June 2015


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We all want what’s good – for ourselves and oftentimes for those we love.  Ask most parents, and they’ll tell you that’s the way they feel about their child.  So they make deliberate choices – eat this, don’t eat that, watch this, don’t watch that, wear this, definitely don’t wear that.

How to eat, watch, and dress a child are relatively straightforward decisions for most parents.  However, times have changed the way parents decide how to educate their child.

“There used to be a time that you send your child to the school where you grew up, and that’s like their second parent, second family.”  One parent shared this with me as I sat with a group of mothers and fathers to discuss the quality of education in their neighborhood.

The event was a lively one.  There was a mixture of frustration and excitement as we tried to figure out what has or hasn’t worked in the past school year.

The parents live in a historically poor area of Brooklyn, NY, in what we New Yorkers know as the NYCHA buildings, or public subsidized housing.  Most of the parents were postal workers, nurse’s aides, or unemployed.  They all, though, wanted a better education for their child than they ever had.

“Raise your hand if you felt your school did all it could to help your child.”

When I asked this, the majority of parents who raised their hands had a child enrolled in the local charter school.  Everyone – even the other parents, whose children attended the neighborhood public school – had something positive to say about the charter.

“My child took the Terranova tests, and she had a really good report card.  I like their hands-on work; my daughter had to read every night, write a journal…so I think the school did very well.”

“My son is in the first grade – now he picks up a book by himself, and everything.  They taught him how to pronounce the words…he was practicing on his own a lot…so he learned a lot…”

“The school, they talk to you – they talk to you about your kids.”

“How’s the public school?”

“It sucks.”

An uproar of laughter ensued.  “Why,” I asked.

“I can say it’s a major step up from what it used to be…but it’s not for me what it used to be when I was attending it…that was back in the eighties.”

“It’s, uh…I wouldn’t say “ghetto” but it’s very unprofessional…”

Then, like firecrackers, people popped off left and right, shifting in their seats, needing to say something.  “THE PRINCIPAL!” Almost everyone sang out in a drawl.  “She coming here, tryna be down, tryna be hood with the kids, and nobody putting her in check!”

I also found out that for years, teachers were sexually abusing students at the public school, and parents were furious that nothing was done in response.  One or two parents spoke up to the media, and someone even posted the evidence to social networking sites.  But in the end, the same principal and staff are still at the school.

Back and forth parents shouted as they compared the charter to the neighborhood public school, clearly enraged over a public school system that, in their opinion, doesn’t work.  “It takes a community, more than one parent has to say something for something to happen,” one said.  There was little hope that anything could be done to change their neighborhood schools, so most parents decided their child would move to the charter school in September.

Each school year, the NYC Department of Education (DOE) published quality reports based on surveys and evidence of school achievement. So once my discussion with parents was over, I was eager to find out the statistics of student performance at each school they mentioned…

Let’s play a quick game:  take a look at the image at the top of the page.  Guess which circle describes the charter school parents were happy with.

If you chose the school on the right, surprise…you are wrong.

I was surprised as well.  Not because the public school outperformed the charter.  Scores of academic articles comparing charters to traditional public schools prove that on average, charters either perform just as good as or worse than their public school counterparts.  What shocked me was that the very school parents were upset with the most had better student performance outcomes than the charter, even with all the drama unfolding.

First of all, I applaud these parents for meeting with me, on a late weekday night, to discuss something that’s not the most exciting thing to talk about.  Stereotypes of the black male/female living in the projects not caring about their kids were silenced by these strong, caring parents.

But I will ask these same parents the same question I asked you: if they saw this picture above, would their guess for which school is which be right?

I know that we all do our best to make deliberate choices, ones that benefit not only us but the ones we love.  How conscious we are of all things to be considered might be the challenge.  As we make choices in educating children, the reasoning behind them is still not black or white.

Next post:  July 10, 2015

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The Political Economy of Sharing

WORD OF THE DAY:  Sharing.

The American Educational Research Association (AERA) says that school choice (i.e. families having multiple options of public, charter, and private schools to choose) is one of the most talked about education topics in America. It makes sense, then, that the media extensively covers the opinions of teachers, academics, and government officials on this topic. While the answer to my question might be “very” based on (at minimum) images on TV and in newspapers, I still ask how involved parents are in this and other heated debates in education.  And what kind of parents? And how did they find their way into these debates? What role have they played?

I began to worry about this when a parent (let’s call her Lisa) called me at 10 p.m. on a Wednesday night, almost a year after I last taught her child.

“You’re the only person who gonna tell me what it really is…Nobody’s telling me what’s going on…I know I might not have a degree, but you know what I KNOW when I’m being taken advantaged of…”

On and on she spilled out her frustration towards a school whose leaders promised her one thing but delivered something entirely different. Instead of self-actualizing and becoming a higher-performing scholar, her child was left worse than before.  Nevertheless, somehow the school continues to grow in enrollment, funds and influence in her community.

As we spoke, this parent also revealed to me how little she knew about her rights regarding her situation.  That led me to survey over 100 parents in NYC fitting her profile – parents raising children in low-income communities where the majority of adults have no more than a high school education.  The survey listed 10 true-or-false statements about education in America and asked parents to identify which were true and which were false.

Out of ten, only four questions were answered correctly by more than half of parents asked.  Two of those questions dealt with school choice, the most talked about education topic in America.

I’m not claiming my survey is scientific, or that all parents from poorer neighborhoods are extremely unaware of what’s really true about education policy.  I do think my survey raises important questions.  Who is sharing information with these parents about education politics?  Is the information translating the complexity of education politics in a language parents can clearly understand?  How free are these translations of bias that skews facts in favor of lobbyist groups rather than the parents they claim to help?  And would unbiased translations protect parents from continued abuse from a politicized system?

I have the stories of families living in the public housing units of Brooklyn, NY.  You will meet them over the course of this summer.  They will share their stories, and tell you for themselves how powerful or powerless they’ve felt in making choices about their child’s future.

H.A. Simon wrote that the “rational person…goes about making his or her decision in a way that is reasonable in light of the available knowledge…”  The PRESS Project chronicles the impact of critical knowledge in the hands of marginalized parents and, à la Paulo Freire, explores whether these hands eventually extend “less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work and, working, transform the world.”

Next post: June 26, 2015.

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