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Educating for Democracy: A Tale of Two 'Classes'

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At first glance, an item in the New York Times, "60 First Graders, 4 Teachers" by Sharon Otterman, reporting an "innovative" educational approach to very young learners seemed too good to be true. With the support of former NYC public school chancellor Joel Klein:

"The school, [the New American Academy] stressed student independence over teacher-led lessons, scientific inquiry over rote memorization and freedom and self-expression over strict structure and discipline."

However, Shimon Waronker, the founder of the school, a veteran educator with experience as a principal of a "tough middle school in the South Bronx," in proposing this approach to teaching students from economically stressed families in an almost all-black section of Brooklyn, Crown Heights has said that:

"Many of the children already had a year in what I would call a state of nature...people who live under no civilization."

Doesn't this foster some of the racist assumptions about the intellectual capacity of African-Americans that such a school should avoid even if there were a number of African-American teachers and staff members in the school?

This program was evolved by Mr. Waronker from practices at the "elite boarding high school" Phillips Exeter Academy. Phillips Exeter is a highly selective school, mostly consisting of privileged White and Asian students with a teacher-student ratio of about fifteen-one. Moreover, they have the equipment, such as specially constructed round tables and state-of-the-art computers and other materials that enhance their learning capabilities. In my opinion it is unsound pedagogically to use a teaching model for younger learners from economically stressed neighborhoods even if it is being successfully employed for mature students who have already established learning styles and have enriched educational backgrounds from privilege or exceptional opportunity.

With this in mind it is highly unlikely that putting 60 first graders and four teachers in a large room as an "experiment" would generate very positive learning experiences. As one of the children interviewed explained to an observer: "We don't know what we're doing but we're learning about math."

And although, at least theoretically, many of the ideas that Waronker's school has attempted have their merits, to use as his "subjects" 5 and 6-year-olds from families that in many cases lack structure as it is seems to me to ignore the fundamental needs of such children in the interests of "new ideas." It is irresponsible, in my opinion, to use such methods in teaching these young learners whose earliest experiences with schooling can be fundamental in developing their future attitudes and abilities to master reading and math skills and have a positive attitude toward conventional forms of learning.

In response to the article, a number of educators expressed their dismay in letters to the editor several days later to what was being reported as a typical day at New American Academy. One wrote that she was "appalled" and hoped "the long-term effects of the 'experiment' do not doom the educational careers of the children." Another recounted her experience as a student in a similar environment for fourth and fifth graders where "it took two years for someone to notice that I couldn't read."

The Times article itself shows the inherent flaws in the project. First of all, although strong teaching experience would seem to me essential for any innovative program of this kind, with the exception of one highly paid master teacher:

"most of the others are novice early childhood teachers, which recreates the staff component in typical high-poverty schools."

The need for experienced teachers and their lack in such schools, of course, is another issue that should be addressed by any educational reformer but one of the purposes of Waronker's program was to have the same teachers "stay with the children every year, to build accountability for their learning."

However, near the end of the article, Mr. Waronker conceded that next year he:

"will hire more-experienced teachers because expecting novices could learn that quickly from the master teachers was wrong. 'I put added stressors that shouldn't have been there,' he said."

Of course, with any teacher turnover the plan of having the same teachers follow along with the children from one grade to the next can no longer be effectively used.

What was notable for its absence, however, was any mention in the article of parental input in Mr. Waronker's program except from parents who withdrew their children from it. This, I believe, is one of the fundamental problems that is faced by parents of children in these neighborhoods who try to advocate for their children's education. From what I understand in covering New York City educational issues over the last two years, their voices are ignored entirely or silenced.

On the other hand, according to another New York Times article, published the day after the report on the New American Academy, there are New York City public schools in which parents seem to have an impact on their children's schooling.

"Some kindergarten parents at Public School 101...in Forest Hills, Queens, an almost all-White part of Queens [85% White and Asian] wanted more free play time for their children: so they decided to do something about it."

These were middle class parents of children who were being given the other extreme form of education in which these kindergarteners "practiced reading and math on work sheets" and "early childhood homework" that they were supposed to finish by the end of the week. The value of any of this kind of regimented education has been seriously questioned by early childhood educators such as Ed Miller and the Alliance for Childhood organization. In a statement he co-wrote, signed by hundreds of educators, Miller warned of the harm that can be done to very young learners as a result of the "core standards" that are being promulgated by the Department of Education as a model for early childhood learning.

Miller and many other educators are advocates for greater playtime for very young school children so they can develop the learning skills they need without having the pressure of taking meaningless tests that have been shown to do nothing to improve childhood learning. In contrast, in that constantly cited example of successful educational practices, Finland, children don't even go to school until they are 7.

Either the parents of these kindergartners had read Miller's and others' work or knew from the effects on their children that they needed more "recreation" time to just be children. As a result of the petition, the principal, Valerie Caputo-Saide, stated:

"Our collaborative decision-making process includes input from parents, teachers and administrators. As a result of our collaboration, we have added 30 minutes of additional physical education per week for kindergarten students while maintaining strong instruction."

These parents had some input and effect upon the kind of education their children were having, but there is no mention of a similar "collaboration" with the parents of the children at the New American Academy.

Which brings me back to the the "experiment" in Crown Heights. What kind of input and collaboration exists when parents of children who are being used as "experiments," not just at a new educational project, but by having their school -- John Jay -- "invaded" by a "selective" school -- Millenium Academy -- in Park Slope or closed in other parts of the city when these parents came to a recent hearing (1/19/11) of the PEP (Public Education Panel) to express their concerns about these policies?

The high-handed and unresponsive attitude of the PEP to the well-documented and eloquently expressed concerns of parents, educators and students shows that what social class and RACE you belong to determines how you are treated.

Educational innovation is a tricky business: some methods work well with some groups and individual students but not with others. The extreme approaches of Waronker in Crown Heights on the one hand and of the kindergarten classes in Forest Hills on the other both needed to be corrected. But at least the Forest Hills young learners will get their time to play; the children at New American Academy might just end up victims of a "failed experiment" because they don't have the advocates that will be taken seriously.