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John Thompson is an historian and a retired teacher in Oklahoma. He wrote this piece for the blog at my request.
In 2006, our John Marshall High School was enduring the worst of the five months-long, extreme meltdowns I witnessed in 18 years with the Oklahoma City Public Schools. Many days, I’d see the anarchy and the blood-splattered halls, and ask if I was dreaming. One thing that kept me sane was the discovery of education blogs, above all Deborah Meier’s and Diane Ravitch’s conversations in Bridging Differences. In a prescient example of the wisdom which grew out of their “animated conversation,” they agreed:
That a central, abiding function of public education is to educate the citizens who will preserve the essential balances of power that democracy requires, as well as to support a sufficient level of social and economic equality, without which democracy cannot long be sustained. We agreed that the ends of education–its purposes, and the trade-offs that real life requires–must be openly debated and continuously re-examined.
As Oklahoma City pulled out of the crack and gang crisis in the early 1990s, I saw a pattern that persisted for two decades – and which became more tragic during the third decade when I was a part-time teacher and an education writer. Each year, our school would make incremental improvements. Then, the district would bow to pressure and implement disastrous policies that would wipe out those gains – or worse. It would mandate policies that Ravitch later dubbed “corporate school reform.” Administrators who publicly endorsed policies where segregation by choice was combined with data-driven decision-making would often tell me off-the-record in the parking lot, that they knew the reforms would backfire. But they had no alternative.
During the first years after the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, local and state leaders often had some success in minimizing the damage done by school “choice” and in “monkey wrenching” the push towards high stakes testing. But, as in the rest of the nation, that resistance angered market-driven reformers who then pushed for harsher, more punitive policies. As opposed to Meier’s and Ravitch’s counsel, they believed that it was essential to remove balances of power, so they could force everyone to “be on the same page.”
One of the worst examples was requiring benchmark testing to be graded; that absurd policy drove John Marshall’s dropout rates for 9th and 10th graders through the roof. Then, the poorest halves of our high school and its middle school feeder were combined into a new school characterized by extreme, concentrated poverty. When a new data-driven staffing model was implemented, a deputy superintendent privately acknowledged that these two, intertwined “reforms” could be disastrous but said that the only thing I could do was lobby the state legislature for more support.
Back then, partially because of my success in conversing with conservative legislators, I naively believed that I could communicate with neoliberal output-driven, competition-driven reformers and the non-educators who conducted their research. But I eventually had to admit that Meier and Ravitch were correct when writing:
Almost all the usual intervening mediators–parent organizations, unions, and local community organizations–have either been co-opted, purchased, or weakened, or find themselves under siege if they question the dominant model of corporate-style “reform.” …
This allows these elites the opportunity to carry out their experiments on a grand, and they hope uninterrupted, “apolitical” scale, where everything can, at last, be aligned, in each and every school, from prekindergarten to grade 12, under the watchful eye of a single leader. If they can remain in power long enough, it is assumed (although what actually is assumed is not easy to find out) that they can create a new paradigm that no future change in leadership can undo.
Not understanding how single-minded “venture philanthropists” were in using “disruptive innovation” to drive top down “transformational change,” I didn’t understand why they would be so adamant about ignoring educators and social scientists, who continually reexamined their hypotheses and complicated analyses. (Falsifiable hypotheses! Who needs falsifiable hypotheses?, was the reformers’ response. We’ll just run more controls on our statistical models.)
When practitioners and researchers tried to explain the interconnected challenges faced in high-poverty schools, these true believers in “the Market” dismissed our advice as “Excuses,” and “Low Expectations.” Reformers instead gambled that they could find individual levers, like data to engineer a “better teacher,” who could turn schools around.
That is why edu-philanthropists sought to use the stress of competition to overcome the stress of generational poverty and trauma, and segregation by choice to overcome the legacies of de jure and de facto segregation. They seemed to deny that the trade-offs that Meier and Ravitch acknowledged even existed. Reformers thus ramped up high-stakes testing to force compliance; in doing so, they ensured that soulless worksheet-driven instruction would result in in-one-year-out-the-other educational malpractice which often would push the most disadvantaged schools over a tipping point.
Then – and now – if I could get data-driven, competition-driven reformers to listen to one thing, I would try to explain why their misunderstandings about generational poverty led to hurried doomed-to-fail micromanaging. I’d try to tell them the story of our run-of-the-mill inner city school, a place with tragic failures as well as great strengths, that corporate school reform turned into the lowest-performing secondary school in the state, where meaningful teaching and learning was replaced with nonstop remediation.
Our Marshall H.S. had survived “White flight,” and the crack and gangs crisis of the 1980s. It had working class and a few middle class students, as well as students from situational and generational poverty. It had a significant number of students who were seriously emotionally disturbed and/or burdened by multiple traumatic experiences, now known as Adverse Childhood Experience (ACEs). Back then, however, we also had numerous students with reading and math learning disabilities, who often became student leaders. Despite confidentiality laws, it was easy to identify many of the students on Individual Education Plans (IEPs) on the first day of class. They disproportionately sat on the front row, with carefully prepared notebooks, ready to “work smart” and succeed.
By 2005, however, school choice had produced an exodus of the top teachers and students (including special education students who were not wrestling with behavioral or emotional disturbances.) Our highest challenge neighborhood was known as the “New Hood,” the home of families that had been driven out of the “Old Hood” by urban renewal. The Old Hood had endured plenty of racism and economic oppression, but it was a community full of African-American churches and home-grown institutions that had resisted Jim Crow.
The New Hood combined concentrated generational poverty, with families disrupted by multiple traumas, in a neighborhood lacking social capital. For example, when campaigning for Jesse Jackson, I learned that we didn’t try to canvass the New Hood because the high incarceration rate resulted in so few eligible voters. Even so, when I canvassed the neighborhood for Barack Obama, I conversed with parents and learned that the majority of its students officially or unofficially transferred to schools in the 20+ districts across the metropolitan area.
Because it is so much harder to improve education “outcomes” in schools serving the highest challenge neighborhoods, our low test scores led to more worksheet-driven mandates. This increased official and under-the-table transfers out of our poorest neighborhoods by families who could find legal or other ways of getting their children into the best schools that they could get to.
After NCLB, it was the highest challenge neighborhoods in the eastern half of our school’s area which first lost their recesses, art and music classes, and extracurricular activities, as drill-and-kill instruction failed to increase test scores. When the school board chairman visited my class and was thrilled by the standing room only audience, each student told him something about their elementary school. Virtually everyone who attended schools in the western half of our feeder area had positive things to report. The majority of those who came from the poorer eastern neighborhoods had horror stories to tell. Those from the New Hood were especially angry about being “robbed” of an education by nonstop test prep.
The tipping point was crossed in 2006 when school staffing was driven by a primitive statistical model that could not distinguish between low income students and children of situational poverty, receiving Free and Reduced Lunch, as opposed to children from extreme poverty, who had endured multiple traumas. Because of the additional costs of providing services for the most seriously emotionally disturbed students, teachers in “regular” classrooms were assigned up to 250 students. So, I had classes such as the one with 60 students where many students on the west side of the room had had family members killed or wounded by family members of classmates on the other side of the room.
Within a couple of years, even after the staffing formula had been worked out, segregation by choice created classes of 35 or more, with more than 40% being on IEPs or English Language Learners, with a majority carrying a felony rap (whatever that meant in a state with the world’s highest incarceration rate); and where two students had recently witnessed the murder of a parent, and two others watched the murder/suicide of their parents; during a year when our kids buried an unprecedented number of family members.
As I have explained, these doomed-to-fail, test-driven, competition-driven policies were pushed by corporate school reformers who knew little or nothing about the nuances of poverty and the legacies of segregation. They ignored the cognitive science which explained why their test-driven approach would drive holistic teaching and learning out of the classroom.
As we deal with the legacies of today’s COVID pandemic, I hope we can learn from the history of my school and so many others. Maybe we can agree with Meier and Ravitch that “democracy cannot long be sustained” without public – not market-driven education. If nothing else, let’s agree that our democracy requires adults to listen to each other, as well as to students.