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NYTimes ALMOST Gets It…. But Still Thinks Deregulation is The Answer

Today’s NYTimes has an article by David Kirp that is simultaneously heartening and maddening. It is heartening because it contrasts two school districts in NJ with similar demographics one of which has received massive amounts of publicity and external funding and gotten nowhere and one of which has received no publicity or external funding and managed to succeed.

The highly publicized district is Newark, which I’ve written about frequently in earlier posts. Politicians like Christie and Cory Booker have championed charter schools there as part of a State takeover, Teach For America has provided non-union staff members who were going to turnaround the classrooms, and edu-preneurs have invested millions to launch initiatives that would ultimately “see” the failing schools.

In the meantime, a neighboring district, Union City, which started at the same low level of performance as Newark in the late 1980s, slowly and methodically improved the performance of its schools with no fanfare, no state turnover, and no influx of external funding for “disruptive” initiatives. How did this happen? Here’s Kirp’s description:

In 1989, with one year to shape up Union City, Mr. Carrigg, with a cadre of teachers and administrators, devised a multipronged strategy: Focus on how kids learn best, how teachers teach most effectively and how parents can be engaged. Non-English speakers had previously been expected to acquire the language through the sink-or-swim method. So the district junked its old approach. Instead, English learners are initially taught in their own language, mainly Spanish, and then are gradually shifted to English. The system started hiring more teachers who spoke Spanish or had E.S.L. (English as a Second Language) training.

The bilingual approach went beyond the classroom. Even though many parents speak only Spanish, meetings had been conducted and written information prepared only in English. In the new era, bilingualism quickly became the norm. Parents, made to feel welcome in the schools, were conscripted to help with their children’s homework and reinforce the schools’ high expectations for them.

Hm-m-m-m. Instead of implementing privatized charter schools, launching top-down initiatives, and blaming teachers and parents it seems that Union City worked with teachers and worked to engage parents. This would appear to be the take away from this comparison… but Mr. Kirp came away with a different conclusion: deregulation and charters are still the best way to go. That led me to leave this comment:

Mr. Kirp seems intent on reinforcing the notion that deregulation is the cure-all for Newark without explaining how. He first states that  “…the charters have nearly a third more dollars to spend on each student, $12,650 versus $9,604, which buys additional teachers, tutors and social workers”, which he attributes to the fact that the charters were “freed from the district’s bureaucracy”…. but he fails to explain HOW this saved $3000+ per student. Later he emphasizes Mr. Cerf’s conviction that charter schools are working “…because they have substantially more discretion” but doesn’t provide any data to substantiate this claim. Mr. Kirp’s reporting reinforces the neoliberal notion that deregulation, not money, is the cure. If deregulation is the cure, why did Union City succeed? Did they eliminate regulations? Did they eliminate “bureaucracy”? It doesn’t sound like it to me. Instituting the kinds of initiatives Mr. Kirp describes in Union City required sound leadership, focussed (i.e. “regulated”) programs, and, yes, “bureaucrats” to make sure that the best teachers were hired, trained, retained, and given a voice in the improvement effort. The notion that deregulation  is needed more that money is the kind of eyewash that leads to the neo-liberal fantasy that “disruptive” management techniques can turn around “failing schools”. Stable leadership, parent engagement, good teaching and money will turn around a school more effectively than deregulation and disruption. 

At some juncture columnists will acknowledge that students attending schools serving children raised in poverty need as much spending per pupil as schools in the affluent suburbs… that sustained leadership that engages teachers is superior to top-down leadership, and that parent engagement is the key to any improvements. Unfortunately, those approaches cost money, take time, and are difficult and we continue to seek fast, cheap and easy solutions.

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