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Chester-Upland PA’s Sordid History Recounted by Peter Greene

January 19, 2021 Leave a comment

As noted in several earlier posts, “poor performing” districts or schools rarely if ever improve as a result of state takeovers, the injection of “competition” through charter schools, or privatization. If anyone ever wanted a poster child district to prove this point, look no further that Peter Greene’s recent Forbes article describing the sordid history of the Chester-Upland School district in PA. Two sections o the article explain what went wrong with the district and where it stands now.

Here’s what went wrong:

The Chester-Upland school system’s history is a history of U.S. segregation in miniature. Through the first half of the 20th century, the schools were segregated as a matter of policy (this is covered in some detail in John McClarnon’s portrait of civil rights leader George Raymond in Pennsylvania History). In 1946, the school board finally agreed to a plan to desegregate students (but not faculty). But then the board instituted a policy that allowed students to request transfer to a school outside their assigned boundaries. Most applications by whites were approved; most by Blacks were denied. By the 1953-54 school year five elementary schools had almost entirely Black student bodies, even though white students lived within the schools’ boundaries.

In 1953, the board floated a $3.5 million bond issue intended to finance a redrawing of school boundaries. “The bond issue was,” McClarnon writes, “in fact, a #3.5 million re-segregation project.” Shortly afterwards, the Supreme Court issued its Brown v. Board of Education ruling, but the school superintendent noted that the decision wouldn’t have any legal ramifications for the county “where segregation is admittedly a fact but not a policy.”

Now… if Chester-Upland was the only district in Pennsylvania or America “where segregation is admittedly a fact but not a policy” it MIGHT be possible to solve the problems. But as readers of this blog undoubtedly realize, racial and economic segregation IS a fact everywhere even though our purported policy is an equal opportunity for all. Chester-Upland’s particular story in unique… but the general outlines of its story are not. Which leads to the closing paragraphs that describe where Chester-upland stands now:

The district’s story is complicated—this long post skips over many other issues there—but the lesson is simple. When a district is segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources, it suffers. And when the state, rather than aiding it, allows it to be picked over and fed upon by private for-profit businesses, it suffers even more, creating the possibility of a community that is no longer able to fulfil the promise of a free public education for all of its children. Chester Upland seems less likely to have a happy ending and more likely to end as a tragic cautionary tale. Pennsylvania’s students deserve better.

Now… if Chester-Upland was the only district in Pennsylvania or America that was segregated, abandoned, underfunded, and deprived of resources it MIGHT be possible to solve the problems. But as readers of this blog undoubtedly realize, racial and economic segregation, abandonment, underfunding, and deprivation of resources is universal in our country… and so is the suffering that results.  The sad ending that Chester-Upland faces could be the sad ending that all of the racially and economically segregated district face unless some form of funding equity is put in place, equity achieved NOT by redistributing resources but by adding them to the districts that need them.

Could the Pandemic Put and End to the Artificial Construct of Students “Falling Behind”? Could it Shine a Spotlight on the REAL External Factors that Stymie Academic Progress?

December 25, 2020 Comments off

Common Dreams contributor Steven Singer wrote a compelling essay excoriating those who are wringing their hands over the students who are “falling behind” as a result of the pandemic. In the middle of his essay he makes these unassailable and clear points:

Let’s get something straight: there is no ultimate timetable for learning.

At least none that authentically can be set by educators or society.

People – and kids ARE people – learn when they’re ready to learn. 

And when they’re ready is different for every person out there. 

You can’t stomp around with a stopwatch and tell people they’re late. Your expectations are meaningless. It’s a matter of cognitive development plus environment and a whole mess of other factors that don’t easily line up on your Abacus. 

For example, many kids are ready to learn simple math concepts like addition and subtraction in Kindergarten. Yet some are ready in preschool.

That doesn’t mean one child is smarter than another. It just means their brains develop at different rates. And it’s perfectly normal.

In the early 1990s when I was trying to implement a mastery learning program I used the examples of two professional basketball superstars of that era: David Robinson and Michael Jordan. Both of them were late bloomers in terms of their physical development.

David Robinson was 6’5′ when he enrolled in the US Naval Academy. While attending there, he grew another 6″. Had he grown to that height BEFORE enrolling in college he would not have qualified for the Naval Academy because he would have been too tall. And because his ball handling skills were middling for a 6’5″ Division One forward or guard, the traditional college powerhouses overlooked him.  But those same skills were extraordinary for a 6″11″ center! As a result, he became an All-American player who was heavily recruited by professional basketball teams when he was eligible to play after completing college and his two years of service. The San Antonio Spurs built their franchise on his talents.

Michael Jordan was unable to make the varsity until he was a junior in high school. As a skinny 5’10” sophomore he was overlooked by the coaching staff in Wilmington NC. But he was determined to play basketball and was a JV sensation. Like many teenagers, Jordan had a growth spurt that year and ultimately made the varsity at his high school, at UNC, won Gold Medals and NBA championships, and became the iconic figure all other players are measured against.

Both David Robinson and Michael Jordan “fell behind” their age cohorts at one point. But a combination of their late maturity and determination enabled them to “catch up”. Not every athlete becomes a professional any more than every student becomes a Rhodes scholar. But when we apply universal yardsticks to unique individuals end up casting aside individuals who possess talents that haven’t emerged.  Few of us possess the persistence of a David Robinson or the grit and determination of a Michael Jordan. Many children who hear that they did not make the varsity because they were “behind” can enjoy athletic pursuits when they “catch up”. The “lesson” of David Robinson and Michael Jordan isn’t about persistence and grit: it’s about our the bogus expectations we set for children: the “ultimate timetables” that are used to decide that some children are “ahead” and others are “behind”. We need to give students the opportunity to learn when they are ready to learn and know that when they are ready to learn is different for each child. 

MAYBE the pandemic pause that is occurring will help drive this message home. MAYBE two years without standardized tests and using technology designed to tailor instruction for each child will make policy makers really that “ahead” and “behind” are relative and not absolute terms. If that is the case, we might break the stranglehold of the factory school that has gripped us since the turn of the last century.

Steven Singer puts the whole “ultimate timetable” debate in an even broader context, arguing persuasively that the only people who benefit from this mindset are the businesses who want to avoid paying for the basic needs of children and only view schools as a source of employees. He concludes his essay with this:

The problem is systemic. You can only solve it by changing the system, itself.

A system that places dollars and cents over life and health will never be acceptable. And that’s what we’ve got. Still.

So don’t buy the latest version of corporate school baloney.

Our children aren’t falling behind.

They’re surviving a pandemic.

Fix the problem and they’ll be fine.

Fix the system and they’ll THRIVE.

But beware of know nothing policymakers who don’t have our best interests at heart.

Pay them no mind and the only thing left behind will be them.

LA Public Schools Change The Grading Paradigm: LEARNING is Constant and TIME is the Variable

December 21, 2020 Comments off

For decades schools have operated on the premise that TIME is constant and LEARNING is variable, and since I began writing this blog I’ve promoted the opposite. I was, therefore, heartened to read that LAUSD, the second largest school district in the nation, is going to institute a “No Fail” policy this year that eliminates “F”s and instead will offer students the opportunity to re-take courses with no penalty.

As Howard Blume writes, this shift was a not a consequence of a change in thinking about the way schools are organized; it was a response to the practical reality that many LAUSD students were failing due to circumstances beyond their control: 

Given the limitations of distance learning, “failing kids is sending the wrong message and further increasing their chances of being pushed out of school,” Roldan said. “This is not the time to castigate students when their families are struggling to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table.”…

…The new L.A. Unified policy grew out of district concerns about the rise in D and F grades, a pattern mirrored across the country in school systems that have closed campuses and relied on distance-only learning. Among the problems faced by students is inconsistent or inadequate internet access and a poor learning environment at home.

It is noteworthy that “inconsistent or inadequate internet access and a poor learning environment” are NOT the only problems that challenge students who are raised in poverty… they ARE, however, the only problems that are clearly manifesting as a result of the pandemic and, since they are the one problems clearly linked to remote learning, the rationale for this change in thinking about grading. From my perspective, ANY change that results from an awareness that children raised in poverty have far greater challenges to overcome than children raised in affluence is a positive change, for it emphasizes the adversity that too many children face and the advantages that too many parents take for granted. 

Unsurprisingly this shift in thinking was not universally applauded. Mr. Blume gleaned two quotes that offer a point-counterpoint analysis: 

“Yes, it’s COVID time,” the teacher said. “But this soft bigotry of low expectations — including us being banned from demanding students ever comment with their voices or actually show themselves on camera during Zoom — will indeed help our low-income students stay on the bottom of the pile of learning.”

A high school principal from a different campus was more supportive. Given the unprecedented crisis, the principal said, students who earn A’s and B’s should get to keep them but that the only other grade handed out should be a pass. This principal — who also was not authorized to comment — requested anonymity.

But here’s what I find to be problematic. This change is not grounded in the need to shift away from the “sorting and selecting” that underlies our traditional grading system to a mastery model that assumes all children can learn given sufficient time and sound instruction. Indeed, one of the districts providing this “second chance” is assigning students who “fail” a 55 so that they can eventually earn a “passing grade” of 60!

When “60” is passing and passing is presumably evidence of preparedness to take on the next level of instruction we are not making any progress in breaking the time-is-constant-learning-is-variable model…

But we ARE at the very least changing the debate to a more fertile ground. In one week we’ve witnessed a massive paradigm shift in the two largest urban districts in the nation. First, as noted in earlier posts, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that tests will no longer be the sole (or primary) gatekeeper for entry to “competitive” Middle and High Schools– ending the reign of the test-ocracy in that district and opening the doors for alternative forms of identifying students with academic promise. And now LAUSD announcing that its students will be given the time they need to achieve the passing grades required to (presumably) demonstrate their mastery of skills needed to successfully progress in school. 

It’s possible that once vaccines are administered and masks are no longer needed we might return to a different landscape in public education than the one we left before the pandemic struck. If that landscape does not rely on standardized tests and sorting and selecting based on arbitrary time limits we will look back at the pandemic as a blessing for children who think and mature differently.