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Nonfiction Matters
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Second Guest Blog

I hope you were able to find the blog after that big gap of whitespace. Here is John’s second blog, straight from the warzone of the Oklahoma City schools. His last paragraph is especially powerful and convincing — whatever schools need to be in terms of education, they are also a reflection of the communities in which they function. In that sense, teachers are more like the canaries then the miners.

The absolute "must read" for anyone interested in educational reform is the canon of Malcolm Gladwell. If they would keep an open mind, the people who would most benefit from Gladwell’s Outliers is new generation of educational "reformers," seeking a "culture of accountability." They have a powerful public relations machine (the most destructive of those "reformers" has just ridden her superstitious faith in data onto the cover of Time Magazine), but their research base is largely bogus. These accountability hawks argue that outliers are not really outliers, and that the successes in magnet and KIPP schools that "cream" or select the most motivated students from the most motivated families can be replicated in neighborhood schools.
Gladwell popularized the concepts of "six degrees of separation" and "the tipping point," which explain why inner city neighborhood schools are so difficult to turnaround. Just as the War on Poverty usually failed when it was unable to integrate poor people into larger networks of jobs and opportunities, poor students need to be exposed to the broader community. When 30 to 40% of children come from single parents, it’s not a problem, but when 95% of students in a school do not live with their biological parents, a tipping point is crossed. As more of the intact families move to the suburbs or choose magnet schools, who serves as the caring uncles, the coaches, and the other mentors for the children left behind? As the role models exercise their choices, who remains to introduce the most isolated children to museums, travel opportunities, or potential employers? If every teacher had three or four chronically disruptive students in class, we could stop bellyaching and handle it. But when every teacher has six or eight or ten chronically disruptive students per class, and that has been the case for the students’ entire careers, and the same conditions exist in the neighboring classes, a critical mass is reached and the problems go up geometrically.
In a future blog, I would like to explain why instruction-drive, curriculum-driven reforms are inherently incapable of transforming poor neighborhood schools. First, we must build trusting relationships. We must bring poor children out of their isolated buildings and into the community. And we must bring the community into schools.