Hope for Urban Schools

Dave Murray writes about the Mastery Charter Schools in Philadelphia. An urban education program driven by high standards and backed by civic leaders. He concludes, asking

Sometimes I wonder of a solution to urban education’s woes came before us, would we reject it if we didn’t like where it came from? Or, are we so invested in the excuses for failure that we attack anyone who challenges them?

The questions about such an experiment abound. At the most practical, Murray notes this is a question of scalability. Grant the success, to what extent is it the property of the culture of the organization itself, and can it then multiply, scale-up? This is the recognized problem of charters: their accomplishments may be too site specific. What are the lessons that we are to learn from such institutions, such successes? Is it only a form of academic tough love? If other comparable programs are any indication, it is a question of resources, both the hard and the soft. Of course, given the success of a program like Mastery, there will be the temptation of civic leaders to adopt a comparable model as the silver bullet, another cookie cutter solution. There’s stuff to be learned here definitely, we should also know that one size is always a bad fit.

A second question lurking is for the charter school community. While we often contrast such successes with the public schools out of which the programs emerge, the other question to ask is about the  charters themselves. After all, with 50 percent of school-age children in Detroit already in a charter, why then don’t they show the same achievement? Their “no excuses” style may be the key, but I would bet we could find a host of other programs that try to emulate the same with not so stellar success. No one has ever denied that some charters will succeed very well (case in point: Black River), the question is why don’t other charters succeed, as well.

And lastly there is simply the issue of our own hopes. These stand out schools seem to validate our own ideals for education, that we can overcome the great barriers in our lives. That a few can do it then becomes a validation of our ideals and ironically spurs us on to do… nothing. The real lesson in Mastery and other such models is that we can do something, that these efforts take a great deal of resources, far outstripping those in the surrounding community and often in the political culture. It can be done. But that some do it turns to become the opposite, that those who succeed must obviously point to the moral failure of the others.

Mastery tells us that there is a legitimate hope for urban schools; we are not mistaken. However, we cannot learn the lesson without doing our own homework. And of course, making sure that the schools have the resources.

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