Aug. 19th, 2013

pktechgirlbackup: (pktechgirl)
The Lottery (available on Netflix Streaming) is a documentary on Harlem Success Academy, a chain of charter schools in NYC. To state my biases up front: I think charter schools and vouchers are good things. Not because private companies are intrinsically better than the government, but because they are given more opportunities to fail. Failing teachers can be fired, instead of just traded to other schools. Failing principles can be replaced. Failing schools are themselves shut down, at a frequency and speed unheard of for public schools. I believe that over time this will up the quality of charter schools relative to traditional public schools, even if quality for individual schoolsqw is a random walk.

In the specific case of Harlem Success Academy, they seem to be doing good work, in that their students can read and count and students who applied but lost the lottery by and large can't. This is amazing and good for children and I am so glad that HSA exists and is able to rescue some of the children from the wasteland that is poverty stricken public schools.

And yet, when Harlem Success Academy says their goal is for every one of their students to attend college, I cringed. I have spent weeks thinking about this and I think I'm starting to understand why.

First, it's a low bar. There are some shitty schools that will accept absolutely anyone but do nothing for their students, and it's a disservice to children to pretend that these are worth aspiring to.

But assume they restrict themselves to a certain quality bar of college. It's still outsourcing evaluation, and it's evaluating for very specific things. Some of those things are literacy and numeracy, which I'm prepared to acknowledge as blanket good things. But it's also heavily weighted to those who can sit down and shut up. To quote Alex Tabarov: " A big part of the problem is that the United States has paved a single road to knowledge, the road through the classroom. "Sit down, stay quiet, and absorb. Do this for 12 to 16 years," we tell the students, "and all will be well." " We tell children it's college or nothing, and those that don't thrive on the college track are left to rot.

On thing Off the Books made abundantly clear is that people in urban ghettos are incredibly creative and entrepreneurial. They're unable to harness that into fully supporting themselves in the manner to which they wish to become accustomed for a variety of reasons, some of which are fixable. What if we taught kids how to scale their hair braiding or unlicensed cab companies into full businesses? * What if we gave them apprenticeships in plumbing and electrical work and the know-how to turn that into a business?

I'm not saying these kids categorically don't deserve to go to college or aren't good enough for it. I'm saying that some of them would be better served by a different goal, just like a lot of white upper class kids. I also see this push for college as symptomatic of a devaluing of critical thinking skills on at least two different levels. And that makes me sad.

Contrast with this TED talk:


In it, Freeman Hrabowski, present of University of Maryland Baltimore County, talks about how he and UMBC worked to decrease the dropout rate of black students in STEM majors, and then applied these same ideas to help other students in other fields. This is a very different problem than working with desperately poor 5 year olds, so I'm not going to pretend you could just plop Hrabowski in and fix everything I dislike about Harlem Success Academy. And he is measuring a lot of his success in # of MD-PHDs produced. And he says a lot of the same things as HSA about working to remove obstacles for students. But he emphasizes how his students succeed on their own terms. He's helping them keep their dreams, not telling them their dreams are shameful and they should adopt these better ones.


*For that matter, what if we fixed tax and licensing laws so this was possible without hiring lawyers? Not the school's issue, but a thing I think would do a lot of good.

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