A few years ago I met with a school superintendent of one of the districts in the county. We had lunch at a now defunct Friday’s located on the periphery of a dying mall in Elyria, Ohio. It must have been in the early spring because the school year was coming to an end and the results of the State standardized tests were revealed. As we talked about potential funding projects within the district we were interrupted with greetings from a group of about five other men who had just finished their meal and were on their way out. The men were superintendents from other districts and of course knew the man I was with. The greetings were hearty and the topic immediately focused on the test scores. ” How’d you do Larry,” said one of the guys. The guys were comparing the scores. They were talking the same way they would about a national football, baseball or basketball championship. The guy with the poorest results withstood the jousting. It was all good fun ending with chortles and high-fives. The guys left the restaurant. Larry looked at me and said, “John, these tests are just a big game but we have to play it if we want to survive.” The comment struck me as tragic. Here was a talented creative man stuck in a system he knew was not serving its purpose and yet – there he was. More tragic was the thought of individual children who are the afterthought in this system that makes fetish of statistics and numbers.
That was my first glimpse into the public school system which, like many of our public institutions, has a disproportional number of people suffering cynicism and an overall loss of virtue. In college, I took it upon myself to read all of John Updike’s novels. Fast forward thirty years and in that restaurant in Elyria; over my “calorie conscious” club chicken salad, it occurred to me I was living an Updike chapter. Wikipedia tells us that Updike describes his subject as “the American small town, Protestant middle class.” Joyce Carol Oats says,
JOHN UPDIKE’S GENIUS is best excited by the lyric possibilities of tragic events that, failing to justify themselves as tragedy, turn unaccountably into comedies. Perhaps it is out of a general sense of doom, of American expansion and decay, of American subreligions that spring up so effortlessly everywhere, that Updike works, or perhaps it is something more personal, which his extraordinarily professional art can disguise: the constant transformation of what would be “suffering” into works of art.
Suffering was my sense in the restaurant that day. I knew instinctively I was experiencing the first of many Updike-ian experiences in Ohio. Too many good teachers and their students suffer because we are stuck in a game that is about quantifying learning in ways that are totally incapable of capturing that elusive topic. Yet in an effort to please authorities and follow the law, people get stuck in a looping game. No wonder the entire teaching profession is suffers from a malaise. Unlike the novels, I cannot find the comic relief in reality so I turn to film to find it.
We all play games. In philanthropy, the game with grantees goes something like this. “Last year we asked for $50,000 but the foundation gave us $35,000. This year we really need the $50,000 so should we ask for $65,000? It has been my experience that when we get into the game, we loose sense of our values and loose the ability to have honest conversation. If we play that game too long, we risk loosing our moral compass.
I am writing about the games we play having just spent the holidays watching the entire five seasons of the HBO Series, The Wire. I would make this required viewing for anyone intending to engage in charitable work in any urban area of the United States. This incredibly well-written and acted series validates the analysis of Dr. Kuserow which I published. in a previous post “Philanthropy and Class- What are We Thinking.” The Wire provides a glimpse into the workings of urban drug rings, police homicide and drug units, the venality of city government and the cynicism and hopelessness of urban public schools. The series hired local people to act in the film with the leads carried by professional actors. The result is a more violent but realistic portrayal on film of what Updike conveys in literature – “…the general sense of doom of American expansion and decay.” If Bach had put this series to music, the recitative would be, “It’s all in the Game.”
Let’s look at the first group – the police department. The Baltimore Chief of Police has gotten word from the Mayor to reduce the alarmingly high crime statistics. The high numbers of homicides and felonies in particular jeopardize the Mayor’s ambitions to win the upcoming Gubernatorial election. The Chief and his Deputy Chief for Operations are good bureaucrats and realize that their fealty to the Mayor will position them for promotion. Their own ambition increases the pressure on their subordinates – the district directors and the cops on the street to make the crime stats go down. The cops and their officers realize the futility of the strategies used to combat the drug wars in the city. They know their tactics of arresting street pushers is pointless since the suppliers and kingpins elude arrest. People are murdered with impunity. The Mayor demands a decrease in the stats, the Chief and the Superintendents know their orders and tell the cops they must comply. The cops play a game to keep their jobs. The “game” devolves into a cynical game of beat the chumps. Authority looses all respect. The cops change the stats and the “system” appears to improve. The game is called jukin’ the stats. Check out the meaning of Jukin’ to understand the depths of cynicism. On the ground, nothing changes. In the third this episode of the series only one cop has the courage to stand up and tell the leaders the truth. This is how that session goes – beware, the language is strong!:
A British friend of mine once stated, “In the U.S. when your legislators make a law they think the whole affair is ‘done and dusted’ ” once it is signed. The Urban Dictionary defines the term thus –
When something is “done and dusted”, it’s not merely created or accomplished, it’s also polished and cleaned up after. Nothing else is needed, so it can be considered “case closed”.
In our case, the Feds made the law (No Child Left Behind) and case is closed. The Congress wrote the law, the President signed it. People were reelected. The States were left with implementation. With no money. The result has been a system that demeans professional teachers, opens the doors to venal and ambitious personalities that will use reporting to gain recognition, access and ultimately rewards in terms of professional promotion.
In series three of The Wire one of the sharpest police officers leaves policing to become a teacher in the Baltimore public schools. There he is faced with kids from the same corners he busted their older siblings. He learns quickly bring the attitude of the corner into the classroom. The game is how to get around real learning, to test authority and ultimately assert oneself in a world of chaos. Check out this clip – I love these kids. I don’t know how many times I have seen classes just like this in my travels around the country.
B-5 “And I’m an Audi 5000!
Eventually the teacher “Mr. Prezbo” figures out these kids are not going to learn seated in rows reading from outdated and used textbooks. He senses that and realizes they can learn the material but he needs to do that by opening the learning process from their experiences. The superintendent pressures him to teach to the text. He argues they are not learning. He is told that if he wants to keep his job he must use the text. He figures out that these “corner” kids live a life of gambling and play dice in the streets. Using their experience of the game he find out they understand probability. Here is a great scene.
But save the best to last. Now into the semester, with progress made, the first-year teacher is called to a general meeting with the school principal. She describes the terms in which teaching will take place during the remaining weeks of the semester. Compare this dynamic with the first scene in the police headquarters.
Anyone I know who has seen The Wire agrees that the directors capture the reality of public education in most schools in urban areas in the U.S. It is a portrait not only of Baltimore, but New York, Cleveland, Boston….the list goes on. It is a sad and tragic case that the system is allowed to go on. Clearly there are successful classrooms and good students. The reality is those successes take place because of dedicated teachers and typically have nothing to do with the added “rigor” the legislators and designers of NCLB intended. What we have created is a sense of doom in our public schools.
I think it is the role of philanthropy to speak out against the games. Funding programs we know work. Finding and supporting teachers who are making a difference in classrooms despite the system – not because of it – remain the challenge. It is interesting to me that Al Sharpton and Joel Klein wrote and article for the January 12, 2009 Wall Street Journal entitled “Charter Schools Can Close the Education Gap – it is not acceptable for minority students to be four grades behind.” They tell us, “Genuine school reform, you stated during the campaign, “will require leaders in Washington who are willing to learn from students and teachers . . . about what actually works.”
Much like the cops on the corner or the teachers that work with the kids day in and day out, the truth will come only if we are humble enough to listen and open to learning. Doing so can open individuals to virtue.
I am happy to report that my superintendent friend retired from the system leaving behind one of the most dynamic schools in the county. The project we discussed involved implementation of the Universal Design for Learining UDL developed at the Center for Applied Special Technologies (CAST) in Winchester, Massachusetts. The foundation provided the support and worked closely in fostering healthy relations between the colleagues in Massachusetts and Ohio. He made UDL the required approach to learning for all teachers in every building in the district. By focusing on UDL and linking UDL, with Co-Teaching and appropriate use of technology, this district has had an excited teaching core and children of all abilities engaged in learining. Incidentally their test scores have gone up too.