DIFFERENT CITY, SAME PROBLEM! The DC schools have a new master plan—one which avoids the whole problem: // link // print // previous // next //
THURSDAY, MARCH 2, 2006
LIBERALS REBUT: Some liberals were puzzled by yesterdays post. Others, of course, were predictably outraged, and treated themselves to a good, solid cry. A mostly sensible rebuttal was lodged by a sharp, long-time reader in Los Angeles:
E-MAIL: Bob, today you're wrong. Some liberals do still care about low-income kids. An example is Rob Reiner, whose prescription, quite correctly in my opinion, is universal preschool, which he's trying to get passed as a referendum in California.Reiner is an excellent (if lonely) counter-example, one whom weve long admired for his efforts. By the way, what do you think of Reiners program? Its hard to say—and he was easy for us to forget—because his work is almost never discussed. Whens the last time you saw a discussion of Reiners proposal? Whens the last time you saw a discussion of whether preschool really works?
We didnt and dont mean our remarks as an insult. But please! We said that liberal journals and liberal bloggers almost never discuss low-income education, although the topic used to be high on our play-lists. The accuracy of those statements strikes us as obvious. This doesnt mean that people who run liberal journals are terrible people. It simply means what it simply says: Liberal journals spend almost no time on this subject. As a result, the discussion is left to second-tier minds—and its endlessly driven by fatuous scripts. Last Sunday, for example, David Broder wrote one of the silliest columns weve ever seen about the problems of high school drop-outs (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/27/06). Result? No one said a word about it! Simply put, liberal writers dont seem to care a whole lot about these topics. Thats why the discussion is left to fantasists like the great Pundit Dean.
This doesnt make anyone a bad person. It doesnt mean that some readers wife has been insulted, although it feels good to boo-hoo about it. But no—liberal journals almost never discuss low-income education. And when a major report in the Los Angeles Times described a remarkable situation—with thousands of kids forced to drop out of school—no one said a word about that. Whatever one thinks of the school boards policy, such topics simply dont get discussed. If it troubles you to hear obvious statements of fact, we suggest that you restrict yourself to more reliable outposts on the liberal web.
For the record, Kevin Drum did recommend yesterdays column—first indulging in a bit of semi-puzzling snark about Bush-bashing and Gore-mongering. Bush-bashing? Gore-mongering? Have we ever expressed a view about Gores merits? About the merits of Gores policies? We have few views about any of that; we voted for Gore, as we voted for Kerry, because we always vote for the Democrat. We did, of course, produce endless information—in real time, then in the years which followed—about the remarkable coverage of Campaign 2000, a topic which career liberal writers have simply, absolutely refused to discuss, in real time or later. But we dont regard that as a case of Gore-mongering; we regard that as a case of recent history-mongering. It has been astounding to see the way lib/Dem elites have refused to discuss this remarkable episode and the coverage of Clinton which led into it. (Bye-bye, Fools for Scandal.) As weve said, it leaves us in a remarkable situation. The other side wont stop repeating things which are false. Meanwhile, our leaders refuse to say what is true. And Kevin cant get this bug out of his ear. Weve endlessly praised Kevin as a general analyst, and were happy to do so again. On this, he refuses to make sense.
Finally, were pleased to respond to one outraged Drum commenter, who lowered the boom in several posts. Here was one objection:
COMMENTER: I'd be happier if [Somerby] wrote a coherent, well-supported argument as to (1) what the problem was in the outcomes, (2) what the status quo policy was that created the problem in the outcomes, and (3) what recommendation he had to correct the failed policy, along with reasons why we should expect the policy to succeed.Finally, a question so coherent we think we can answer! What recommendation do we have to correct the failed policy? Simple: Well recommend not requiring algebra for graduation! Were fairly sure this policy will succeed. In our view, students will not drop out of school because of a class they dont take.
Special Report: Farewell, Gabriela!
VISIT OUR INCOMPARABLE ARCHIVES: Be sure to read each part of our current series, Farewell, Gabriela:
Part 1: A brilliant report in the L. A. Times begins with a child left behind. (See THE DAILY HOWLER, 2/22/06.)Today, we offer the first of two epilogs—a critique of the DC school systems latest master plan.
EPILOG—DIFFERENT CITY, SAME PROBLEM: As far as we know, kids dont have to pass Algebra 1 to graduate from D.C. high schools. But the Districts largely low-income system has the same achievement problems found in the schools of L.A. In Tuesdays Post, Dion Hayes described the Districts latest new plan—the new master education plan of superintendent Clifford Janey. In the process, Hayes gave the skinny on the Districts schools:
HAYES (2/28/06): The 120-page document, which Janey has been working on for a year, is aimed at introducing more rigor, organization and accountability to the beleaguered 58,394-student system, in which 80 of 147 schools are on a federal watch list because of weak test scores.Over half the Districts schools are on the bad list because of low test scores. The academic failures which Kozol describes in L.A. also obtain in D.C. According to teachers at the school, the average ninth grade student reads at fourth or fifth grade level, Kozol wrote of Fremont High in Los Angeles (see THE DAILY HOWLER, 3/1/06). Nearly a third read at third grade level or below. We can presume that similar problems are also found in D.C.
And uh-oh! To judge from Hayes report, the District system—like that in Los Angeles—lacks a real plan to address such problems. No, the Districts students wont be forced to take Algebra 1 six times in four years; even in this Era of Magical Thinking, the Districts plan doesnt simply command its struggling students to pass. But, to judge from Hayes report, the Districts new plan simply doesnt address the grinding problem Kozol described. After Janeys plan takes hold, will ninth-graders still read on third grade level? Alas! Nothing in this new master plan seems to address that basic question. As in L.A., so too in D.C.—a basic omission obtains.
As always, of course, officials are thrilled by the brilliance of Janeys submission. This doesnt mean theyre bad people—just that theyre playing a familiar role in a familiar old drama:
HAYES: School Board President Peggy Cooper Cafritz last night gave the proposals a strong endorsement. "The board is anxious to pass all the policies necessary to support the plan," she said. "We are so ready to put these changes into the school system. It's very exciting.So what makes up this new master plan—the new master plan which is so exciting? Lets run through what the plan includes—and then note what it doesnt.
First, the plan would replace the school system's current hodgepodge of grade configurations, Hayes reports. Later, he details these changes:
HAYES: Under the proposed grade configuration, most children would attend elementary school from pre-kindergarten through grade 5 and middle school for grades 6 through 8. All students would go to high school for grades 9 through 12. A few schools that cover pre-kindergarten through grade 8 would be allowed to retain that structure.No doubt about it—all that is a change. But could anyone really get excited about it? In Los Angeles, ninth-graders already attend senior high schools, gaining that valuable year of experience. Janey claims that the current regime is, somehow, a setup for failure. But all across the United States, struggling students have conclusively shown that they can fail under this proposed grade set-up too. This part of the plan may make perfect sense. But it surely wont make any difference.
But then, nothing else that Janey proposed is likely to matter much, either. For under-performing (low-scoring) high schools, he makes this semi-puzzling proposal:
HAYES: Janey said he targeted under-performing high schools for his plan to offer more specialized courses of study. Under his proposal, Eastern Senior High School in Northeast would become the District of Columbia Latin School, focusing on studies in the humanities and foreign languages and modeled on the elite Boston Latin School, which Janey attended.That proposal does suggest the Era of Magical Thinking. Is Eastern High a low-scoring school? Simple! Well simply declare it elite! Just like the high school we once attended! Eventually, of course, D.C. Latin may be a great school—for kids who arent on third grade level. In fairness, Janey has also proposed some changes which could speak to those students needs too:
HAYES (continuing directly): Spingarn, in Northeast, would become a boarding school for students interested in construction trades; Cardozo, in Northwest, a "trans-tech" school for the study of transportation and aeronautics; Ballou, in Southeast, a media and communications school; and Anacostia, in Southeast, a health and medical sciences school.This suggests that Janey is considering the needs of kids who arent doing well academically. But uh-oh! Back in those new middle schools, Janey is again Thinking Magically:
HAYES: To reduce the number of students who leave the public school system after elementary school, Janey is proposing to beef up offerings in the middle grades. His plan calls for more technology, counseling and after-school enrichment activities—including chess, drama and sports—in middle schools...Sports is good. Chess is good. So is drama—and so is counseling. But those beefed-up offerings—that full immersion—again seem aimed at successful students. Theyll take the IB program in high school! And then theyll all move on to Yale!
Janey proposes a minor increase in the systems preschool program. But this minor increase leads on to the groaning omission in this new master plan. In Hayes report, there isnt a word—not a single word—about what will occur in elementary schools. Sixth grade will be removed from these schools—and thats the last thing Janey says.
At Fremont High, the average ninth grade student reads at fourth or fifth grade level, Kozol wrote. Nearly a third read at third grade level or below. We can assume the same of D.C. schools—that huge numbers of kids, like Gabriela, emerge from the systems elementary schools with extremely weak academic skills. Under Janeys plan, they will then pass on to middle schools which have exciting, beefed-up offerings. But kids with extremely weak academic skills cant really gain from exciting classes like that—just as Gabriela, and thousands of others, couldnt really cut it in algebra class. The obvious question is grindingly obvious: What will happen in D.C.s elementary schools so that children will come to middle and high school with decent academic skills? What will happen on the first day of kindergarten? What will change in the Districts first grades? In short, what does the District plan to do so that this no longer obtains?
CENTER FOR AMERICAN PROGRESS: Young low-income and minority children are more likely to start school without having gained important school readiness skills, such as recognizing letters and counting...By the fourth grade, low-income students read about three grade levels behind non-poor students.What does the District plan to do in its elementary schools—so that kids arent three levels behind by the time they reach the fourth grade? Uh-oh! There isnt a word in Hayes report about any plan to address this problem. This is the central problem of our low-income schools. And, to judge from this report, Janeys program completely ignores it.
And make no mistake—this omission is completely typical of the world in which we live. We live in a world in which school boards routinely express excitement about plans which avoid the basic problem—plans which simply command kids to pass, or completely ignore the first grade. And we live in a world in which major writers have little or nothing to say about this—about this completely familiar absurdity. Hayes report appeared two days ago; today, local columnist Marc Fisher tackles the new master plan in the Post. But have you seen your favorite liberal blogger address it? We dont mean it as an attack when we say this: Of course you havent seen such a thing—and, almost surely, you never will. Low-income schools have been off the liberal agenda for decades. In part for that reason, we live in an Era of Magical Thinking, in which one city simply commands kids to pass, while another city plans elite schools—without plans to produce elite students.
Different city—pretty much the same magic. Janey would change the DC system—without saying a word about first and second grades. In Janeys defense, its hard to know what should be done in kindergarten, in grades 1 and 2. Few politicians have any idea—and neither do superintendents. Meanwhile, back to those failing algebra students—just what should those students be studying? Tomorrow, well move ahead to that question—although answers will take a long time.
AN EXCITING SCHOOL IN LOW-INCOME NEW YORK: For ourselves, we have no doubt about Janeys sincerity. But specialized high schools can sound exciting—yet be quite dreary in the real world. What happens to specialty schools in major cities which fail to solve that lower-grade problem? In The Shame of the Nation, Jonathan Kozol describes the plight of some low-income kids in New York—hopeful kids who signed up to attend a specialized middle school:
KOZOL (page 100-101): Earlier in this writing, for example, I have spoken of Pineapples older sister and her cousin, both of whom were students at a South Bronx middle school that bore Paul Robesons name. Robeson, however, as I subsequently learned, wasnt the complete name of this school. The Paul Robeson School for Medical Careers and Health Professions was the full and seemingly enticing designation that it bore; and, sadly enough, this designation and the way the school described itself in a brochure that had been given to the fifth grade students in the local elementary schools had led these girls into believing that enrolling there would lead to the fulfilment of a dream they shared: They wanted to be doctors.For ourselves, were not cynics about Janeys sincerity (or about that of Cafritz). But in our view, Janeys plan does not sound exciting. Specialized high schools arent all that exciting if theyre full of kids on third-grade level. The rubber meets the road in the earliest grades, and Janeys plan doesnt say a word about what is going to change there. Meanwhile, in recent decades, liberal and mainstream writers have tended to avoid these topics—in droves. New plans are presented; almost no one says boo; and ten years later, a new generation shows up in high school reading on the third-grade level. In some school systems, theyre flunking algebra—six separate times in four years.
By the way, did you se anyone comment on this part of Kozols book when it appeared last year? We did not. But we dont say that to goad the easily offended; we offer it instead as a challenge.