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Thompson: Petrilli Endorses Integration & Segregation & Trusting Relationships for Some

If the purpose of school reform is improving education and not union-busting and privatization, reformers should do some soul searching after they read Robert Putnam's Our Kids. Had they known twenty years ago what Putnam documents today, would accountability-driven, competition-driven reformers have rolled the dice and sought to increase equity by holding teachers accountable for raising test scores?

Would they have believed that education failures produced by the stress of generational poverty could have been reversed by the stress of high-stakes testing? Would they have pretended that increased segregation produced by school choice could have been the cure for segregation created by economics? Had they recognized the importance of trusting social relationships, would reformers have demanded a basic skills testing regime that would inevitably degrade the learning cultures of poor schools and replace holistic instruction of poor children of color with nonstop remediation for primitive bubble-in tests?

I've long thought that conservatives like Fordham's Mike Petrilli, who now criticize value-added teacher evaluations, would be especially open to the insights of Putnam and others who help chart an escape from the constraints imposed by top-down micromanaging of classrooms. And, yes, Petrilli seeks to liberate some students from the social engineering known as "school reform." 

Petrilli's How Schools Can Solve Putnam's Paradox offers support for Putnam and advocates for socio-economic integration like Richard Kahlenberg. He writes, "If loneliness, isolation, and extremely fragile families are big parts of the poverty problem, then connecting poor children with thriving families and communities can be part of the solution." Even better, Petrilli seeks to, "Build on the social capital that does exist in poor communities."

I think Petrilli's next proposal, "Build social capital by creating new schools," is weird, but he offers a reality-based disclaimer. He admits, "But the people who run these schools are often not from the community, and that creates inevitable conflicts. It’s also something of an open question whether these brand-new schools can create true social capital beyond their four walls."

Petrilli is on even thinner grounds when he embraces efforts to increase both integration and segregation. To be precise, he advocates, "A 'purple solution,' as Putnam might say, [that] would embrace both integration and school choice." But, since school choice has a long and well-documented record of increasing segregation, Petrilli is obviously calling for two mutually contradictory policies. 

Petrilli notes that growing social capital and growing academic achievement "are probably related, but sometimes clash." He then voices support for "community-based charters or faith-based voucher schools" that "are doing important work on the social-capital front, but are not getting the test scores we seek."

In an earth-shattering change in policy, Petrilli then says that traditional public schools deserve the same autonomy that he seeks for choice schools.

Just Kidding!

Although Petrilli clearly understands the impossibility of doing both, scaling up the investments necessary to build social capital while also playing the test-score growth game, he offers no relief to the cycle of punishment in high-poverty neighborhood schools that serve everyone.

In other words, Petrilli reads Putnam and others and finds confirmation that charters and private schools must be granted the autonomy to build on the strengths that some poor children of color bring to school. But, he is not yet ready to call for equal respect for most poor children of color who attend traditional public schools. If he had any idea of the harm being inflicted by test and punish on the most disadvantaged children - those who would never graduate from the choice schools he desires - I am confident he would listen to Putnam regarding all of our kids. 

Given Putnam's emphasis on the need to rebuild extracurricular activities, it is also curious that Petrilli draws upon Amanda Ripley in his conclusion. Ripley, of course, is particularly antagonistic towards Americans' desire to retain sports in school. This makes me wonder why Petrilli and other reformers aren't fully aware of the damage done by narrowing the curriculum, undermining music, arts, and sports. I doubt they have a clue about the myriad ways that high-stakes testing has forced educators to ignore their students' strengths in diverse endeavors as they produce a laser-like focus on their basic skills weaknesses. Perhaps they probably would need to have actual classroom experience before they could understand the devastating effect of treating kids like test scores and not dignified and complex human beings in need of love and trusting social relationships.-JT(@drjohnthompson)     




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