The Possible and the Probable Part 2: Urban Education
Back in May, I wrote the Possible and the Probable part 1 which dealt with questions of gender, expectation, and realities. This time I’m onto a subject near and dear to my heart, education. Last May, David Brooks penned an editorial called, “The Harlem Miracle” which reported on the Harlem Children’s Zone’s Promise Academy charter schools. Brooks bases the editorial on a correspondence with Roland Fryer, economist at Harvard and NYC public schools Chief Equity Officer, who had just completed a study with Bill Dobbie says they found the Promise Academy “eliminated the Black-White test score gap.” For Brooks and Fryer, this was a miraculous occurrence which created a firestorm of attention and riled voices of “what can be done in high poverty school, when there are no excuses.” I have been working with urban schools since the early 1990s and I know that “miracles” are possible but they are not probable. I must admit, I approach claims of unmitigated success, miracles, and beating the odds with a degree of skepticism, not because I don’t want these claims to be true, but because as folks often say, “if it’s too good to be true, it probably is.”
Now some will read this and view me as a pessimist around education, in fact, I am the furthest thing from it. My vision and goal is to have an urban education system where chances of success exceed chances of failure, where families have options, were school staff are supported, and youth become critical thinkers. Is that too much to ask? If you look at the condition of our cities public schools you would begin to believe the answer is yes, that is too much to ask. On the Left, there’s often the cry that resource inequalities are the reason for poor performance. On the Right, the call suggests that instead of working hard, schools, teachers, and students are hardly working and inefficent. Unfortunately the people trapped in the middle of these ideological battles are poor, Black, and Brown families lodged in failing schools in: Detroit, Baltimore, New Haven and the list goes on. The biggest confusion that I see emerging around urban education is the highlight of a few successful schools in a city and mistaking that as the probable, that is what will likely happen, in the city as the whole. These schools are the possible, they are what can happen against dire conditions but they are not probable. These exceptional schools, like breakfast sausage, are quickly consumed by people but most are afraid to look at what it goes in to making the end product. These schools, which have gone by many labels such as No Excuses, High Flying Schools, Tough Love or Miracle Schools all reflect a desire to point out exceptional success, but with little scrutiny of how this success emerges, if this success is sustainable, and if this success can be replicated. Most, if not all of the schools talked about in these articles and segments, have had huge investments of resources both material and non-material (e.g. dollars, partnerships, unmitigated administrative power, strict standards of enrollment, parental mandated behaviors) which are not reported on in news stories. They carry with them conditions and rules that if you clamped most urban schools with and demanded conformity to in wide-scale would surely mean the casting out of many students, abuses of labor law, and spikes in test but not the sustained development of critical thinkers. What often looks like a miracles upon first glance for a small group would be a nightmare for the mass upon deep investigation.
The reality is that the schools you see championed on the news for exceptional performance are in part being elevated to support mental and material divestment in traditional public educational systems. You sit and say, “If they can do it, why can’t the others?” These schools appear to be anomalies at first glance, but with further reading you see why they look as they do and why often their success is not sustainable or transferable. Replicating success in urban schools has been policy alchemy since the days, and even before, Ron Edmonds and continues to demonstrate that urban education will not be solved until we can see a system wide change in results for children. Despite the caution of social analysts like Richard Rothstein, the trumpets of success of a few urban schools continue to defeaningly blare out the cries of whole cities in educational disrepair.
Some will suggest are being used to suggest the thing missing from our schools is hard work, but that too is an incomplete picture. While all schools could be improved marginally with more hard work, the solution is often not simply pulling harder on bootstraps or throwing dollars. In fact, we have seen time and time again, that neither in isolation works. If educational research has taught us anything, it is that we do not know the formula for success in contemporary urban schooling. There is little to no evidence that more charter schools are better for kids in urban areas. There is little to no evidence that more charter schools improve the “market” of urban schools. There is little to no evidence that success in one year on a standardized test will be repeated in the next. There is little to no evidence that cities schools perform at an equal level to suburban schools consistently. Yes, this portrait is bleak, but it is the state of affairs. This is a hard truth to swallow, this is why in part people continue to point to “the miracles.”
To me, the situation of urban education is much like the common cold, as technology advances, we find more and more options that tend to abate sickness, cover the symptoms, but still there is no cure. Like the snake oil salesmen of the past, what works for one, seldom works for many, or may not work at all. I am hesitant to listen to anyone who tells me, “We know what works” because suggesting so would be based on the possible, while ignoring the probable.