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Child Abuse Takes Many Forms

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The education news in New York goes from bad to worse. A recent New York Times article reports that the folks from Central Park East 1, a thoughtful elementary school in East Harlem, are losing their location for a planned new elementary school on the other side of Manhattan. In January, Central Park East's principal, Julie Zuckerman, was promised space by Cathy Black and the Education Department, only to have the offer withdrawn days later. The space is going to KIPP, the biggest, richest charter school chain in America. Talk about school bullying!

Perhaps there can be no more illustrative and infuriating example of what's wrong with education than this. Central Park East exemplifies the best learning practices and KIPP exemplifies the worst.

It would take more than a single blog post to delineate the many ways that KIPP has it wrong, but here's a big one: KIPP takes great pride in having long school days and school on Saturday. In their view, supported by the Gates, Broad, Walton, Bloomberg crowd, kids don't work hard enough. If we push harder, they say, we'll see improved test scores. They also want kids to attend school year 'round. And so thousands and thousands of little kids will sacrifice huge chunks of childhood in service of this ill-considered nonsense.

It is heartbreaking to think of what these policy-makers are doing to children. School is children's primary vocation. From the moment they arrive until dismissal time, they are hard at work. Schools may look like play (not so often in the KIPP schools), but their brains and bodies are working harder all day than the brains and bodies of most working adults. A typical school day -- say 8:30 to 3:30 -- is a demanding workload. Top that off with increasing amounts of homework, and the burden is quite literally abusive. It would be abusive even if it was effective, but the abuse is as ineffective as it is incomprehensible. Stressed, tired children don't learn much.

Perhaps the best response to this malfeasance would be a class action lawsuit claiming violation of child labor laws.

I continue to recoil at the thinly veiled implications of race and class in public education policy. The images of uniformed children of color chanting slogans, trying so hard to please the adults in their schools, makes me very sad. They are being trained to conform, conditioned to give "right" answers to questions they don't really understand, expected to behave in ways that are unnatural for children. And to add damaging insult to injury, they are going to endure longer and longer "work" days, as though they need to be driven extra hard to overcome all the disadvantages we have given them as a legacy.

This seemingly minor skirmish over space in a building is symbolic of the highly charged tension in educational policy. On one side are the heirs of a century of advances in educational philosophy, child development and cognitive science. On the other side are well-funded "reformers" who see children as a commodity to be formed for productive use, and who think learning can be best planned and assessed by economists.

Guess who's winning? It's not the kids.