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Reform Trumps Race

Posted: 2007-01-23

Book Review: The Children in Room E4: American Education on Trial, by Susan Eaton (Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill), Publication Date: January 23, 2007

The book offers a reminder that people, unlike rats, will continue down the same tunnels long after it's apparent there is no cheese. This is, I know, harsh, but it seems an apt characterization of superintendents, principals, and educational consultants who keep devising solutions that are only variations of old ways of failing.

This review first appeared at Education Sector.

The ironic value of Susan Eaton's painstaking look at racially segregated schools in Hartford, Conn., and legal efforts to integrate them, is her unintended reminder that just as war is too important to be left to the generals, education may be too essential to be left to the education policymakers.

Eaton tells two stories. The first is of the children of the title, poor black and Hispanic students at Simpson-Waverly Elementary School, and of their dedicated teacher, Lois Luddy. The second is of a nearly decade-long school desegregation suit that sought to improve conditions in Hartford schools.

As poignantly interesting as these stories are, however, one has been told many times, and the other, alas, is of limited universality. What's most useful then, about The Children in Room E4 is its indictment of the way No Child Left Behind, standardized testing, and "curriculum packages" are implemented in ways that force teachers like Luddy into systems of rote learning that do nothing to encourage children's initiative or creativity. Surely education leaders can do better.

While Eaton gives us portraits of several children in Room E4, she focuses on Jeremy Otero, a bright Puerto Rican boy who, given better circumstances, would be assured of a promising future. Despite Jeremy's intelligence?he "reads several grade levels ahead," "scored well on the state's standardized test," and "exhibits remarkable curiosity,"?the odds are against him. He's poor, lives in a neighborhood where violence and drug-dealing are common, and has only minimal support at home.

If Jeremy has a chance, it's because Luddy, "still a deft and indefatigable teacher after 28 years in Hartford's classrooms" encourages his (and his classmate's) innate ability, going far beyond what's required of her, in spite of the need to teach to the Connecticut Mastery Test.

But Luddy and other dedicated Hartford teachers face overwhelming odds. In 1950, Hartford was virtually all-white. In the decades since then, a loss of manufacturing jobs, government-sponsored loan programs that made it easy for whites to buy homes in the suburbs, and other economic and social changes have left the city with a population about 80 percent black and Hispanic. Nearly half the city's students are poor and more than a third of its schools are failing.

Hartford's changing population and its underperforming schools were the rationale for the lawsuit?Sheff v. O'Neill?that forms the second thread of The Children in Room E4.

Filed in 1989 by activist lawyer John Brittain and lawyers from the NAACP's Legal Defense Fund and the American Civil Liberties Union, Sheff v. O'Neill argued that the de facto segregation of Hartford schools denied students their right to an equal education under the Connecticut constitution.

Eaton tells the story of the suit at length (she covered the case in the 1990s as a newspaper reporter), which is part of the problem with her book. Important though it may have been for the children of Hartford, Sheff set no precedent courts elsewhere were bound to follow, and by recounting the story at such length, Eaton invites comparisons to Richard Kluger's magisterial Simple Justice, which chronicled the landmark case Brown v. Board of Education.

Inevitably, The Children in Room E4 suffers by such comparisons.

Then, too, as callous as it may sound, we've read Jeremy Otero's story before. (Jeremy is not his real name; Eaton changed it, as she did the names of everyone under 18, and their parents' or guardians' "in order to protect their privacy.") Aspects of the story have been told, and more compellingly, in Ron Suskin's A Hope in the Unseen, J. Anthony Lukas' Common Ground, Leon Dash's Rosa Lee, and Alex Kotlowitz's There Are No Children Here.

I'm not suggesting that writers shun a topic simply because it has been written before. But when a subject has been written about as much as the plight of children in urban schools has, a writer needs to have something new to say.

What's most valuable if not entirely new about The Children in Room E4, is its reminder that people, unlike rats, will continue down the same tunnels long after it's apparent there is no cheese. This is, I know, harsh, but it seems an apt characterization of superintendents, principals, and educational consultants who keep devising solutions that are only variations of old ways of failing. Eaton provides many examples.

Despite Luddy's sympathetic nature and classroom skills honed by years of teaching, she's hamstrung by having to adhere to "curriculum packages" that might have been designed by people who hate children. (Introduced to a new one, she thinks, " 'What the heck'. . . for 'probably the fifteenth time'??'why not give it a chance?' ") The packages spell out with dictatorial efficiency what teachers should do every minute of a lesson plan, leaving "no room to rest, compose, reflect, pause, veer, intuitively answer students' curious off-point questions."

Worse, these curricula come and go with fashions in educational practice and the passage of superintendents from one school system to another.

It's instructive to compare Luddy's class to a suburban classroom that also uses prepared materials. The difference is that those materials don't "dictate content," freeing the teacher to encourage his students "to be open to ideas, be inspired leaders, see and appreciate all the different ways of conveying knowledge."

James Thompson, principal of Luddy's school, has his doubts about the system of industrial education he's compelled to follow, though at one point his students scored high enough on the state-mandated achievement test for educators from other states to make pilgrimages to his school to discover the source of his magic.

But there isn't any, Thompson insists. ". . .[W]e're establishing order, a system, and within that system, we teach children how to pass the Connecticut Mastery Test. It's not mysterious." But, Thompson adds, "I really worry . . . about what's going to happen after the students leave, what it adds up to, whether we're preparing them. . . . [W]hat are we preparing them for?"

It's a good question, though I'm not sure the answer lies in suits like Sheff v. O'Neill. Integrated schools represent, as Eaton aptly puts it, "not merely a 'policy' or set of political choices but an aspiration, a moral vision of an inclusive, cohesive society." Though we've drifted from it in this post-Civil Rights Movement era, I believe most white Americans share that moral vision, even if they're reluctant to pay personally to achieve it. The thing is, I don't know many black middle-class parents who want their children attending failing schools either.

The Connecticut Supreme Court left it to the state to devise a remedy for its segregated schools. Part of that remedy involved the creation of desegregated magnet schools but, while the settlement mandated 2,400 city students enroll in those schools by 2004, fewer than 900 were projected to.

The reality, then, is that integrating urban schools isn't likely to solve their students' educational problems. But neither are industrial, out-come based solutions like NCLB.

Until we're willing to do the hard things that might result in change?remaking union rules that protect incompetent teachers and hamper principals' discretion in hiring; requiring teachers to show competency in their subjects, instead of simply earning education degrees; and attacking a broad range of social problems, from teen pregnancy to lack of parenting skills, by offering real support to families like Jeremy Otero's, I don't think we're likely to.

A Washington writer, David Nicholson is a former assistant editor of The Washington Post Book World and a former editor of The Post's Education Review.

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