Geoffrey Canada of the Harlem Children’s Zone on The Colbert Report Jan. 4, 2011:
Stephen Colbert: Who’s to blame? Is it the teachers’ union or the teachers’ union?
Geoffrey Canada: Well, I think you’ve got to really say it’s both in this case.
See the whole interview here.
That question and answer give us a perfect snapshot of the dominant narrative within the national discussion of school reform. I think the question now is, do the Unions have the ability to reframe and shift that discussion toward actually improving public education and away from the business-models that currently appear to have broad support across the spectrum.
Although I am just shifting the blame, here, I have to ask if anyone is suggesting that parents are the ones that are failing their children by not investing more time with their own children and their education?
Those voices are out there and rather strong, esp, when talking about “urban” [i.e. brown poor people’s] schools. Teachers, parents, unions are all blamed. Even buildings get blamed.
As far as parents not investing enough in their children, that also implies you must have engaged, educated, available parents, which is what all children should have but is not realistic. Even well-off parents can be disengaged and neglectful, and if you have nothing but the clothes on your back, all the love and the encouragement and warm fuzzies you pour into your child won’t make a bad school better or get them to medical school, despite the widely and loudly promoted exceptions. Schools must educate the child who walks in regardless of the parent or parents or whether the child has parents at all. If the only way you can get a decent education and have some success in life is for your parents to be highly functional, we’re writing off a big chunk of children who, like it or not, will grow up into adults.
Parents fail children all the time. Schools, and the rest of us, should do better.
Canada talks up how essential a college degree is (specious at the get go) and his great success in Harlem has graduated 10,000 kids, of which 600 have gone to college (he didn’t mention how many have actually graduated). That’s 6%.
I appreciate the comments. G and Derek make very good and interesting points. I wasn’t making distinction between wealthy and poor parents, nor commenting issues of self-esteem. My question had more to do with the ever increasing levels of responsibility being placed on the schools. Take, for example, 65% of the students in my program are in teacher education, specialized exams (SPAs) and according to the standardized State content exams, NCATE approved portfolios, student teaching experiences, etc, once certified, these students are much more qualified than teachers who graduated 20 years ago.
Yet, we are demanding more and more from them.
From a systemic standpoint, we can always say that things can be improved. “We can do better.” However, my question was, why is the onus being placed more and more on schools and teachers? Are parents less available? Are we asking teachers to become supermen and superwomen?
I have to ask, how many parents have been certified to be parents? How many of them study to pass national exams to become parents? How many put the time into it? The answer is none. G’s point about having time is very, very valid. If a parent is working 14 hours a day in a restaurant or in meat packing at the Back of the Yards (South-side of Chicago reference), there isn’t much time left for go over the homework, read the papers, have reading groups, etc.
Schools are struggling now more than ever in part because of everything they’re expected to do.
So many social services have been herded into schools, public sentiment being pretty hardened against them anywhere else. Now schools are supposed to provide not just education but nutritious meals, physical fitness, mental health counseling, health screening, after school recreation, job training…and that’s just the beginning.
The ed reformers’ refrain that teachers must take 100% of the responsibility for student success is well-meaning but does not honor just how complicated children’s lives are. And the Teach For America-spawned idea that elite-educated 22-year-olds (mostly middle class and white) must swoop in to take full responsibility for their students’ future success smacks, to me, of bit of White God-ism…one in which several parties, including reformers and checked-out parents, are complicit.
Yes, teachers can do better. But we need a culture of high expectations for parents, too, backed up with decent social services operated outside of the school.
How does one create a “culture of high expectations for parents”? Sounds great–count me in–but it’s a bit utopian, isn’t it?
As far as the social services, I’m not sure what’s wrong with providing “nutritious meals, physical fitness, mental health counseling, health screening, after school recreation, job training” in schools, particularly in under-served communities. The schools I went to–many years ago!–provided (somewhat) nutritious meals, physical fitness, health screening and after-school recreation. Just seems like a good idea to meet people where they’re at, and kids are at school.
Hey, Derek–knew you’d be nipping my heels as soon as I hit “Post.” Hello, there.
Hm. Before you throw your hands up, yes, there are ways to engage parents. My experience in ed-reform circles was that parents were expected to be either hostile or absent. And a lot are, but many would be glad to offer a hand if asked and given direction. Having also served in a private school, I can say that this is a huge difference: there, parents were all over the place. Taking part is what you did (probably too much–another story, tho). So, no, not a perfect solution, and yes, the most reliable parents and grandparents would no doubt have the lion’s share of responsibility, but I think it would make a huge difference in school culture.
Utopian? Certainly no more than believing a group of people, many from outside the community, can act as parents as well as educators, medics, aerobics instructors, and spiritual guides to a group of children they’ll know for a year or two.
Finally, nothing is *wrong* with providing social services to children in school, and it’s less of a burden in districts where the need isn’t so great (like the one you lived in?). But this misses the point, and besides, if it worked so well, why are so many schools having a hard time getting it all done?
Imagine you’re trying to teach a class in high school English; most students don’t read on grade level, many have undiagnosed learning disabilities including dyslexia, and many can’t read at all. Behavior issues? Off the charts. Now try to teach while sending students–often the ones already behind–out to group therapy sessions and health screenings. One kid makes fun of you. Several simply sit with their heads down, not listening. Bell rings; you try to quietly pass out some deodorant and fresh t-shirts to a couple of kids who need it…
Yes, there are ways to teach in that situation. But most people capable of doing so are capable of working in a lot of other jobs that aren’t isolating, humiliating, and exhausting. And they move on.
As a society, it’s hypocritical to shove the social burden into schools and on a few teachers without giving them meaningful support.
Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Darcy. You’re right about us probably all being utopian in one way or another. However, I certainly wasn’t advocating shoving social burdens on teachers without meaningful support. If I were pulling the levers of society teachers and schools would be supported like the 83rd Airborne. And class sizes would be slashed, etc. But you make excellent points, especially about the reality of the classroom. My primary concern above was the children who simply will not get the support from their families that they need and deserve. Somebody–some entity–should step up, and if it’s not the parents or family, then who?
I like Darcy’s points. Derek’s rejoinder brings to mind some middle of the road examples in which, I think, parents could have made a difference. These are anecdotal but fairly widespread. The one I have in mind is when the parents and are available and even very caring, but education is not a priority. The example is that of a promising student from 26th and Pulaski, Chicago’s Little Village. He was first in his family to finish high school and the first to attend the university. Even though his future is tied to an education, his family places a higher value on his physical presence, being there, rather than studying for an unknown result. One notable problem was when he had an exam and his grandmother became ill. He was expected to drop everything and rush home without taking the exam. In this case, the immediacy of physical presense (even though he wasn’t a doctor and could do nothing but accompany the other ten relatives in the waiting room) took precedence over the future reward of a succesful performance in class. Unfortunately, we see this problem a lot. Likewise we see the problem with young hispanic women who are expected to live at home until they marry and not go to school. I can give more examples but I suppose these suffice.
I think the central problem in the general debate, not necessarily here, is that blame is whirling around looking for somewhere to land so folks can feel okay about themselves/their position/what-have-you. Should parents do x? Yes. But the reality is that you do not need a license or certification to be a parent and we are not as a country or society going to strictly mandate parenting or reproduction. Do social supports need to be integrated into schools? Yes. That takes commitment and money because teachers are not supposed to be nutritionists, social workers, life coaches, etc. but teachers and that takes more than enough time and energy just to do it half-right. Teachers get dumped on because they are convenient targets, like students [bad test scores! bad attendance! bad attitude! bad clothes and music!] and principals [bad test scores!] and parents [bad you-name-it!]. The problems in education, urban and suburban and rural, are not individual—i.e. it is not at the level of the individual where change most needs to occur. We can rant or hold our breath but what we can actually do to effect change is make collective action, collectively find problems to solve and solutions for them that do not involve or require heroic individuals, privileged young people Doing The Good Work, superhuman parents, intellectual sleight-of-hand, delusions, perfect buildings or perfect test scores.
And I will say more clearly—my issue with it’s-parents/expect-more-from-parents is that it leaves out, intentionally or unintentionally, a chunk of children, encourages writing off Those Who Do Not Have. I can’t abide by that. Call me utopian.
Jimmy, yes, you are right. Excellent examples. How do schools compete, if need be, with lives led by students? Like the student who is the only English speaker in the extended family and your examples and 1000s more. We can wish and hope and debate but the shit needs to get done and now and here with these kids right here and now.
Hi, folks, I like how this discussion is taking shape. The nut of the issue, from Derek and G’s posts, is where or which group of students need additional support structures. Both of you are focusing on the most needy. I would say that these are not “at risk” a term used frequently in universities, they may be lost or off the radar already. I have seen a number of situations in parent-teacher conferences in which parents–for a host of reasons–were at subsistence level and the “family” was already fragmented. Other children had severe learning disabilities, behavior issues, developmental issues that were going to keep them from successful completion of high school. What to do? I have more questions than answers.