Every child is different! Different cookies for all!

In this op-ed on the74 from a charter management operator and private school choice program director in Florida, their argument for the supremacy of school choice hinges on this tautological formula:

“We don’t think one option is necessarily better than another. Every child is different. Therefore, we need a diverse set of learning options to meet the needs of every child.”

I had to stop and read that seemingly indefensible and pithy line. 

“Every child is different.”

What does this really mean? Every child is different in what sense? 

Of course, every child is not the same person, therefore each one is a distinct human being. Each has their own set of fingerprints, their own personality, and so on. But one would assume that what the authors really mean here is that every child LEARNS differently. Therefore, apparently, that means different types of schools can address different types of learners.

I’ve been a teacher of special education for 7 years, so I think I have some sense of a few of the differences and challenges that some kids can face in learning. But I would not go so far as to claim that every child learns differently. In fact, I would rather claim that most kids learn far more similarly than they do differently, in whatever way you construct the meaning of “different.”

The authors seem to agree with this in the end, as they close their piece with a call to unity: 

“Let’s continue to have healthy debates about choice, accountability, and everything else in our space. But let’s also remember that our common goals far outweigh whatever differences we may have.”

The primary difference between children seems to lie in the levels of pre-existing and acculturated knowledge and skills that they bring to a classroom. But that doesn’t mean they learn differently. It just means they come to a school at different levels of academic performance, language, and ability.

Some schools do a better job at meeting kids where they are and educating them (some charters, some district, some private). Some schools do a great job at weeding out kids with lower skills and knowledge so they can maintain the appearance of high performance (Ahem, probably quite a few private schools).

So the issue may really be more about quality (regulations) and admissions policies than it is about choice.

I know I sound pretty nit-picky here, but I think it’s important to call out fallacious statements like this. I’m totally on board with increasing the diversity of QUALITY options for low-income parents. But I’m not on board with increasing school choice just because “choice.” Nor am I on board with the idea that different kids need different schools. 

There’s a name for that. It’s called “segregation.”

There’s a whole lot of processed food in our grocery stores. Tons of options for how to increase our obesity rates and decrease our life spans. Every human being is different! Different cookies for every person!

Right?

EdBuild Report: Can the US overcome the ‘fault lines’ of segregation?

EdBuild has released a damning indictment of economic segregation in the United States. The report and interactive sheds much-needed light upon an illogical system that ensures poor kids are kept segregated by arbitrary district lines and confined to poorly resourced schools.

I urge you to read EdBuild’s full report. There’s a scathing resonance to the sentences that helps to convey how cruelly unjust and unnecessary school district lines are. Here’s one example:

“The fact, too seldom acknowledged, is that district boundaries themselves compound the inequalities that our public schools were intended to conquer. In present day America, we allow invisible lines to determine the fate of our youngest and most vulnerable citizens.”

And:

“Our wealthy are consigning lower-income students to a lesser caste by cordoning off their wealth and hiding behind the notion of ‘local control’.”

Reading this report, I couldn’t help but think of parallels to the current political battle on NYC’s Upper West Side over potential rezoning of a school district. The rezoning would place a well-off segregated school in the same zone as a segregated school that serves the projects just down the street.

Some well-off Upper West Side parents have made statements such as:

“It’ll take thousands, maybe a hundred thousand dollars off the value of my apartment.”

Or:

“We moved here basically for that school, and that school is kind of like our right.”

Is this what a public school has become? A status symbol of the property value of a neighborhood?

Even “progressive” NYC Mayor De Blasio has defended the rights of private property owners to their own segregated public schools:

“. . . families who have made a decision to live in a certain area . . . made massive life decisions and investments because of which school their kid would go to.”

Our public schools have become de facto private schools for those with money and means. Such parents can “invest” in the property that allows them to live within the district boundaries of their chosen school. They then can rely upon hale and hardy school district boundaries to keep less fortunate kids out. In this dismal reality of the US education system, instead of a Game of Thrones, it’s the Game of School Zones. This cut throat game determines the fate of our nation, and we play it with our children.

What does a public school really stand for in this country?

Must providing a quality education for some students mean denying a quality education to others?

Does ownership of property entitle you to be relieved of any commitment to the common good?

Responsible Regulation, Not Ideology

“it’s time for school choice advocates to dispense with ideology, engage regulators, and get serious about a policy environment that promotes measurable quality, scale, and access.”

—John White, “America’s most disadvantaged students need real accountability, not ideology” on Flypaper

Grading without Grading

report card

A few months into my first year at an Upper Manhattan private school, I have finished my first round of report cards. Actually, at my new school we don’t call them report cards; we just call them “comments.” Why? Well, because that’s what they are: comments. Words. Not a single number on the page.

In other words, my students do not receive grades—or at least grades as they are commonly understood in the world of education. There is no number or letter designated to represent their academic performance. There is no top or bottom 10 percent. At a school where New York’s elite and powerful fight to get their children admitted, student progress is not measured quantitatively or competitively.*

To be honest, I’m still wrapping my head around this. After teaching in the public schools, where quantitative assessments determine student success and school funding, I’m still trying to figure out how the lack of conventional grades alters a school environment. For now, I simply think it’s worth noting that one of the most selective, respected schools in New York City relies entirely on qualitative assessments until its students reach their teens. As the Department of Education pushes scantron tests on students too young to hold their pencils, this seems, at the very least, worth our consideration.

*This is true through elementary and into middle school. From late middle school into high school, the students are graded. I teach sixth grade, so I only write comments.

On Migrating to a New School Ecosystem

After a long hiatus, I am back at Schools as Ecosystems. This fall marks a major transition for me as I have left the public schools and am working as a learning specialist at an Upper Manhattan independent school. The contrast between these two school ecosystems is remarkable.

As I acclimate to my new environment over the next few months, I will post about the differences between public and private school ecosystems. For now, though, it seemed worth mentioning that my migration was driven largely by personal speculative reasons. I loved the public school where I worked for the past two years. It was a healthy, comfortable ecosystem where I found my niche as a special education teacher–and thrived in that niche.

Sadly, however, most of the time this school felt like an oasis in a the toxic public school environment. My colleagues and I were aware that our school’s healthy, supportive community was exceptional. What’s more, we knew that the very things that made our this community healthy– the freedom and respect afforded teachers, the relative diversity of our curriculum, and the active role that students’ parents played in the school– were at odds with the vision being promoted by the leaders of our larger school environment: the New York City Department of Education. As we saw more and more of our professional development time devoted to implementation of Common Core Standards and teacher evaluation systems, we had less and less time to develop student-centered classrooms and curricula. As we learned more about these systems of standards and evaluation, we realized that our freedom to develop curriculum based on our experience and expertise might be severely curtailed.

I love teaching. I love planning lessons and units. Partly I love this work because it’s good for my students, but I also just love the intellectual challenge. It’s fun to look for a new way to teach The Odyssey or the French Revolution. My students can sense that this is fun for me and (I’ve been told) my enthusiasm for the content I teach is one of my greatest strengths. The more I heard about how I’d have to type copies of Common Core Standards onto my lesson plans and test my students more so that I could measure their progress, the less I felt joy in my teaching.

So I made a calculation. I moved to another oasis, an elite independent school. This was a personal decision and I have a lot of feelings about it. I miss my old students and colleagues. I miss walking into my old school and seeing people that I loved working with. Unfortunately, I could not imagine a future for myself in a school system led by people who promote high-stakes testing for kindergartners and who spend precious resources developing evaluation systems for arts and physical education teachers, even as they cut funding for classes in these subject areas.

Most importantly, I chose to move to a school environment where teachers are valued and respected by their employers. In three weeks at my new school, there’s been no talk about how I must prove that my classes add value to my students. The assumption is that I’m good at my job and that my students will benefit from my skills, expertise, and experience. As the year progresses, I hope to prove them right. I’ll keep you posted.