By Nancy L. Bloom
Boston Globe columnist Scot Lehigh is right about one thing. His ideas about education really do make me uncomfortable—and it’s not just because I’m a staunch supporter of teacher unions. His recent assertion that Massachusetts should lift the cap on charter schools in order to save the children who live in poor, urban (that means black) neighborhoods by providing longer school days and years is simply faulty.
Here’s a question for Mr. Lehigh: have you ever spent an afternoon at an urban charter school? I have. In fact, I was a teacher at one of New England’s biggest for the past five years. Here’s what I would like Mr. Lehigh to know. Those extra 45 minutes are incredibly stressful for students, staff and teachers. Our school day routinely ends in a battle for all-out survival—Team Silence vs. Team Chaos—with only small bits of learning thrown in.
Admittedly, Team Silence won out in some of the classrooms at my old school—but chaos was always pushing in at the edges. For me, the constant, explosive anger was the most disturbing thing about working in a school like this. Students can barely handle a movie at the end of the day. They are in the classrooms sleeping, playing computer games, interrupting, shouting and fighting. It’s hard for me to blame them; if I were strong-armed into silence for hours, I’d be angry too.
Then there is the longer school year. I have heard the principal and superintendent tell assemblies of children that the reason they go to school is to take the Massachusetts high stakes exam, the MCAS. MCAS preparation begins in September. In March, kids cheer, wear matching t-shirts and perform raps at MCAS pep rallies like the one pictured above. When the MCAS season ends in mid-May, the reason for going to school is over. And so is the learning. Truancy skyrockets. According to the state, this school had a 35 percent truancy rate last year. After the last bubble is filled in on the standardized test, Team Chaos wins every time.
The crux of Mr. Lehigh’s argument has to do with what he and his fellow reformers call “educational performance.” Extend the school day and the school year and presto: watch test scores rise. But this school has descended to Level 3 status and is now in the bottom 20th percent of the state’s schools. Clearly the longer school day and year are not working for these kids.
Mr. Lehigh is loose and flippant with his use of money words to talk about serious education issues. When he talks about buying longer school days and getting more bang for your buck it sounds like he is shopping at Walmart. The teachers at my charter work 10 and 12 hours a day and often on the weekend to keep up with the incredible demands placed on them by the administration. Every year dozens of them quit or get fired. Very few of us last long enough to become expert veteran teachers. Teachers are afraid and paranoid. No one feels safe. Just like Walmart workers, they need the security that unions provide. Maybe that would raise the school’s low test scores.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of Mr. Lehigh’s argument is his implication that we need one standard for teaching urban children and another for teaching kids like his—and mine. When my kids were little they played outside after school in the safe yards and neighborhoods of our suburban town. They learned how to resolve conflicts, how to create their own rules for made-up games and how to develop life-long friendships. No doubt if Mr. Lehigh has children they are as fortunate as mine were. Urban children deserve these same opportunities.
Nancy L. Bloom spent the last five years teaching at an urban charter school in Boston. She is a volunteer tutor at the Mattapan Public Library, where she works with dyslexic children. Nancy recently joined the faculty at EduShyster Academy as a specialist in charter studies. Send your comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.