In the years before I met Elizabeth, I had visited many elementary schools in the South Bronx and in one northern district of the Bronx as well. I had also made a number of visits to a high school where a stream of water flowed down one of the main stairwells on a rainy afternoon and where green fungus molds were growing in the office where the students went for counseling. A large blue barrel was positioned to collect rain-water coming through the ceiling. In one make-shift elementary school housed in a former skating rink next to a funeral parlor in another nearly all-black-and-Hispanic section of the Bronx, class size rose to 34 and more; four kindergarten classes and a sixth grade class were packed into a single room that had no windows. Airlessness was stifling in many rooms; and recess was impossible because there was no outdoor playground and no indoor gym, so the children had no place to play.
In another elementary school, which had been built to hold 1,000 children but was packed to bursting with some 1,500 boys and girls, the principal poured out his feelings to me in a room in which a plastic garbage bag had been attached somehow to cover part of the collapsing ceiling. “This,” he told me, pointing to the garbage bag, then gesturing around him at the other indications of decay and disrepair one sees in ghetto schools much like it elsewhere, “would not happen to white children.” (pp. 40–41)
During the 1990s, physical conditions in some buildings had become so dangerous that a principal at one Bronx school, which had been condemned in 1989 but nonetheless continued to be used, was forced to order that the building’s windows not be cleaned because the frames were rotted and glass panes were falling in the street, while at another school the principal had to have the windows bolted shut for the same reason. These were not years of economic crisis in New York. This was a period in which financial markets soared and a new generation of free-spending millionaires and billionaires was widely celebrated by the press and on TV; but none of the proceeds of this period of economic growth had found their way into the schools that served the truly poor. (pp. 43–44)
I don’t mean to be picking on New York here: he gives examples from elsewhere, here and in other books.
But the differences in teaching style are a good deal more chilling:
“Taking their inspiration from the ideas of B. F. Skinner…,” […] proponents of scripted rote-and-drill curricula articulate their aim as the establishment of “faultless communication” between “the teacher, who is the stimulus,” and “the students, who respond.”
The introduction of Skinnerian approaches, which are commonly employed in penal institutions and drug rehabilitation programs, as a way of altering the attitudes and learning styles of black and Hispanic children is provocative, and it has stirred some outcries from respected scholars. To actually go into a school in which you know some of the children very, very well and see the way that these approaches can affect their daily lives and thinking processes is even more provocative.
On a chilly November day four ears ago in the South Bronx, I entered P.S. 65 […]
Silent lunches had been instituted in the cafeteria and, on days when children misbehaved, silent recess had been introduced as well. On those days, the students were obliged to stay indoors and sit in rows and maintain silence on the floor of a small room that had been designated “the gymnasium.” The school still had a high turnover of its teachers […], but the corridors were quiet and I saw no children outside of their classrooms.
The words “Success For All,” which was the brand name of a scripted program used within the school, were prominently posted at the top of the main stairway and, as I would later find, in almost every room. Also displayed throughout the building were a number of administrative memos that were worded with unusual directive absoluteness. “Authentic Writing,” said a document called “Principles of Learning” that was posted in the corridor close to the office of the principal, “is driven by curriculum and instruction.” I didn’t know what this expression meant and later came back to examine it again before I left the school.
I entered the fourth grade of Mr. Endicott, a man in his mid-thirties who had arrived here without training as a teacher, one of about 15 teachers in the building who were sent into this school after a single summer of short-order preparation. […]
On the wall behind the teacher, written in large letters: “Portfolio Protocols: […]” To the left side of the room: “Performance Standards Mathematics Curriculum: M-5 Problem Solving and Reasoning. M-6 Mathematical Skills and Tools…”
My attention was distracted by some whispering among the children sitting to the right of me. The teacher’s response to this distraction was immediate: His arm shot out and up in a diagonal in front of him, his hand straight up, his fingers flat. The young co-teacher did this too. When they saw their teachers do this, all the children in the classroom did it too.
“Zero noise,” the teacher said, but this instruction proved to be unneeded. The strange salute the class and teachers gave each other, which turned out to be one of a number of such silent signals teachers in the school were trained to use, and children to obey, had done the job of silencing the class.
“Active listening!” said Mr. Endicott. “Heads up! Tractor beams!”—the latter meaning, “Every eye on me.”
On the front wall of the classroom in handwritten words that must have taken Mr. Endicott long hours to transcribe: a list of terms that could be used to praise or criticize a student’s work in mathematics. At Level Four, the highest of our levels of success, a child’s “problem-solving strategies” could be described, according to this list, as “systematic, complete, efficient, and possibly elegant,” while the student’s capability to draw conclusions from the work she had completed could be termed “insightful…, comprehensive.” At Level Two, the child’s capability to draw conclusions was to be described as “logically unsound”—at Level One, “not present.” Approximately 50 separate categories of proficiency, or lack of such, were detailed in this wall-sized tabulation.
An assistant to the principal remained with me throughout the class and then accompanied me wherever else I went within the school. Having an official shadow me so closely is a bit unusual in visits that I make to public schools. Principals who feel relaxed and confident about their teachers typically invite me to sit in on classes without constant supervision and to visit classes that have not been pre-selected. Also unusual, I realized later, was that Mr. Endicott, whom I had met before, did not say hello to me until nearly the final moments of the class and didn’t actually acknowledge I was there except by stoping by my desk and handing me the worksheet on perimeters.
[…] It is one of the few classrooms I had visited up to that time in which almost nothing even hinting at spontaneous emotion in the children or the teacher surfaced in the time that I was there.
I had visited classes that resembled this in Cuba more than 20 years before; but in the Cuban schools the students were allowed to question me, and did so with much charm and curiosity, and teachers broke the pace of lesson plans from time to time to comment on a child’s question or to interject a casual remark that might have been provoked by something funny that erupted from a boy or girl who was reacting to my presence in the class. What I saw in Cuban schools was certainly indoctrinational in its intent but could not rival Mr. Endicott’s approach in its totalitarian effectiveness.
The teacher gave the “zero noise” salute again when someone wihspered to another child at his table. “In two minutes you will have a chance to talk and share this with your partner.” Commuication between children in the class was not prohibited but was afforded time-slots and was formalized in an expression that I found included in a memo that was posted near the door: “An opportunity … to engage in Accountable Talk.”
Even the teacher’s words of praise were framed in terms consistent with the lists that had been posted on the wall. “That’s a Level Four suggestion” said the teacher when a child made an observation other teachers might have praised as simply “pretty good” or “interesting” or “mature.”
There was, it seemed, a formal name for every cognitive event within this school: “Authentic Writing,” “Active Listening,” “Accountable Talk.” […]
These naming exercises and the imposition of an all-inclusive system of control on every form of intellectual activity consumed a vast amount of teaching time but seemed to be intrinsic to the ethos here: a way of ordering cognition beyond any effort of this sort I’d seen in the United States before. The teacher, moerover, did not merely name and govern every intellectual event with practiced specificity; he also issued his directions slowly, pacing words with a meticulous delivery that brought to my mind the way the staff attendants spoke to the Alzheimer’s patients at my father’s nursing home.
I remember, too, another aspect of my visit that distinguished this from almost anyother class I’d visited up to this time: Except for one brief giggle of a child sitting close to me which was effectively suppressed by Mr. Endicott, nothing even faintly frivolous took place while I was there. No one laughed. No child made a funny face to somebody beside her. Neither Mr. Endicott nor his assistant laughed as best as I can recall. This is certainly unusual within a class of eight-year-olds. […]
When I was later looking at my notes, I also noticed that I couldn’t find a single statement made by any child that had not been prompted by the teacher’s questions, other than one child’s timid question about which “objective” should be written on the first line of a page they had been asked to write. I found some notes on children moving from their tables to their “centers” and on various hand-gestures they would make as a response to the hand-gestures of their teachers; but I found no references to any child’s traits of personality or even physical appearance. Differences between the children somehow ceased to matter much during the time that I observed the class. The uniform activities and teacher’s words controlled my own experience perhaps as much as they controlled and muted the expressiveness of children.”
Before I left the school, I studied again the definition of “Authentic Writing” that was posted in the corridor. Whaever it was, according to the poster, it was “driven by curriculum…” That was it, and nothing more. Its meaning or its value was established only by cross-reference to another schoolbound term to which it had been attached by “drive” in passive form. Authenticity was what somebody outside of this building, more authoritative than the children or their teachers, said that it shall be. (pp. 64–71)
There is a huge amount of education inequality within our nation, within our states, within our school districts, within our individual school buildings. Which raises the question: am I part of the problem, or am I part of the solution?
My daughter is part of a special program which is housed within one of the schools in our local school district. I’m all for different schools having different educational programs: I don’t believe in uniformity, since different students, parents, and teachers have different goals, different philosophies, are simply different people.
Having said that, different programs is one thing; different resources is quite another. Some of the resources I don’t feel guilty about: parents volunteering is one thing, grant money is one thing. And donations in kind can be fine, too. (Not always, but in certain contexts: I would be bothered by rich parents giving dozens of computers, but I wouldn’t be bothered by, say, people bringing in food to some sort of get-together.) But asking for a financial donation from parents who participate in the school? It’s not required—I hope that requiring a donation would be forbidden by law—but even the suggestion very much strikes me the wrong way.
The next question: how do I act on this in a responsible fashion?
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