Who Needs to Get Schooled?

By , January 12, 2011 10:46 pm

Can we have a new superintendent now? And some news writers who are willing to use their critical thinking abilities? The Courant has published — in the past two days — two articles that show the need for both of those things.

On January 11th, “Hartford Schools Making Progress, National Researchers Say,” provides glowing approval of the findings released by the University of Washington. Not until the tail end of the article is there any indication that the Adamowski reforms are being met by anything but approval: “The school choice system has drawn a complicated mix of praise, confusion and some resentment from various corners of the city.” Even if that quote was buried deep in the article, it is telling. Maybe this “complicated mix” is what makes it so impossible to read much of anything that’s multidimensional about the Hartford Public Schools; the reporters just can’t wrap their heads around it.

Further proof of this is found in”Faced with Choice, Some Hartford Parents Pick Poor-Performing Schools,” an article published today in the “Connecticut News” section (even if it’d fit better in the op-ed section) and not attributed to anyone (though the hyperlink contains “Green” and Rick Green did attend last night’s special Board of Education meeting). The title alone has a negative connotation. It can be interpreted as “even though Hartford parents are able to make decisions with all the information at hand, they don’t love their children enough to send them to better schools.”

The first paragraph reads: “One of the more impressive achievements in Hartford over the last few years has been creation of a system that allows parents to choose whatever school in the city they want for their child.” Parents have always been able, technically, to choose which school their child attends; however, the method of choice would have involved moving to an area where the desirable schools are. Traditionally, this is how parents — those who can afford to, anyway — have decided where their children would attend school. An example of this is the countless people who would have preferred a more vibrant community or cheaper mortgages, but who settle into towns like West Hartford because they have heard it has a good school system. People, when they are searching for homes, tend to ask about the quality of schools in the areas where they are looking.

Now, a family can not just move into a neighborhood where their ideal school is located and expect their children to be able to attend it. For one, there’s a lottery system.

Parents are told that their child is guaranteed admission to one of the four schools that they list, but the catch is that these are not ranked by preference. Maybe the parents are told in a less official capacity that they should only list schools they really want their child to attend, even if that means listing only one. Maybe they are not told this. Taking this further, if Junior is artistic and wants to get into that type of school, but lists some alternatives because he does not know better, and Johnny randomly lists the same schools but does not care about the arts one way or the other, none of that information is taken into consideration. Johnny might get the spot in the arts school, and Junior might end up in something he was not as enthusiastic about. It’s not as simple as parents not caring about their child’s education; the whole choice process is convoluted.

Later on in the article, the “astonishing news” is shared:

Researchers tracking education reform in Hartford were surprised when they stumbled upon a curious development at some of the city’s lowest-performing schools.

In a number of these schools, the parents remained strongly supportive of their failing school. In education jargon, they were not “voting with their feet” and asking to attend a different school.

Such surprise is saturated with privilege and shows how far out of touch some administrators are with the community.

Adamowski is quoted in the article as saying:

“Parents are very much aware of the level of achievement at their school,” he said. “They will always choose first for achievement — once they know about it. A parent that chooses a school is much more committed to a school and you see it in performance.”

It’s not as simple as just liking teachers and becoming attached to the school for that reason, as the anonymous author implies. Here are some of the questions that I would be asking parents whose children attend “poor-performing schools”:

  • How well do you understand the “choiceprocess? Who has informed you about this? Did you receive communication in a language that you understand? Do you have the computer access and knowledge required to fill out the online-only application? Were you informed about when choice fairs were scheduled? Does your work schedule allow you to attend such events?
  • When attending a school choice fair, was your child discouraged from applying to a certain school? Were you given a talk about how competitive one of these “better” schools are and how much homework the student would have? Did you get a sense that some of these higher-performing schools were trying to discourage Hartford children from attending them?
  • Does your family move frequently and at times of the year when certain schools may already be filled to capacity?
  • What other priorities do you have besides good teachers? How would you rank these as being important to you: test scores, curriculum, diversity of faculty, diversity of student body, proximity to home, the principal, safety, support services for students with learning disabilities and attention disorders, support services for English Language Learners, and keeping child with his/her other siblings?

I would begin with those questions. I would accept that parents have varying ideas about what a “good” education is and that they have the right to make these decisions (hopefully after discussing it somewhat with their children) without being treated with condescension. But what I would not do is uncritically absorb information that almost wholeheartedly supports a superintendent’s agenda. There are some positive things to be said about the reforms, yes, but it’s not all sunshine and unicorns.

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