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Thompson: To Improve Baltimore's Schools, Learn from The Wire

The violence in Baltimore, Ferguson, Missouri, and other urban areas is inextricably connected with the deindustrialization of America. The rapid decline of our manufacturing base, and our ineffective response to the decline of working peoples' wages has also undermined confidence and, thus, our ability to solve serious social problems.

Ironically, Baltimore not only exemplifies the failure of our society to successfully tackle social problems, but it is also home of some of the world's best social science, such as the Johns Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center, and it is the inspiration of David Simon's and Ed Burns' The Wire.

The Wire is the contemporary equivalent of the wisdom of Joseph Heller's Catch 22. It is not only the definitive dramatic depiction of the failure of the data-driven War on Drugs, the devastation unleashed by the destruction of blue collar jobs, and the shortcomings of the both War on Poverty and gentrification in revitalizing inner cities, but it shows how school reform was doomed by those same dynamics. So, a silver lining in the Baltimore tragedy is that it gives us a chance to reconsider Simon's genius (as well as that of Johns Hopkins' Robert Balfanz.)

As long as America's economic pie was growing dramatically in a fairly equitable manner, we had the confidence to invest in the War on Poverty, as we also reinterpreted the Bill of Rights to expand our nation's promise to all. As the rich got richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class shrinks, however, fear grows and too many citizens become impatient with constitutional democracy. We have become open to corporate values that subordinate individual rights to the short-term bottom line.

For instance, as Simon explained in an interview with Bill Keller of The Marshall Project, the right of probable cause was destroyed in Baltimore's drug war. For too many police, it becamewhatever you thought you could safely lie about when you got into district court.”

This sounds familiar in two ways for teachers who have endured corporate school reform. Our fundamental right of due process was attacked. Moreover, anti-tenure crusaders felt free to make up any charge that they believed they could get away with.

The most obvious parallel between school reform and the streets is "juking the states." If the police hoped to meet (then) Mayor Martin O'Malley's demand for an impossibly large decline in crime metrics, they had to cook the books. Of course, this made the police no different than the Wall Street executives whose fake numbers gave us the Great Recession. And, education followed the same devious path, excluding and/or pushing out students who posted lower scores, using "credit recovery" to make graduation rates increase, teaching to the "bubble-kids" (on the verge of passing while ignoring those below them), and even outright cheating.

Simon is particularly astute in describing police culture before and after the War on Drugs. A cop's longstanding recourse when he didn't like the way somebody was looking at him was known as "the Humble." Simon explained how it allowed police to arrest people on “'failure to obey,' it’s a humble. Loitering is a humble."

But, there used to be a "Code." All sides knew the rules of the game. Simon explains, "There doesn’t seem to be much code anymore – not that the code was always entirely clean or valid to anyone other than street cops, and maybe the hardcore corner players, but still it was something at least." Now, "this is a horror show."

In schools, the comparable culture is described as "the feces rolls downhill." When adults in the education system are subject to indignities from above, and the toxicity pours onto students. As we used to say, "feed the teachers, or they will eat the kids."

Of course, students bring their own street code known as "Respect" to school. They push back, and too many of the - disproportionately poor children of color - find themselves in the "school to prison pipeline."

When I used to walk the thirty foot corridor from the hallway to the gym, a row of students would divert their eyes and put their joints behind their backs. I take no pride in recalling the few times when a student defiantly made eye contact and continued to smoke his marijuana. We all knew the Code, so I made them drop the joint and they'd (lightly) step on it. That silly and invalid ritual illustrated much of what was wrong with high-challenge schools.

It would seem impossible that top-down school reform could make schools like mine worse, but it did. 

A student having to reroll a blunt after pretending to squash it was one thing, but none of us could have anticipated the subsequent world of "Zero Tolerance" where a student could be Long Term Suspended for such an offense. We sure had no way of anticipating the subsequent data-driven culture where principals were afraid to assess disciplinary consequences so they would have a student ticketed for $260 by the policeman for cussing at an administrator. That way, the disciplinary actions did not count toward the school's accountability measures. 

Our constitutional democracy was founded, in part, on the principle that "power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely." Our system thus has so many checks and balances that it is especially difficult for even the most sincere government leaders to enact social reforms. Whether we're talking about the War on Poverty, fighting crime, improving health or education, we are often stymied by the need for comprehensive solutions for complex, interrelated problems. Even when economic equity was on the rise, it was easy to get frustrated by the seamless nature of the challenges we face.

During the last generation, however, a lack of confidence - and of patience - has tempted us into shortcuts. For instance, today's education reformers, dispirited by the intransigence of poverty during a time when jobs were disappearing, sought a shortcut. Rather than tackle the legacies of poverty, they sought incentives and disincentives for boosting student performance in the curious belief that schools could lead the fight against poverty. They ignored the good, the bad, and the ugly of school cultures, and sought to wipe out the checks and balances that were essential to the education profession.

It is far too early to pontificate on the role of schools in contributing to possible solutions for Baltimore and other impoverished inner cities. But, one thing is sure. We will not succeed unless we are willing to face the human complexity that produces our society's best and worst, interconnected social dynamics.-JT(@drjohnthompson)     


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"When I used to walk the thirty foot corridor from the hallway to the gym, a row of students would divert their eyes and put their joints behind their backs. I take no pride in recalling the few times when a student defiantly made eye contact and continued to smoke his marijuana. "

Historically, did poor Jews, Italian and Irish living in the ghetto recieve a similiar response from their educators?

Back then, the defiant look would have probably led to violence.

Don, what would you do? Teachers are employees. We don't make the laws, rules, or policies and procedures. We could curse the darkness or try to make it better.

We functioned under the Code, "Pick Your Battles." I picked dice games because that is what generated the violence.

My point was that the situation was awful, but the War on Drugs and school reform made it worse.

Here's how I also handled it - in conversations with students. We also talked about drugs, but I focused on good and bad habits. I stressed the danger of behaving in the real world in the ways that people behaved at school.

I especially remember the conversation with a kid I'd known for years in the neighborhood. He was so incredibly embarrassed that I'd seen him that way in that situation. Another student, who I did not have in class, refused to communicate with me for the rest of the year. His senior year, he became one of my best class leaders.

While I'm at it, the Code also applied to craps game. It would have been dumb to grab for the money and it would have gotten physical. So, I'd take the dice, and that was enough to make a record of the event - not that consequences would have ever been assessed.

I also recall a long conversation with a kid who said I didn't like him because I broke up his gambling games. I explained my rationale and, once, again, invited him to join our lunchtime basketball games. He had such skills ...

Sadly, he was later sentenced to Life.

What would I do? Support school choice. Parents should have the right to send their child to an educational institution that has the same standards of behavior as the schools of middle class families.

Where poverty is great enough, the concept of the single neighborhood school becomes unworkable. At least by the time students reach adolescents.

Somehow you have lost track of the fact that a teacher walking by a line of students smoking weed is madness.

I would have loved to drink beer every day at high school. Never got the chance. White privilege, I guess.

No, you've lost track of my question - what would you do if you were a teacher in that madness?

I don't oppose choice. I do oppose leaving kids behind the way choice has.

I should explain that this was the early 90s, and virtually every good paying job had disappeared in the previous decade, and only recently had the per capita student budget been raised above $1,800. Crack and gangs had just peaked and we didn't know that violence would soon start a longterm decline and that the outcomes in school would rise through the rest of the decade - until NCLB clobbered us.

There is no rational scenario where neighborhood schools, back then, could do more than keep their heads above the water.

What about my point? What about the damage done to neighborhood schools by data-driven reform combined with choice?

You can throw out the words "white privilege" questioning those who stuck it out, as we defended the poorest children of color. But, what would you do? Would you continue to abandon the children from generational poverty who have endured terrible trauma.

O.K., you taught at Marshall in Chicago.
In Chicago, most low income black and brown children are perfectly capable of success at Noble. No punching teachers, no getting high at school, and a lot of growth.

You invoke "abandonment" is to create an emotional response to deflect the criticism of forcing the majority of reasonably cooperative poor children into high drama, low growth schools.

Charters allowed experienced urban educators the opportunity to start from the basics to find a better way. Most have failed at creating something significantly better, largely by being more hopeful than realistic as to what it would really take to make a meaningful difference.

What I would do in Baltimore is what Chicago is doing: 1) Allow low income students access to a rigorous schools with behavioral standards expected in the larger society. 2) Have as few of students as possible in schools where smoking dope and punching teachers is the norm.

To do otherwise is to decide that poor black people aren't up to the school expectations of similar poor white people. The Irish didn't need the sympathy of the teachers unions. They needed access to rigor and appropriately high institutional standards.

The children that can't or won't cooperate with rigorous educational standards deserve their fair share of resources. They deserve those resources expertly managed. What incorrigible students don't deserve is the opportunity to destroy the chance of other students have at academic success.

Noble in particular is a great example of success with using a strongly empirical approach which is informed by data whenever possible. I would guess that you know next to nothing about what the day-to-day is like at Noble.

Leaders of the most successful charter schools typically have significant work experience in traditional schools. You are proposing policy apparently without the personal experience of building alternate schools.

As a non-educator I choose to support school policy derived from successful school practices that are repeatable year to tear, and replicable to new schools. I'm not swayed by the "look how messed up these black kids are" approach.

I have two family members, including a daughter, who have taught in "all black" neighborhood high schools on Chicago's south side. I have another child teaching at a high need public school in Brooklyn, probably about a mile from Russo's home.

I taught in Oklahoma City's John Marshall. Same difference.

I also taught in the school that replaced Marshall. The far tougher conditions in that school were created by school reform.

You are right Irish immigrants, like poor children of color and their teachers, don't need the union's sympathy. But, I've got no idea of how you convoluted your logic to bring that in.

Students, teachers, workers, families, and anyone who cares about justice, need STRONG unions.

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