05/16/2013 11:30 am ET Updated Jul 16, 2013

How Does the Closing of Crenshaw High School Capture the Essence of 'Reform?'


Dana Goldstein's "Activist Teachers Targeted for Dismissal" recalls the poet's wisdom that to understand the reconstitution of Los Angeles' Crenshaw High School, you have to understand the entire world of school "reform." Goldstein describes the good work of union activist Alex Caputo-Pearl, and the way that Superintendent John Deasy is pulling the plug on Crenshaw.

Crenshaw's Extended Learning Cultural Model, which was started by Caputo-Pearl and his colleagues, and funded by the Ford Foundation and others, has improved student performance. Deasy, however, is continuing his crushing of dissent. Goldstein reports evidence that nearly two-thirds of the dismissed teachers are African-American and five-sixths have more than 10 years of experience.

The headline, of course, is that Deasy is doing to Crenshaw is what is being done to large, urban comprehensive high schools all across the country. As Goldstein explains, school closures often benefit some students but they mostly damage the most disadvantaged students.

In Chicago, only 6 percent of the students at schools that were closed in the name of "reform" were admitted to schools that were significantly better. In New York City, as many as a thousand new students, who were most likely to be English Language Learners or on special education IEPs, would be dumped on schools that were targeted for the next round of closures. Consequently, easier-to-educate kids have been offered better opportunities for engaging and authentic instruction as their harder-to-educate peers were sacrificed.

To more fully understand today's closure mania, we must remember that Crenshaw has had 30 different administrations in seven years, writes Dana Goldstein. It is but an extreme version of education's search for one quick fix after another. Whether he is aware of it or not, virtually all of Deasy's anti-teacher weapons have repeatedly failed.

To understand Caputo-Pearl's role in revitalizing Crenshaw, we must also understand larger historical patterns that have been lost on "reformers." He began with Teach for America in the early 1990s, but deviated from the organization in a couple of ways. Caputo-Pearl continued to teach in the inner city for two decades. Also, he became rooted in the community and became a community activist as well as an activist within schools. The system retaliated in 2006 by transferring him to an easier school. Parents demanded his return.

This recent history seems to be lost on "reformers" who never understood that seniority is the teachers' First Amendment. Without its protections, the professional wisdom of veteran educators will be lost, as their ability to speak truth to the educational powers is undermined. And, without seniority, systems are free to manufacture reasons for closing schools whenever a flashy new silver bullet catches their eyes.

To understand why these cheap and easy shortcuts continue to fail to improve schools, we must understand the worldview of data-driven "reformers." Deasy claims he is pulling the plug on Crenshaw because its improvement has not been good enough. Deasy come from the Broad School, however, and their numbers-driven ideology is divorced from the realities of the inner city. The billionaire seems to assume that his understanding of his blade of grass explains the whole world of teaching and learning.

Broad and, apparently, Deasy do not understand that generational and situational poverty are different. Deasy et. al have no grasp of extreme poverty or the effects of trauma. They are blind to the problems caused by the lack of social capital in neighborhoods where large percentages of children live in group homes and foster care. They are oblivious to the need for trusting relationships.

Not knowing what they don't know, Deasy et. al demand a complete focus on remediation of students weaknesses in order to improve test scores. They have concentrated completely on the narrow portions of children's brains that bubble-in tests measure.

Caputo-Pearl and his colleagues, however, have taught their students, metaphorically speaking, to see themselves as a blade of grass. They liberate students to build on their strengths, including their experiences in public education. For their final project, for instance, students analyzed test scores at different schools and their truancy rates, as well as neighborhood income levels and incarceration rates. Goldstein explains:

In math, students graphed the relationship between income and social opportunity in various south L.A. neighborhoods. In social studies, they read conservative and liberal proposals for school reform and practiced citing data in their own written arguments about how to improve education. In science, students designed experiments that could test policy hypotheses about how to improve education. And in English class, they read Our America, a work of narrative non-fiction about life in the Ida B. Wells housing projects on the South Side of Chicago.

Crenshaw students also journeyed out of their neighborhood for paid community-service internship to conduct research. And that brings us back full circle. Veteran educators like Caputo-Pearl understand that we must embrace students as full human beings and as members of larger communities. We must celebrate the way that we are all pieces of a larger educational and social universe. Ideologues like Deasy do not seem interested in knowing what they do not know about teaching. They are so committed to their theory that answers can be found inside the four walls of the classroom and inside test-driven "reformers'" models, that they refuse to listen. Worse, as Caputo-Pearl argues, they seek to drive educators with a deep understanding of their piece of urban education, and an openness to the whole of learning, out of their schools.