I spent the last week, from last Sunday to yesterday morning, with a group of Harvard students at the SEED public boarding school in Southeast DC, teaching and helping out where we could. I am somewhat hesitant about blogging the experience; I certainly won’t use names, not out of a desire to criticize but because I went not as a journalist but as a volunteer, and no one there – all of whom were extraordinarily gracious and giving hosts – would have reasonably expected to be reported upon in a public forum like this blog. But it was an enlightening experience, and it’s worth writing about given the school’s newfound notoriety.
The Teachers: I will never criticize a public school teacher again. Not one. Not after this trip. Institutions are different – I have no apprehensions about debating the relative virtues of the AFT and NEA, Teach for America and the charter movement, and so on. But to choose to work these hours, to grapple with these students, to devote yourself to such grueling labor with such meager pay the way teachers in these districts do – that’s noble. No matter their actual impact, to fail to respect the people who work in the DC public school system, be they in traditional or charter schools, would just be cruel. The emotional toll exacted by dealing with children this disadvantaged, who have been failed by our society so profoundly at such a young age, is just too great to dismiss those who choose to take it on. Forget student performance; that these teachers are able to get up day after day and face that injustice again is impressive enough.
This is all true at a traditional school. But compared to some of the workers at a place like SEED, traditional teachers have luxuries. They have a life outside the school; it’s not much of one, given the time constraints of grading and continued teacher training, but it’s there. And they have a union. No one at SEED is unionized, as with most every charter school, and the mandate is larger. These are not simply academic instructors; especially in the case of the after-school “life skills counselors” (LSCs), they are charged with the social, emotional, and even professional development of their charges. They’re not just held accountable if the students can’t deal with algebra, or fail to conjugate their Spanish verbs. They are ultimately responsible for their students growing up. Even the lowest rung of the totem pole at SEED, the “resident assistants” who live with students at the dorms and monitor them at night, and thus have less interaction with students than LSCs or teachers, have a raw deal. These are generally graduate students or people with full-time day jobs, and they are living in a dorm where they are expected to be up or capable of getting up at all hours of night. How they don’t collapse from exhaustion is beyond me. The turnover rates – which are high despite apparently falling – are anything but surprising.
I don’t think the approach proposed by The Equity Project and others – raise teacher wages dramatically – is the best way to solve this, to keep good teachers going and signal to them that we as taxpayers value their work. The perverse incentive, namely the rapid entry of teachers not as interested in students as in filthy lucre, is too great. But some sort of support mechanism is needed. This is why the KIPP schools’ attempt to stop a unionization movement is so despicable and appalling – the very least teachers in this kind of situation deserve is a union rep. If that union gets a better reward system or those who stay into the teachers’ contract, all the better.
The Students: While by no means advantaged within the context of DC – no parent in Northwest is going to send their kid east of the Anacostia River for school – the kids who get lotteried into SEED have one important thing going for them: they entered the lottery. They have parents who care enough about their children’s education that they took the time to research their options, decide SEED was the best one, and go through the hoops of applying (which are considerable, and involve a week’s stay at the school during the summer). These are parents who won’t let their kids skip school even for family emergencies. Even if it’s a small one, SEED students get a leg up by virtue of having been raised by these parents.
That being said, I saw a number of seventh grade boys who were about four feet tall. That’s 4’0″. In seventh grade. Seventh graders are generally at least twelve years old, and the average twelve-year-old male is 58.5 inches (4’10.5″). The cutoff for the lowest fifth percentile is 54 inches (4’6.5″). Now, is it possible that SEED just got a bunch of outliers, that they just happened to get, out of 40 seventh grade boys, several who were far, far outside the normal height range? Certainly. I haven’t done a rigorous hypothesis test on the question. But it’s more likely that this is the result of years of malnutrition. Now, I had heard the numbers from the Korean peninsula, about how South Korean males are on average four inches taller than those North Koreans who managed to defect and get measured. But that’s in aggregate, and in one of the poorest, most famine-prone nations on Earth. I saw this in America. In the nation’s capitol, no less. It’s a fucking outrage.
I could go on about students’ reactions to the SEED program, about the frequent comparison of the administrator’s system of control to that of prisons and the complaints about being kept away from their communities and even each other. My response varies; the school could afford to allow its students more autonomy, especially in the upper school, and the degree of sex segregation really isn’t defensible, but separating kids from the violence and instability of their home communities is more or less the entire point of SEED, and a policy worth sustaining. But at the end of the day, it’s somewhat irrelevant. The kids get there too late for these things to make that big of a difference. Take, for instance, the most disturbing statistic about SEED, its drop-out rate (what the higher-ups call “declining re-enrollment”; recall the Hitchens quote on the “moral offense of euphemism”). About 80 seventh graders enter every year; 10-25 twelfth graders leave. So when SEED brags about its 98% college enrollment rate, it’s juking the stats. It’s really a 12-31% rate, depending on the year.
It’s not fair to pin that on SEED. By the time they enter as seventh graders, the kids have already been failed, and they’re already far enough behind that it’s only reasonable that they’d want to leave a college prep program, that it’d just be too much. These are kids who didn’t even get enough food as children to grow to a reasonable height; how are they supposed to do well on the SATs? One of the most painful scenes in The Wire‘s fourth season comes when David Parenti, the UMD sociologist proposes studying street kids starting at age 18 and Bunny tells him that he needs to start in the eighth grade if he wants to catch kids before they’re already lost. Well, Bunny was wrong; even the eighth grade’s too late, at least in terms of achievement. We need to catch these kids earlier.
The System: If there’s any overriding lesson here, it’s that last point. There’s a way to catch these kids earlier, of course. It’s called the Scandinavian social model. While the system of all-encompassing, universal support for parents and students through comprehensive day care and preschool programs that Finland has implemented may not transplant perfectly to the US, or scale sufficiently, they sure couldn’t hurt. I have no doubt that if these kids were being read to and taught in day care centers, and had parents who were compensated for their work as caregivers and taken seriously for that work, they would be facing a far smaller gap. And given as we live in a country in which making sure every citizen has access to basic medicine is derided as socialism and watered down by scoundrels like Evan Bayh, I don’t see any system like that being implemented in my lifetime.
Nothing surprised me about this week quite like the nationalistic fervor it instilled. My problem wasn’t just that children were experiencing this tragedy. My problem was that it was being experienced by children in my country, mere miles from the national seat of my government. But if the act of observation offended my hope for national greatness, thinking about what could be done to change the system all but killed that hope entirely. In a humane country, this isn’t even a question. When we have problems as deep as these, inequalities that shock the conscience as much as these do, we correct them. We build the twenty-four hours day-care centers, we disperse the parenting checks, we put aside bickering about teaching evolution or sex-ed and write a national curriculum. But this isn’t a humane country. And so when the stimulus package included $90 billion for education, it was considered “great” for education folks. And it disturbs me to no end that, relatively speaking, that was a great figure. It’s not enough. And it won’t be enough until we get over our bizarre apprehensions about government involvement in education and make some kind of real monetary commitment to leveling the playing field.