Saturday, February 21, 2015

How the Sorting Game Hurts

Chicago has a long, racist history of sorting kids by race and class, thanks largely to highly-segregated housing patterns.  But the neoliberal push for "school choice" has created a chaotic marketplace of schools in my city which has exacerbated this massive sorting process further by adding new layers of sorting by attributes like test score taking ability and behavior/special needs.

WBEZ's Linda Lutton beautifully documented this new phenomenon in the report The Big Sort:

From WBEZ: 
And I've been thinking a lot of about what this massive sorting mechanism that is the public schools looks like down at the grassroots level, such as the small elementary school where I teach on Chicago's southside.  Seems to me that it ultimately hurts the kids who are "sorted" to the bottom the most.

Kids as "Liabilities"

The idea of shopping around for a school has become second nature for many Chicago parents. Schools spend more and more energy on "recruiting" parents through marketing campaigns and school fairs, but importantly, schools are looking for the "right kind of student".  Charters, Magnets, and Selective Enrollments are screening on the front end (recruiting process) and the back end (pushout, expulsion) for students who will get good test scores, have fewer behavior problems, and raise the prestige of their schools.

However, this mad scramble for the kids schools consider to be assets, begs the question of what to do about the other kids, the kids everyone now considers "liabilities" to their rankings and image.  Even at the micro-neighborhood level, there is a push to stack the deck in your school's favor.  As the number of students enrolling in schools outside their attendance boundary increases, schools may take or refuse kids depending on the principal's discretion. This leads to an even further sorting of students based on ability, test scores, and special education status.  And this sorting has dire implications when your school rating determines the fate of your school to operate autonomously or whether it stays open at all.

According to members of my staff, my elementary school has become the local "catch-all" in the neighborhood.  Teachers with colleagues in nearby schools have overheard parents being told, "Go to Langston Hughes, they'll take you."  Apparently, everyone knows which schools are the--and I hate to use this phrase, but it was what was reported to me--"dumping schools".  Now, I have no idea how accurate these rumors are, but I think the way people discuss schools locally is important.  There is a perception that some schools are "better" than others, and this perception is largely based on how well the school manages to "sort" out the tougher to educate students.

And I have noticed how a disproportionate number of students transferring in to our school have high numbers of IEP minutes leaving us with significantly more students with special needs than surrounding schools.  Our school currently has a special education population of about 24% while the nearby neighborhood schools have between 8%-14%, with the charters and magnet schools serving the least numbers of students with disabilities.  Part of that difference is explained by our pre-school blended program, but that program is not nearly big enough to account for all the difference.  If schools were truly taking students randomly, there should be pretty similar levels of special education students in every school, especially within a specific geographical region.

Choosing Between Good And Bad ClientsA large part of the differences between schools and their school ratings seems to be explained by how well administrators "screen" kids.  In fact, there are teachers at my school who complain that our principal "just lets anybody in."  And given the fact that our school is one of just 26 other elementary schools in the district to be given a "Level 3" status, the lowest school rating possible, this difference matters.  For better or worse, teachers know that the fate of the school is on the line.

And it seems clear to me how the school was already at a disadvantage after being a receiving school and having another local elementary school folded in with our existing one last year after fifty schools were closed causing massive chaos and disruption. According to the residents in the neighborhood,  the kids from the closing school came from the "tougher" part of the community, even though they were just a few blocks away.  The families were just a little worse off, housing was just a little more unstable, and violence was just a little more prevalent.  Again, these micro-level differences matter in a cutthroat competitive environment.

A School Dream Deferred

And then there's the "consequences" of being one the lowest tiered schools which demonstrably worsens the experience of schooling for students and staff alike.  Everything is dictated to us from above, with no autonomy to tailor lessons to our unique students' needs.  There is a testing obsession-absolute obsession-as we desperately try to raise test scores.  Every meeting, award ceremony, assembly, or discussion centers on test scores and test scores alone.  Since we are a "Level 3" school, our Network is constantly in our building mandating bad practice over which we have no control.  We are forced to use multiple computer programs guaranteed to "get those scores up!"  We must teach in the most formulaic way possible.  We must do the exact opposite of what we know our students actually need and deserve.

So our students are subjected to dry, disjointed, test-centric curriculum.  They are told over and over how they are nothing more than a test score and even our student conferences center around these scores.  Our kids with special needs are repeatedly being given inappropriate material and pacing guides all in the name of raising test scores.  "The diverse learners are bringing us down" our special education department is told over and over again.  Projects, field trips, and foreign language programs are being abandoned as they take away from the test prep.  As the curriculum becomes more and more tedious and inappropriately "rigorous," behavior problems worsen causing the school to react with stricter discipline and punishments.  We are forced to do everything wrong in the name of raising test scores.

Being at the bottom of the heap means every bad ed reform out there is fed to us on steroids.  From Common Core, to edtech, to Teach For America, to data-driven obsessions, to oppressive discipline...we have it all.  It's a vicious cycle where our low rating causes the school to be forced to do bad practices which leads to more bad ratings.

So when people complain about my school being the "bad" school, there is truth in that statement.  But that "bad" designation is one manufactured by competitive "choice" policies and solidified by top-down reform.

I try to imagine a world where kids are allowed to be kids.  Where schools that serve needier kids, kids who have experienced more trauma and upheaval than most adults, would be wrapped in love instead of bounced around schools like an unwanted pet.  I imagine a place where a child's negative behavior is seen with understanding instead of the fear of bringing down the entire school.  I imagine a world where kids are welcome no matter where they go and aren't viewed as a "liability" ever.  I imagine a world where we acknowledge the differences among kids and celebrate those different strengths and weaknesses, instead of using them to juke the stats.  I imagine a world where the students who need the most are given the best education we have, instead of the very worst of test-prep, lock-down torture.

But I don't live in that world.  I live in Rahm's Chicago.

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