. I just don't think the "here's your zoned school, go there" mentality will support those types of schools or programs. So schools evolve and become less identified with a neighborhood and more identified with a type of learning or a course of study. I don't see how that's anti-democratic.

    Change is tough - if I talked about work on the internet I could give you some very personal examples. I don't think asking people to change is wrong or unjust. Humans can do it, and in the end, most are better off for learning that they are capable.

  3. OK, I understand your argument a little better now. I'm not coming from the rich vs. poor neighborhood direction, though of course I believe poor neighborhood schools should be just as good as rich neighborhood schools.

    But I do still see a value in the neighborhood/community middle or high school. I don't think students should have to change three buses, and commute for 1.5 hours, to get to school. With long-term staff stability (though teacher retention is an issue in many Baltimore schools), students who graduate will come back to see their favorite teachers, and peer mentoring relationships can be developed to help current students. Parents who live in the same neighborhood as the school have more opportunities to get involved in their child's education.

    With roots in the community surrounding it, a school can better serve its students. Perhaps the new schools will develop roots in the communities around them, but if their students are not coming from there, the effect will be limited on bringing school and everyday life together. Citypaper wrote a good piece on the community schools movement in Baltimore this year. At our school, they have partnered with the Y, and have helped in such ways as an after-school program, dropout prevention programs, and work-based learning.

    Because of these reasons, I believe the connection to the local community where students live has brought value to my students' education. And this is some value that I see being lost in the transition to all-citywide, root-less schools. Perhaps the short-term gain of more viable options for students outweighs this loss of community, or perhaps a new whole-city community is forming and replacing the ties of neighborhoods. But I'm not convinced this is so, and we may be dismantling the ties of neighborhoods to schools and not replacing them with anything better.

    This seems to be where you're coming from (a new whole-city community), with your "evolving" argument. Am I right? I can understand your argument for choice, and could see it fitting in with neighborhood schools in a large city like Baltimore were it more like 3-4 middle or high schools to choose from that are all still tied to the local community. But I think Baltimore has taken choice a little too far at the moment, to the point where there are very similar-themed schools right next to each other, and the central office is offering more support to some schools than others.

  4. Nick -
    Thanks for the link - a very good article. So many terms get thrown around: zoned schools, neighborhood schools, community schools. They all seem related, but different. In Hampden (the source of the original post)I think it's all about having a zoned school and not offering alternatives in the area. I know you mentioned competition from alternative schools, but Patterson Park Public Charter is listed as a community school. It gets confusing.

    I agree with you about the buses, but I think that should be fixed instead of limiting what kids can do. I think about that a fair amount because one of the better autism specific schools is in Owings Mills. It's a long bus ride...but maybe if it's a good enough fit that's what we'll do.

    Another issue - when you talk about only a few choice schools that are also community based what happens to City-Wide High Schools with programs that are small and have to draw from the entire city to survive?

    As much as I like serving the community I wonder if the economic and racial segregation that happens because of that is a fair price. I know that going to WHS in 1976-1980 taught me a lot about diversity and its value. I didn't learn it at Roland Park Public which was a neighborhood school (except that the majority of people in the neighborhood sent their kids to private schools, but that's another issue). Citywides teach that there are bonds and interest that transcend culture, income and background. It changed me.

    So on one hand you have the strength of a community working together and on the other hand you have schools open to the whole city that show kids new horizons and options with a new group of peers. It doesn't seem like an easy choice if it's got to be an either or.

  5. "It doesn't seem like an easy choice if it's got to be an either or."


    Patterson Park, as far as I know, is not a high school. So they are not a direct competitor. I presume one reason for our drop in enrollment this year (held steady at 1600-1700 my first four years teaching, down to 1400 this year, projected at 1200 next) is the creation of so many "transformation" 6-12 schools, but I do not know that for sure. The drop for next year is likely due in large part to our turnaround/EGO status.


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