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Have the Bush-Obama School Reforms Helped Our Inner-Cities?

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When Arne Duncan, Michelle Rhee, Bill Gates, and Joel Klein talk about reforming public education in America, the conversation doesn't include the Scarsdale and Grosse Pointe public schools. While No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top established national guidelines for student and teacher performance, the underlying purpose of the legislation was to reverse the decades long decline in student achievement in our inner city schools.

The populations of these schools are overwhelmingly made up of minorities, although they represent a majority of the student enrollment in cities like Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, and Buffalo. So when we speak of Race To The Top, we really mean that "Race" should be read as a noun not a verb, since the racial achievement gap has been declared the civil rights issue of this century.

So ten years and several billions of dollars later, we might ask ourselves if these reforms have had any benefit at all, or as Robert Sameuleson put it, is the subject of school reform little more than an exercise in "intellectual dishonesty" and "political puffery?" (Washington Post, "School Reforms' Meager Results")

To date, Federal and state orders to close schools or "restart" them have never involved suburban districts. But since these suburban districts fall into this one size fits all legislation, they must hew to the regulations because that's where the money is. As far as the suburbs are concerned the law is onerous, costly, and irrelevant.

But if the suburbs have to suffer for the good of the cities we might reconcile ourselves to the sacrifices they are making if we had evidence that these reforms were having an impact on the dreadful urban education landscape.

One could argue that it was worth all of the federally imposed regulations because the racial achievement gap had narrowed, or that employment among Black youths was on the rise. If we had evidence that more students with high school diplomas could actually do college level work without remediation, the champions of NCLB might claim that, though flawed and clumsy, the legislation was worth it in the end.

But that is not the case. In New York City, 75 percent of incoming freshmen enrolled in its community colleges require remedial courses. Less than 3 percent will receive a 2-year associates degree in two years. These schools appear to be little more than educational hospices that allow unprepared high school graduates to say that they once attended college.

Writing in an essay titled "Notes on the State of Black America," last summer, Nathan Glazer pointed out that while court decisions had brought an end to legal segregation over fifty years ago, critical aspects of the Black condition have grown worse.

The latest census revealed that a reverse migration among Blacks living in the Northeast is occurring. In cities like New York, there has been a decline in the Black population, as middle class Blacks increasingly abandon the inner city for the suburbs and southern states that are no longer viewed as hostile to them.

As the Black middle class abandons traditional Black neighborhoods, middle class stability disappears too. High school dropout rates, unemployment, out of wedlock births, and soaring incarceration rates of Black males now characterize these neighborhoods.

These conditions are further exacerbated by the disappearance of the manufacturing base from cities like New York, Detroit, Cleveland and Buffalo, and the lower skilled jobs that go with it.

Over the past four decades the response of the educational and political establishment to this reconfiguration of the urban kaleidoscope has been to eliminate shop classes since vocational training has been stigmatized as "racial profiling." Instead the thrust of educational planning has been to graduate a "college ready" school population.

In New York, the creation of small schools to replace comprehensive high schools has been touted as one of the solutions to the downward spiral of education achievement.

The "small school" movement was the brainchild of Bill Gates. It was eagerly adopted by urban school districts anxious for a piece of the hundreds of millions of dollars he showered on the experiment.

Gates has abandoned funding small schools because they've proved to be too costly and ineffective. That has not deterred New York from continuing to kill off its comprehensive high schools and replacing them with costly small schools

Students are encouraged to choose the schools that "fit" them, but the much-ballyhooed offering of countless choices presumes that the students in need of an appropriate career path will successfully make the right selection on their own.

For the reformers, commuting long distances to school for students from unstable homes and increasingly unstable neighborhoods doesn't appear to be a barrier to getting a premium education. Nor does it prevent students and their families from being involved in the life of their school. After all, what's an hour and a half subway ride to a single working parent who has to go to school to see a teacher about their child?

Mike Bloomberg, the "Green - Education" mayor of New York City who wants 10,000 bicycles in use in a new bike-share program by next year, doesn't see the irony of having hundreds of thousands of high school students burdening the public transportation system to attend the school of their choice when they could be walking to school in their own neighborhood!

The name of the game is atomization. Atomize the neighborhood high school, the teaching staff, and the kids. The results won't be pretty as this unremarked exercise in social engineering continues to go largely unnoticed.

The small schools in my old building decorated their doors and walls with posters and banners from elite schools throughout the country, as if these banners are going to get kids who enter high school with a "2" reading level entrée into those institutions of higher learning.

Rather than expanding a very successful Co-Op Tech school that trains students to obtain a licensed skill in some 30 different fields and a GED degree or high school diploma, the city of New York bet on the massive and costly expansion of "small schools" as the solution to these worsening problems.

Only 1500 students from throughout New York City travel to Co-Op Tech located in Manhattan each day. A doubling of the education budget to $22 billion dollars didn't have enough room in it for building a Co-Op Tech in the four other boroughs that make up the city!

Charles Kadlec writing in Forbes magazine recently declared that we were in the midst of a "Great African American Depression." On September 16, Mayor Michael Bloomberg warned that there would be rioting in the streets that would resemble the riots we've witnessed in London and Cairo if the unemployment crisis isn't addressed.

An intrepid reporter might want to ask Mayor Bloomberg just how many jobs his increased spending of more than $100 billion dollars on education has created over the past nine years?
In the new "restart" schools backed by Arne Duncan's Department of Education, learning communities have been established to resemble an Ox-Bridge or Yale type of intimate interdisciplinary college in schools operating at 125 percent capacity, and a schoolyard packed with over 22 "temporary" trailer classrooms.

The hallways have street signs that say "Harvard Way," "John Hopkins Avenue" or "Cooper Union Drive." It is little more than a re-packaged concept that was unsuccessfully tried at large state universities back in the late 1960s, and failed miserably.

A 21st century version of the "White Man's Burden" has inspired the arc of these "reforms." It won't content itself with simply educating kids to have meaningful productive lives. Instead they are intent on creating a new elite out of the lower classes.

The reformers detachment and ignorance of the reality of our public schools should come as no surprise. Both presidents Bush and Obama attended the toniest of prep schools and the most elite universities.

In New York the most vociferous supporters of school reforms that push charters, choice, ending civil service due process for teachers, and the expansion of testing as the critical tool for evaluating teacher performance, never attended a New York City public school!

In fact two of New York's press barons, Mort Zuckerman and Rupert Murdoch, who beat the drum daily for the elimination of teacher tenure, weren't educated or raised in the United States! Mike Bloomberg who owns the powerful news and information company Bloomberg LP, attended school in Medford, Massachusetts.

In a few short months NCLB will have been part of the public policy landscape for 10 years. When it's birthday rolls around in January what should we celebrate?