From Education Week:
Love them or hate them, the proposals collectively known as “school reform” are mostly top-down policies: Divert public money to quasi-private charter schools, pit states against one another in a race for federal funding, offer rewards when test scores go up, fire the teachers or close the schools when they don’t.
Policymakers and the general public have paid much less attention to what happens inside classrooms—the particulars of teaching and learning—especially in low-income neighborhoods. The news here has been discouraging for quite some time, but, in a painfully ironic twist, things seem to be getting worse as a direct result of the “reform” strategies pursued by the Bush administration, then intensified under President Barack Obama, and cheered by corporate executives and journalists.
In an article published in Phi Delta Kappan back in 1991, Martin Haberman, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, coined the phrase “pedagogy of poverty.” Based on his observations in thousands of urban classrooms, Haberman described a tightly controlled routine in which teachers dispense, and then test students on, factual information; assign seatwork; and punish noncompliance. It is a regimen, he said, “in which learners can ‘succeed’ without becoming either involved or thoughtful,” and it is noticeably different from the questioning, discovering, arguing, and collaborating that is more common (though by no means universal) among students in suburban and private schools.
Now, two decades later, Haberman reports that “the overly directive, mind-numbing, … anti-intellectual acts” that pass for teaching in most urban schools “not only remain the coin of the realm but have become the gold standard.” It is how you’re supposed to teach kids of color.
Earlier this year, Natalie Hopkinson, an African-American writer, put it this way in an article on theRoot.com called “The McEducation of the Negro”: “In the name of reform … education—for those ‘failing’ urban kids, anyway—is about learning the rules and following directions. Not critical thinking. Not creativity. It’s about how to correctly eliminate three out of four bubbles.”
Those who demand that we close the achievement gap generally focus on results, which in practice refers only to test scores. High-quality instruction is defined as whatever raises those scores. But when teaching strategies are considered, there is wide agreement (again, among noneducators) about what constitutes appropriate instruction in the inner city.
The curriculum consists of a series of separate skills, with more worksheets than real books, more rote practice than exploration of ideas, more memorization (sometimes assisted with chanting and clapping) than thinking. In books like The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol, another frequent visitor to urban schools, describes a mechanical, precisely paced process for drilling black and Latino children in “obsessively enumerated particles of amputated skill associated with upcoming state exams.”
Not only is the teaching scripted, but a system of almost militaristic behavior control is common, with public humiliation for noncompliance and an array of rewards for obedience that calls to mind the token-economy programs developed in prisons and psychiatric hospitals.
“The children of the suburbs learn to think and to interrogate reality,” says Kozol, whereas inner-city kids “are trained for nonreflective acquiescence.” (Work hard, be nice.) At one of the urban schools he visited, a teacher told him, “If there were middle-class white children here, the parents would rebel at this curriculum and stop it cold.”
Among the research that has confirmed this disparity are two studies based on data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress. One found that black children are much more likely than white children to be taught with workbooks or worksheets on a daily basis. The other revealed a racial disparity in how computers are used for instruction, with African-Americans mostly getting drill-and-practice exercises (which, the study also found, are associated with poorer results).
Well before his brief tenure last year as New Jersey’s commissioner of education, Bret Schundler (then the mayor of Jersey City, N.J.) expressed enthusiasm about the sort of teaching that involves repetitive drill and “doesn’t allow children not to answer.” This approach is “bringing a lot of value-added for our children,” he enthused in The New York Times Magazine. Does his use of the word “our” mean that he would send his own kids to that kind of school? Well, no. “Those schools are best for certain children,” he explained.
The result is that “certain children” are left farther and farther behind. The rich get richer, while the poor get worksheets.
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