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Dear President Obama, Say No to Charter Schools

Posted on October 18, 2012 by dmayer

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Diane Ravitch asked for letters to Obama from educators and parents to be collected and sent to President Obama October 17, 2012. It was difficult to narrow the scope of my criticism of the failed education policy that stemmed from No Child Left Behind under George W. Bush and thrives now in the Obama administration. I chose to write about charter schools. I want to be sure he knows how a “model” charter school shapes the lives of our poorest children and robs them of their childhood. My letter:

October 17, 2012

Dear Mr. President,

I know that you know what a good teacher is because you must have had at least a few. I know that you know what a good education is because it is obvious that you had one. I know that you have sought out a good education for your daughters, and I would hope that you would want the same for all of America’s children. That’s why I’m writing this letter to you now.

In your first debate, you mentioned “Race to the Top” twice by name as a signature accomplishment. Please do not mention it again. If you don’t know, you alienate at least 3 million teachers who are voters and many more parents who have found that competition between schools for funding hurts kids. I want to talk to you about how charter schools rob neighborhood schools of resources and transfer ownership of our public schools to the private hands of the wealthy elite. More specifically, I want to talk about the real harm charter schools do to childhood. But don’t take my word for it as I call your attention to a chapter about KIPP charter schools in Outliers, written by one of the wealthy elite.

It’s obvious that your administration favors charter schools like KIPP. In 2010, the Department of Education gave fifty million of our tax dollars to KIPP Foundation. Under George W. Bush KIPP gained recognition (even though it had no track record or outstanding credentials) and has since been marketed as a charter school model. In the past decade charters have proliferated across the country. I’m sure you know there is a KIPP charter school in Washington, D.C. I’m wondering why you didn’t choose to send your daughters there? Truthfully, Mr. President, why don’t your girls go to KIPP?

Outliers is a collection of stories about success. KIPP, the author argues, is such a success story. In his best-selling book, Malcolm Gladwell comments on the success of people in different cultures, KIPP being one of them. To understand better the author’s perspective on KIPP, it may be helpful to know about two others he includes: the town of Roseto, Ohio and the rice paddy culture of China. They couldn’t be more different.

(Paraphrase) In the small town of Roseto, Ohio, the people shared strong family and community connections, were healthy and happy, and took care of each other. There was no suicide, no alcoholism, no dug-addiction, and very little crime. They seemed to have discovered the perfect lifestyle. The townspeople had a particular egalitarian ethos that discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.

. . .the Rosetans had created a powerful, protective social structure capable of insulating them from the pressures of the modern world.

Contrast the town of Roseto with the rice paddy culture of China. Gladwell describes the tortuous, backbreaking, relentless strife in the lives of rice farmers. Throughout history the rice farmer has always worked harder than almost any other kind of farmer, he states. The farmers work in isolation, day in, day out, each painstakingly tending his own paddy to produce as much rice as possible from that small plot of land.

Here are some of the thing’s that penniless peasants would say to one another as they worked three thousand hours a year in the baking heat and humidity of Chinese rice paddies (which, by the way, are filled with leeches):
‘No food with out blood and sweat.’
‘In winter, the lazy man freezes to death.’
‘Don’t depend on heaven for food, but on your own two hands carrying the load.’

Now skip to Gladwell’s analysis of the culture of KIPP charter schools. Gladwell praises KIPP as a model school. David Levin is the principal of KIPP Academy in New York City. The school serves poor African-American and Hispanic students. According to data analysis of NYC students, he points out that poor minority children actually begin as better students than their richer white counterparts, but they lose that statistical lead during the summer. While more affluent students go to camps, museums, libraries, the theater, and scores of enrichment activities, poor children stay home, losing ground. Each year “the achievement gap” widens. KIPP’s answer to that problem is to keep poor minority children in school from dawn to dusk six days a week the entire calendar year, a practice that has become popular with other charter networks.

From Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell, Chapter: “Marita’s Bargain,” from Section 5 and 6. (Emphasis mine.):

The story of the miracle school that transforms losers into winners is, of course, all too familiar. It’s the stuff of inspirational books and sentimental Hollywood movies. But the reality of places like KIPP is a good deal less glamorous than that. To get a sense of what 50 to 60 percent more learning time means, listen to the typical day in the life of a KIPP student.

The student’s name is Marita. She’s an only child who lives in a single-parent home. Her mother never went to college. The two of them share a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. Marita used to go to a parochial school down the street from her home, until her mother heard of KIPP. “When I was in fourth grade, me and one of my other friends, Tanya, we both applied to KIPP,” Marita said. “I remember Miss Owens. She interviewed me, and the way she was saying made it sound so hard I thought I was going to prison. I almost started crying. And she was like, If you don’t want to sign this, you don’t have to sign this. But then my mother was right there, so I signed it.”

With that her life changed, (Keep in mind, while reading what follows, that Marita is twelve years old.)

“I wake up at five-forty-five a.m. to get a head start,” she says. “I brush my teeth, shower. I get some breakfast at school, if I am running late. Usually I get yelled at because I am taking too long. I meet my friends Diana and Steven at the bus stop, and we get the number one bus.”

A 5:45 wake-up is fairly typical of KIPP students, especially given the long bus rides and subway commutes that many have to make to get to school. Levin, at one point, went into a seventh–grade music class with seventy kids in it and asked for a show of hands on when the students woke up. A handful said they woke up after six. Three-quarters said they woke up before six. Almost half said they woke up before 5:30. One classmate of Marita’s, a boy named Jose, said he sometimes wakes up at three or four a.m., finishes his homework from the night before, and then “goes back to sleep for a bit.”

Marita went on:

“I leave school at five p.m., and if I don’t lollygag around, then I will get home around five-thirty. Then I say hi to my mom really quickly and start my homework. And if it’s not a lot of homework that day, it will take me two to three hours, and I’ll be done around nine p.m. Or if we have essays, then I will be done like ten p.m., or ten-thirty p.m.

Sometimes my mom makes me break for dinner. I tell her I want to go straight through, but she says I have to eat. So around eight, she makes me break for dinner for, like a half hour, and then I get back to work. Then, usually after that, my mom wants to hear about school, but I have to make it quick because I have to get in bed by eleven, p.m. So I get all my stuff ready, and then I get into bed. I tell her all about the day and what happened, and by the time we are finished, she is on the brink of sleeping, so that’s probably around eleven-fifteen. Then I go to sleep, and the next morning we do it all over again. We are in the same room. But it’s a huge bedroom and you can split in into two, and we have beds on the other sides. Me and my mom are very close.”

She spoke in the matter-of-fact way of children who have no way of knowing how unusual their situation is. She had the hours of a lawyer trying to make partner, or a medical resident. All that was missing were the dark circles under her eyes and a steaming cup of coffee, except that she was too young for either.

“Sometimes I don’t go to sleep when I’m supposed to,” Marita continued. “I go to sleep at, like, twelve o’clock, and the next afternoon, it will hit me. And I will doze off in class. But then I have to wake up because I have to get the information. I remember I was in one class, and I was dozing off and the teacher saw me and said, ‘Can I talk to you after class?’ And he asked me, ‘Why were you dozing off?’ And I told him I went to sleep late. And he was, like, ‘You need to go to sleep earlier.’”

Marita’s life is not the life of a typical twelve-year-old. Nor is it what we would necessarily wish for a twelve-year-old. Children, we like to believe, should have time to play and dream and sleep. Marita has responsibilities . . . Her community does not give her what she needs. So what does she have to do? Give up her evenings and weekends and friends – all the elements of her old world – and replace them with KIPP. . .

Is this a lot to ask of a child? It is. But think of things from Marita’s perspective. She has made a bargain with her school. She will get up at five-forty-five in the morning, go in on Saturdays, and do homework until eleven at night. In return, KIPP promises that it will take kids like her who are stuck in poverty and give them a chance to get out.

How could that be a bad bargain?

The lesson here is very simple. But it is striking how often it is overlooked. We are so caught in the myths of the best and the brightest and the self-made that we think outliers spring forth naturally from the earth . . . Marita just needed a chance. And look at the chance she was given! Someone brought a little bit of the rice paddy to the South Bronx and explained to her the miracle of meaningful work.

Unbelievable! The rice paddy culture is what we aspire to for our poorest minority children? Why not the Roseto culture? Wouldn’t addressing Marita’s needs and providing her with opportunities outside of school be more beneficial? Marita has responsibilities? We would rob children of their childhoods in the name of education? Is this who we have become as Americans? What about our responsibilities to Marita? Do we really want to say to our poorest children that they must give up their childhoods to escape poverty in the future? Gladwell seems to think this is acceptable. I heartily disagree! I hope you do, too, Mr. President. The cost to students like Marita is too dear. And, where is the equitable sacrifice from more affluent children like yours? Do they have any idea of the sacrifices we ask of poor children like Marita? We must do better by all our children.

One more thing, Mr. President. In another chapter of Outliers, Gladwell describes in great detail how people become experts by studying and acquiring 10,000 hours of experience in their chosen field. Surprisingly, he doesn’t mention that many teachers at KIPP have no more than five weeks of inadequate training and absolutely no teaching experience. Does the 10,000 hour rule apply to everyone except teachers? Doesn’t Marita deserve an expert teacher? Wouldn’t employing professional teachers who know how to teach and create curriculum be a better way to educate Marita?

In 2010 your administration gave 50 million of our tax dollars to employ unqualified persons to teach kids like Marita in schools like KIPP, Mr. President. Would unqualified people be acceptable to teach your children? (Nevermind that the two people who received the combined 100 million of our tax dollars are husband and wife without a single education credential between them. By the way, they don’t send their children to KIPP schools either, even though the very one touted by Gladwell in his book is near their home.)

Mr. President, I think you have a good mind and a good heart, but your education policies are misguided and harmful to children and to the nation. You don’t send your kids to KIPP for a reason. It’s not good enough for your daughters, period. And, if it’s not good enough for your children, it’s not good enough for ours. Your education policy may be a shade less harmful than your opponent’s, but that’s not good enough either.

Please, please stop the charter school madness! Stop the competition for funding. We need a strong, vibrant public school system! Listen to educators. We are the experts. We know how to solve problems. We favor Roseto over rice paddies.

Please support us so that we can support you.

Sincerely,
Deb Mayer
Teacher and Activist

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