Friday, March 29, 2013

180 Days: Inspiration, Desperation, and Deselection

This spring break, I didn't read the three education books I was planning to. Instead, I spent a good chunk of time watching 180 Days: A Year Inside an American High School. It's a documentary about DC Metropolitan High School, an alternative or "last chance" school that's part of DCPS.

It was well-done and compelling. I highly recommend it. On a personal level, it reminded me a lot of the DCPS high school where I taught in terms of the population we served and the dedication and humanity of the faculty and staff. It's a great portrait of what many poor students deal with outside of school and what their schools must consider when educating them. It also inspired me to think about returning to such work, although I realize that this is partly due to the dynamism of Principal Tanishia Williams-Minor.

But there were also some things that reminded me of the dark side of disruptive-style education reform efforts and test-based accountability schemes: test prep and destructive firings and lay-offs.

As in my own children's school, the adults at DC Met try their best to make testing the most humane and fun experience possible. Given the stakes and their good intentions, it would be harsh of me to judge them. But I can't help but shake my head in discouragement by the wasted time and effort. So much creativity, so much planning, so much anxiety goes into teaching test prep. Imagine how much more meaningfully and productively that effort could be channeled.

Former Principal Minor is right when she says that DC Met students should have the skills and knowledge to be able to pass such tests as the DC CAS. Even if they're unreliable and/or biased tests, which I concur that many of them are, it's undeniable that most middle and higher income kids will at least pass them. But the thing is, you can't cram or drill for such tests. Teachers should familiarize test-takers with the format, but that should only take an hour or so. Ultimately, practicing for such tests will not result in meaningful learning, career or college readiness, or alas, higher test scores (see here and here).

As for destruction, I was upset by the ending but then I thought about what Williams-Minor had said during the film on the subject and I read the gracious thoughts she shared after the filming, and I figured that, well, if she's not outraged then I guess I shouldn't be either. DCPS, however showed no such class. When asked for comment by the radio show Talk of the Nation, DCPS Superintendent for Alternative School Terry DeCarbo made this comment about the film:
180 Days accurately shows what we've long known at DCPS — many of our students face tremendous barriers well before the school day begins. It's why we work to ensure our schools are not only rigorous academics environments, but also supportive to meet our students' social and emotional needs. Schools like Washington Met, while not typical American high schools, were specifically designed to address these challenges. We believe there is a fascinating story to be told about the lives of students at Washington Met but unfortunately, even given unprecedented access, the movie fails to show the real role that the school plays in educating these students. Rather than focus on teaching and learning, the movie spends a significant amount of time on personnel matters on which DCPS does not comment. [Emphasis mine.]
Hahaha! Are you kidding me?!?! DCPS spends "a significant amount of time on personnel matters," not to mention commenting on it. "Personnel matters," aka teacher quality and principal quality, aka firing people is the central stated component to their education reform platform. Since when do they concern themselves much with teaching and learning, with pedagogy and curriculum? As for commenting on personnel matters, former Chancellor Michelle Rhee infamously handled a "personnel matter" on national television. Rhee also publicly and without any evidence accused 266 teachers she was letting go of sexual abuse, corporal punishment, and chronic absenteeism.

The documentary and Williams-Minor's approach is premised on the idea that a sense of community and solid relationships between educators and their students are key to the learning process, especially for students who want for healthy communities and relationships with adults outside of school. Unfortunately, DCPS and other reformy systems (see Chicago Public Schools) champion ideology that fosters the opposite.

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