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Education in Chicago: Why School Reform Won't Happen

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At the end of my last blog, I said that in my next post I would show why so-called "school reform" has become another empty abstraction, a slogan for politicians. I said I would demonstrate why there is no chance that real school reform will ever happen in Chicago. Here are half a dozen reasons:

(1) For 50 years we -- the public, the critics of education, the education establishment itself -- have known that schooling is in deep trouble, and not just public instruction in ghetto schools. Yet no substantive reforms have been carried out.

Everything has been proposed, everything tried -- several times. The latest cure-all promises tough, real action and painless, revolutionary, unprecedented, serendipitous, timely benefits. Its results have proven to be mixed -- and puny.

The more we talk, the greater the uncertainty about what to do grows. The more ideas put forward, the more difficult practical action becomes. The more we "innovate," the more resistant and hardened the problems of removing ignorance become.

Lately, we babble about "choice," "market forces," "competition" and charter schools. They will automatically, magically make our instructional shortcomings disappear. Would that it were so!

(2) "Excellence" is a fine slogan. But, as Jacques Barzun said 30 years ago, in academics we don't want excellence and we won't have it. Not in any school activity except sports.

And this despite the fact that everybody pays lip service to the ideal of fostering in our lower schools a group of students who achieve superior intellectual power -- for that is what "excellence" means, and only that -- while pushing the rest to surpass themselves, making school difficult and demanding for everybody.

(3) The army of M.A.'s and Ph.D.'s and EdD.'s turned out by our university schools of education and teachers colleges, the huge group of professional educators and administrators, has failed for the last 50 years to lead, innovate, reform or do anything to justify the faith that Chicago mayors, parents and the public placed in them.

University schools of education have no intention of changing their deeply flawed preparation of teachers. They continue to inculcate methods, approaches, models and paradigms into aspiring teachers, while they ignore subject matter as beneath their dignity.

Add the flood of white papers and reports produced by educational researchers and the special commissions taxed with investigating this or that "problem." They mostly end by showing the extent of our failure and misery. We are helpless to change even the tiniest sliver of public education.

That is why Ph.D. and EdD. "leaders" in Chicago are now irrelevant, forgotten, reduced to carping from the sidelines. They have nothing to suggest of the slightest worth to the Chicago Public School system.

(4) The power of the "study" to prevent practical action.

Our education experts obsessively study and re-study the effects of this or that action. These endless preliminary efforts delay and sabotage the very measures they seek to justify. As we all know, every group, every administration, every committee must have its very own study of the problem it faces.

Custom forbids that we should rely on the findings of other studies gathering dust on the shelves of our libraries. As a result, studies ultimately have no effect because we can't resist the temptation to do them over again. In repeating research, we discover the same things, or the very opposite; it makes no difference. Our revolutionary new findings end by numbing us to further revelations, and creating paralysis by confusion and indecision.

(5) The 9-year-old black schoolboy who decides that he is not going to learn to read.

This astonishing phenomenon began in the l960's and has gotten worse every decade since.

What on earth? Fourth-grade boys refusing en masse to learn to read because it's "sissy" or "white" or "girls' stuff"? Who have they been listening to?

This is a huge and terrifying problem, arising partly from gangs that tell these youngsters that learning to read is a plot by whites to keep them down, partly from the idolization of basketball and football players that begins before the children enter first grade, and partly from the deeply skeptical attitudes of some impoverished black parents towards all authority, teachers and principals included.

I wish our Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, and the President himself would stop talking to the press -- completely! -- about playing pickup basketball and the Final Four and about instituting a playoff for BCS football schools.

No more photos of Obama and Duncan shooting hoops!

I wish black parents across the country would organize a total boycott of basketball by their sons. The worship of basketball, by seducing young black men to scorn reading and writing as unmanly, has ended by maiming and killing more of them than alcohol or drugs, more than anything since slavery. Basketball is a scourge in the black community.

(6) The breakdown of classroom discipline.

The newest statistic: In more than 100 elementary schools in Chicago, the annual teacher turnover is 25 percent or more.

This statistic means that for tens of thousands of Chicago children, getting schooled is a pipe dream. It will never happen, no matter what else we do. When teachers leave in these numbers, year after year, at the same school, it means that the school is in chaos.

To sum up: These six obstacles will sabotage any chance of reform for many years to come, and the last two are especially powerful reform-stoppers.

This half-dozen by no means exhausts the list of insuperable roadblocks that Mr. Ron Huberman faces. I could name off the top of my head another dozen reform-killers.

But the spreading sickness of classroom bedlam, and the thousands of male fourth-, fifth- and sixth-graders who can't and won't read, are the very heart of our problems.

If Mr. Huberman is to succeed where Paul Vallas, Arne Duncan, Ted Kimbrough, Argie Johnson, Ruth Love, Angeline Caruso, Manford Byrd and Joseph Hannon failed in the last 30 years, he must un-riddle and kill these two sphinxes before he does anything else.

All new reforms will founder on these shoals, and we'll have to wait for a new civilization to rise on the ashes of the old before we see a revival of respect for the classroom as a place sacred to democracy.