“What is the sound of one hand clapping?”
Among other things, this famous Zen riddle suggests that some problems are extremely complex – and may require more than one approach to a solution.
That’s an important notion when it comes to how to get seriously better outcomes in student learning, especially for urban schools that serve poor, vulnerable and minority children – exactly the ones who most desperately need good schooling.
As a society, we’ve spent countless millions of dollars and decades in trying to resolve this problem without much to show for it.
Take Detroit, where the public schools have been a long-running catastrophe for more years than I can count and yet where, according to one controversial study, nearly half of the adult population may remain functionally illiterate.
In recent years, Detroit Public Schools enrollment has plunged astonishingly-- from 167,085 in 2000 to 49,172 in 2013.
That’s no surprise when you consider that DPS schools are too often overcrowded, under-managed, and violent. What caring parent would want to condemn her or his child to that kind of environment?
And so there has been a corresponding increase in charter schools, often touted as the obvious way to bring good schooling to kids who need it by breaking the inept monopoly of public education. Detroit, for example, now has more than 250 charters serving more kids than the public schools -- some 51,000 children.
What this has meant, however, is thousands more school desks in Detroit than children to fill them. And this excess supply has created ferocious competition between public schools, charters, and charters operated by Detroit Public Schools themselves.
All are struggling to enroll kids to qualify for the state per-pupil foundation grant, currently a little over $7,000 a year.
On a visit last fall to University Preparatory Schools, Detroit’s best and most hopeful public charters, I learned even they are having trouble maintaining enrollment against all the competition, including suburban private schools.
The bottom line is that despite all the concern, all the hand-wringing, all the well-intentioned effort over the years, not much progress has been made in providing good education to poor, vulnerable, minority kids – certainly not the kind of progress that would represent a break from the soul-deadening atmosphere that infests most large public bureaucracies – especially schools.
So now into this debate comes Rochelle Riley, the decent and passionate columnist for the Detroit Free Press. She has made the radical suggestion that residential public schools – boarding schools, in other words – might be worth a try in Detroit.
Riley’s argument is simple: “Michigan doesn’t spend enough time or money preparing its children during their first, 1,000 days of life for lifelong learning. And many parents – caught themselves in cycles of poverty or violence, drugs or other despair – just don’t get their kids ready.” In another column, she urged we give “children living in chaos an alternative to dangerous environments where they aren’t learning and providing help for homeless children whose stability is threatened almost daily.”
To her great credit, Rochelle Riley has asked the fundamental question: What is the sound of one hand clapping when it comes to schools … and parents?
Without exception, every teacher I’ve known has pointed out that parents, family and home life are just as important – maybe more so – as good teachers in nice schools. Many have told me the best predictor of academic success is to count how many parents actually attend parent-teacher conferences.
This is scarcely new. Schools of education, learning theorists, school administrators, teachers and ordinary citizens all agree that what goes on at home is fundamentally important to the learning process. When the Center for Michigan asked citizens in last year’s round of community conversations what could best be done to improve student learning, the top suggestion was to get parents more involved. But when we asked how to do it, opinion splintered badly.
No wonder. How do you compel parents to be responsible? Or even engaged? By what right do you sacrifice the intimate primacy of the family on the altar of improved student learning?
Yet in America for generations, many families of means and ambition for their children’s success choose to send them to boarding schools at considerable expense: Exeter, Andover, Choate. One international school expert I knew, a high-ranking official in UNESCO, once said to me: “The solution to your schools problem in America is simple. Take all the kids who are attending private boarding schools and send them to the worst urban schools you can find.
“Then take all the poor and vulnerable kids from terrible schools in the inner city and send them to boarding school. It won’t take much more than a couple of years.”
So far, as a society, we’ve recognized in theory the obvious: That parents and home life are just as important factors in student learning as schools and teachers. But equally we’ve ignored one obvious solution -- it’s too risky, too politically incorrect, too heretical.
But unless we start looking into the eyes of heresy and staring them down, we’re never going to resolve the question – What’s the sound of only one hand clapping – when it comes to our kids.
And they then may be stunted … forever.