Corporate Education Reform hurts children. This truth needs to be said a million times over. No longer can we allow reformers to hide behind the rhetoric of reform and ignore the realities. Words like "poverty is not destiny" "high expectations" "quality school options" and "choice" all mask the very real impact of these reforms. There are consequences to the disruption of school closings, to purposeful disinvestment in neighborhood schools, to layoffs of experienced educators, to the haphazard expansion of largely low-quality charters.
As most who read this blog know, I work in a psychiatric hospital in Chicago. Unlike many teachers out there who see only their small window of the reform world, I get to see the cross-section. Students cycle through my program so quickly (too quickly, thanks to massive cuts in mental health services) that I hear dozens of stories a week from all over the city and surrounding suburbs. And what's happening out there is beyond heart-breaking, it is wrong. Kids have come in to the hospital with massive anxiety, depression, and aggression related, in part, to school policies. I have students who report fear of “getting jumped” on the way to schools across town after their neighborhood school was shut down. I've had kids with school refusal due to the very real fear of a dangerous bus route through rival neighborhoods. Young people are afraid of the increases in violence and gang activity as kids from all parts of the city are thrust together in schools whose only response to the rage is zero tolerance lockdown. There is no healing, just ignoring and punishing the problem, pushing the fights off of school grounds. Almost every child I work with from the neighborhoods targeted for the brunt of school reform has symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder. They have difficulty sitting still, are quick to react to any perceived threat with violence or aggression, cannot concentrate on school work, and have come to hate the experience of school. And yet all they get from school leadership is school closures, fired teachers, and false choices.
Kids feel abandoned as they lose the ties to trusted teachers and school staff, many drifting off into truancy and drop-out. My kids have complained about teachers who “don’t get it” speaking about the unfair practice of putting poorly-trained teachers with no education experience and no understanding of their communities’ issues in their classrooms. As reform sweeps through my city with its massive layoffs, it disproportionally affects teachers of color, the teachers who are most likely to connect with these children. As a special education teacher, it is especially shocking how many uncertified and inexperienced teachers serve our students with special needs. Why this isn't a national scandal, I will never understand...
My kids with IEPs get shuffled around schools as neighborhood schools shut, charters push them out, and receiving schools must take time to get to know the child anew, delaying services. I have kids who have been to four different schools in as many years, and must keep changing schools as schools are shut down down or turned-around. How many children have we lost who slip through the cracks as they bounce around school options? Is anyone keeping track?
I've met kids who complain "I was in a class of 39 kids with no textbooks. Why should I stay? They don't care about us." Kids understand on a deep level that they are being treated like disposable people as their neighborhood schools are being grossly under-resourced and under-staffed in order to justify further school closures. Purposefully starving a school, underutilized or not, to serve your political agenda is criminal. There are children suffering in those schools.
And my kids hate school. When I hear the stories of what they are being asked to do all day I don't blame them. Any joy and excitement that teachers used to bring to the classroom is being destroyed by pressures from high-stakes standarized tests. The class project bulletin board is replaced by a data wall. The music, gym, art, and after-school activities are being exchanged for longer days full of test prep, rote memorization, and disembodied facts, formulas, and vocabulary practice. Kids in low-income schools no longer read novels, they now do reading comprehension worksheets focused on discreet skills like "compare/contrast" or "main idea". They don't fall in love with characters or ideas, they answer comprehension questions and write out short essays. They don't do projects and experiments, go on field trips, or paint, draw, imagine, or question. They take tests. I know I hate teaching that way just as much as the kids hate to learn that way. It is boring as hell and you have to choose to either crack down on restrictive discipline or you live in chaos as kids rebel.
My charter kids are lovely, smart, capable young men and women. But I worry about all my sicker, poorer kids being left behind. Negative behaviors are being concentrated in certain schools. Peer effects matter greatly. What a joy it is to have the higher-performing kids in my class at the hospital. They change the whole atmosphere of the room. They can support the struggling students and raise thoughtful questions. This is why socioeconomic integration matters. My charter kids are almost without exception at the higher end of the free/reduced lunch bracket with families better able to support them while the kids who struggle the most are those coming from the deepest, most debilitating poverty. Racial integration matters, too, for my students of color in the magnet and selective enrollment schools are having better experiences than charters or neighborhood schools thanks to having access to the funding that follows white students.
[As an aside, google "school integration" and look at "images". They are ALL in black and white because we stopped talking about this issue decades ago.]
Meanwhile, all this focus on the corporate reforms of school closures, charter expansion, and teacher/school accountability means we are not investing in other types of reform, most notably anti-poverty programs. The number of kids I have met who are suffereing from trauma, abuse, PTSD, depression, anxiety, anger issues which could have been prevented by working towards eradicating poverty is staggering. School leaders' "choice" to focus solely on corporate reforms at the expense of all other types of change means more kids must suffer. I am tired of the tragic stories I hear.
And I'm thinking ahead to the unknown, but likely large numbers (60? 100? 120?) of schools heading for closure at the end of the year here in Chicago. I am bracing myself for the repercussions of chaos in the coming months. Imagine potentially hundreds, maybe thousands of kids with IEPs needing to find new appropriate placements. How will receiving schools follow children's IEPs in a timely manner? How will they ensure they have the right amount of staff? What will happen to my kids with no parents, in the child welfare system, if their school closes? DCFS tries to meet their needs, but they are not staffed anywhere near the level necessary to manage a mass number of displaced children. The charters, even if they somehow enroll these kids, will not and do not keep them. They will bounce back to yet another school, having to start over yet again.
And those proponents of choice brag about closing down "under-performing charters" the same as neighborhood schools as if this were a good thing! The number one thing my students require is stability and connection. And those are the very things which are being lost as CPS follows the corporate education reform path. Edreform's goal is a neverending cycle of chaos, with schools being opened and shut down again like shoe stores. And this model goes against everything we know to be good for children.
Education Reform does not work. It shuffles kids around, concentrating a few high-achievers in the choosen "miracle schools" in order to be able to market "choice", but does not actually do anything remotely innovative or even new. And to condemn so many of those bright young charter kids to "no excuses" discipline codes makes me ill. Why can't they get creative, progressive teaching and learning like the children of the suburbs get? Edreform is all smoke and mirrors. And while reformers try to spin their made-up successes, the children being left behind are being hurt, neglected, and abused like never before.
There can be no middle ground or compromise when kids are being hurt.
No more. All that reform has taught us is that funding matters, peer groups matter, and segregation matters. So let's tackle the real problems in schools. What if reform was built around helping our neediest kids first: those in extreme poverty, those with special needs, those with emotional/behavioral problems? What if education philanthropists were bragging about giving every school a library, instead of donating to a new "no excuses" charter? What if the Gates Foundation committed to giving every school a full-time social worker instead of their odd fixation with teacher evaluations? What if the words "integration" and "equitable funding" were as quick to roll off the tongues of the elite and powerful as the words "choice" and "charters"?
The current education policies hurt kids. No more discussion. Even if EdReformers had most beautiful intentions in the world, if the uninteneded consequences cause children pain, then they must be stopped immediately. FIRST DO NO HARM. Only a monster would continue a course of action knowing it hurts kids...