The progressive educator A. S. Neill
has written, "Obviously, a school that makes active
children sit at desks studying mostly useless subjects is a bad
school." I disagree.
The Chicago public school system is,
by any standard, full of bad schools. For the past 30 years, their
dropout rate has been about 50%. Considering their excellent
magnet schools (schools for gifted students), the
remaining non-selective public schools must be
performing even worse. At some schools, there have been dropout
rates near 85%. The few exceptions appear to be radical departures
from the traditional school model, with alternative
philosophies and extra funding. Still, in many,
the classes remain similar to traditional public school classes.
To understand why this is, one must first understand the
difficulties Chicago public schools face.
Money: Chicago schools each receive $5,200/student/year for
education. (Money for facilities comes separately from the
Chicago Board of Education.) This is simply not enough.
In the past thirteen years, private school tuition has increased
more than 10%, but Chicago's per-student-per-year figure has not
increased by a dollar. Failing schools are perceived a black hole
for public facilities money and private donations. Broken-down schools,
still containing asbestos and lead, continue to deteriorate, while
proposals from rich magnet schools to increase the size of their windows
are granted without hesitation.
Teachers: A teacher in a failing public school is asked to
do the impossible. The students often read far below grade
level, and they hate school; it is expected that they will not get along
with their teachers. On a form regarding the Excellence in Teaching
award, about half of teachers wrote that their pupils were the
greatest obstacle to their teaching. Though many teachers have a better
attitude towards challenges in teaching, the best way to attract these
first-rate teachers is not to present them a crumbling school.
Poverty: The neighborhoods surrounding failing
schools often jinx the schools from the start. In an impoverished
area where few people succeed, it is unlikely that the choice to succeed in
school and eventually attend college will be second nature.
Even if everyone involved is well-intentioned and hopeful, there is
still another major problem: alienation. Large schools with
thousands of students are impersonal. Large bureaucracies with
hundreds of schools are inflexible. In such systems, it is trying and
tiring to make changes in one's life or school.
This last factor changed dramatically in 1988. The
Chicago teacher strike of 1987 (which lasted for 19 days, during which
students and parents picketed as well) led to sweeping
school reforms. The Chicago School Reform Act of 1988
put more control of schools into local school councils.
The citywide board of education still controlled how much money was paid for
school facilities, but otherwise the school councils gained control over their
funds. Changes happened for which parents had been lobbying for years.
About 80% of the newly available money was spent immediately on hiring new
teachers. Finally, changes were able to happen for the
better, and more importantly, the schools' newfound freedom led to
a new hope. As a result of the school reform, some failing neighborhoods
opened entirely new schools in old school buildings.
One such school, North Kenwood/Oakland, an elementary charter school,
seemed eerily similar to the affluent
elementary school I attended. It was designed as a
radical alternative to the usual elementary schools. Its
defining characteristic was its use as a teacher development school. Outside
teachers aspiring to improve could observe a class and learn from its teacher's
methods. When Marvin Hoffman, one of the two directors of the
school, was describing the school to me, he attributed much of the school's
success to its teacher development program. Teachers would question
their teaching methods more because they were often asked to explain them.
Yet the school's teaching didn't seem to depart from the same traditional,
disciplined teaching that goes on in most schools. Marv described
the school as not using textbooks, except in social studies as a
backup, but when the social studies class began, the first thing asked of the
students was to "take out your textbooks". In English class, when the kids
were talking so quietly that I couldn't hear them seven yards away, their
teacher demanded their silence. I got the impression that Dr. Hoffman had
had hopes for his school to be different, but under pressure the chance for
change was lost. (The students had to wear a uniform, for example. Though
this helped parental confidence, it could also stifle children.)
Still, in classes very similar to those in which they had been failing
before, these children were thriving.
I attribute the success to the hope that change brought about. With hope,
and a chance to start over, there have been numerous other success stories
in Chicago recently. Perspectives Charter School, a middle school and
high school which also adopts a radical philosophy and fairly traditional
classes, shows that with hope, the other obstacles to education disappear.
As a charter school, they have to pay for their own facilities, but because the
city has hope for their success, they can rent an old public school building
for a dollar a year. Some teachers don't have
credentials yet, but still they teach quite
competently in the atmosphere of change.
The surrounding area is crumbling, but students come from all over
the city for the chance at success. And the school is small (150 students)
in its youth, so small that some cite its size as the reason for its success.
Maybe the kids will never need to use
what they learn in school later in life.
They will at least have learned hope,
and that is all that they need to go far when they're on their own.
William Ayers. Interview on March 3, 2003.
Michael Klonsky and Alfredo Nambo of the Small Schools Workshop.
Interview on March 4, 2003.
Marvin Hoffman of North Kenwood/Oakland. Interview on March 5, 2003.
Glennese Ray of the Perspectives Charter School. Interview on March 6, 2003.
A. S. Neill. Summerhill.
Jonathan Kozol. Savage Inequalities.