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Steve Nelson: Crimes Parading as Educational Reform

In her brilliant book, The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander makes a compelling argument that young men of color in America are the victims of systemic and systematic racism, resulting in mass incarceration — the de facto 21st century version of the Jim Crow laws in the 19th and 20th centuries.

The most recent education news provides indications that the “pipeline” from early childhood neglect to young adult incarceration is disappearing.

I don’t suggest that the problem is going away. Quite the contrary. We’re simply skipping the intermediate steps of school segregation, racial profiling, economic injustice and neglected neighborhoods and sending young black children directly into the penal system. This is hyperbole, but the latest manifestations of so-called “educational reform” are schools that might as well be prisons. It is a national shame.

An April 3 New York Times article described the aggressive program to “reform” the allegedly underperforming schools in Memphis. This “Achievement School District” is, according to the Times, among a growing number of “state-run districts intended to rejuvenate chronically struggling schools.” Similar strategies are in place in Virginia and Michigan and are on drawing boards in dozens of other states. In Memphis, 97 percent of the students in the “achievement” district are black, and similar programs across the country serve a predominantly black, poor population.

The schools in these districts are being turned over to a variety of charter operators, including the Knowledge is Power Program and Aspire Public Schools, a California-based national organization. These operators, some nonprofit, some for-profit, are supported by big money, much from the Gates Foundation, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation and others. This business-driven movement focuses on data, metrics, more testing, long hours, uniforms and high levels of regimentation and standardization. It is as though Henry Ford himself had designed an assembly process through which children can be conveyed, drilling and hammering pieces of content into them as they move along the line.

The schools are staffed, to a great extent, by young, inexperienced teachers who come out of the dismal Teach for America program or its equivalent. When teachers are merely expected to “deliver” assembly-line exercises by script, I suppose this cheap form of labor is sufficient.

In one Memphis achievement school, Cornerstone Prep (pre-kindergarten through third grade), children are reportedly wetting their pants because of the acute anxiety created by the “strict new disciplinary policies.” Parents are outraged because children caught “fiddling with their shoes” have shoes taken away, leaving them barefoot and humiliated.

A member of the Memphis School Board, Sara L. Lewis, said, “They don’t understand black folk. They don’t understand our values or events in our history.” She went on to point out that masters punished slaves by taking away their shoes. The historical parallel is not insignificant. These children are “the other,” and the policies and practices in these schools suggest that their architects believe the children need to be trained and civilized, not loved and educated. This is the kind of school arising in the name of educational reform in America.

The same morning, the Times reported that the National Rifle Association and its congressional lapdogs issued a 225-page report recommending having armed staff members or police in public and charter schools across the nation as a way of increasing security. I’m not claiming that the recommendation is to arm teachers and administrators to keep the 7-year-olds in line, but I wonder if the effect would be the same.

I have visited charter schools in some rough areas of Manhattan and the Bronx. In one school, I watched armed police officers intimidate kids, essentially daring them to step out of line, itching to assert their authority. I visited another charter school, like the ones described in Memphis, where the children appeared tentative in every movement and utterance, fearful that they might invite the displeasure of an adult. Any educator in her right mind knows that fear and humiliation suppress learning, yet we are designing schools with armed adults and stress-inducing policies. And we expect the children to flourish?

The most tragic aspect of these charter schools is the false hope they represent. In Cornerstone Prep, the classrooms are named for colleges: “Wake Forest One, Columbia Two.” Therein, small children in neat uniforms are told to sit silently, hands folded neatly on the desk, eyes carefully tracking the teacher. When, and only when, allowed, they can thrust their little hands eagerly into the air to provide a rapid-fire answer in the rote drill of the day. They will then march in a silent procession (with their shoes on, if they have been good) to the next step on the assembly line.

This scene, which violates nearly every principle of good early childhood education practice, virtually guarantees that this joyless classroom is the closest they will ever get to Columbia. At least they’ll have an early taste of what prison might be like.

Steve Nelson lives in Sharon and New York City, where he is the head of the Calhoun School, a private school.