Letting the side down

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I was struck by a recent interview with Katherine Birbalsingh on BBC Radio 4.

Birbalsingh drew attention by making a speech at the 2010 Conservative Party conference in the U.K. in which she talked about the poor state of the British education system. After losing her job and a few years spent in the wilderness, she set up Michaela Community School, a Free School in West London that takes a ‘no excuses’ approach to discipline and uses teacher-led instruction in order to deliver a knowledge-rich curriculum.

I expected that I would learn some of the history of how the school was set-up. I did. However, I didn’t expect to learn about race relations. I have attempted to transcribe the key part of the interview. I am not an expert at transcription so apologies for any errors:

“It took us three years in the end to open and that was mainly because of our detractors who were trying to stop us… Every time we would invite local parents to find out about this possible new school… you would have to pass through a whole 20-odd people protesting with placards… and they would come and sit among the parents and when we would try and speak to the parents they would interrupt constantly, shouting things or doing things to disrupt. The vast majority were white… and the vast majority of the parents were black and all desperate for another option of school…

At one event, a young white woman jumped up and started shouting at me and saying, “You betrayed us when you went and spoke at the Tory party conference,” and I thought, ‘Well who are you? I don’t know who you are. How can I have betrayed you? All I did was get up and say what I thought’. You might disagree with me and that’s fine but it was this real sense of betrayal and I did think that that is because of my colour: The Conservative Party is evil, you [Birbalsingh] should not have gone to their conference and as a black person you should know better because you owe us.

That is something I suffer from all the time… and I think that reaction shows how far we have to go in terms of race relations.”

This played on my mind. Are some white, middle-class people actively working against the wishes of communities that they seek to support?

I am not totally convinced by the ‘no excuses’ or ‘zero tolerance’ concept. Firstly, I dislike the labels because they suggest an inflexibility that I suspect many of these schools don’t actually subscribe to. And I use the word ‘suspect’ because I have never visited one and so I don’t really know.

Although different from Michaela in a number of ways, many Charter Schools in the U.S. use a zero tolerance model. Again, I have some reservations. I have reservations about staff churn and curriculum content – are they endlessly drilling kids in reading comprehension strategies? And I have reservations about attempts to teach character traits like ‘grit’. I’m not sure whether teaching grit is really possible or desirable and I’m not sure what it would look like.

And so it was with interest that I read a post on the AARE blog about Charter Schools by a researcher who used to work in one. I expected that I would have to peer through the lens of a devastating critique. I would have spat out my coffee if I found myself reading anything positive about these notoriously ‘neoliberal’ institutions on the site of the guardian of educational righteousness. And I think it really was intended to be a blistering attack. Yet I couldn’t help reading it and thinking that the schools in question sounded quite good.

This passage in particular drew my mind back to the Birbalsingh interview:

“While the institutional practices of a zero-tolerance approach to student behaviour and teacher underperformance in CMOs [Charter Schools] have been extremely contentious amongst the community of education researchers, these approaches simultaneously have become very popular amongst disadvantaged African-American and Latino parents competing for access to quality schooling in large urban centres. Parents from these communities want their children to go to the top performing charter schools..”

Again, it seems as if parents are letting the side down. Education researchers must be pretty disappointed.

19 thoughts on “Letting the side down

  1. This reminds me of something you wrote on Webs of Substance about Paulo Friere; that the ‘masses’ are dis-inclined to ‘rise up’ and so need their eyes opened to their oppression through critical pedagogy. Well it seems from the above that the ‘masses’ know a good school when they see one, and despite the best intentions of the progressives are clamoring to get in them.

      1. I have to say my feeling as a socialist in contact with others who are socialist (I am a member of the Labour Party in the UK btw) is that they are against schools like Michaela on principle. They espouse the doctrine of child centred learning and the skills curriculum. Michael Rosen is almost fanatically opposed to SSP and the phonics check as are many members of the NUT/NEU – but they would all say they want the best for children and that people like Katherine Birbalsingh are indeed letting the side down because they are not offering a relevant, child centred education (Rosen thinks phonics leads children to hate reading, too). I think this stance is because teaching a knowledge based curriculum is seen as Conservative/elitist and also as cutting out the ‘relevance curriculum’ and inclusivity. I feel very sad when I hear people in education say Shakespeare, the French Revolution or classical music and learning music notation are not relevant to deprived children of whatever ethnic background. I think the people who say it are well intentioned – but we know where the path of good intentions leads.

    1. I seriously think one of the educational stories that hasn’t been investigated properly is that of the improvement of educational attainment of Indian and Chinese pupils. Anecdotally I know that Indian parents moved from inner-city areas in the 70s and 80s where the more progressive ideas were being touted to middle class areas in order that their children would attend more traditional schools, where they did indeed succeed. It would be interesting to see what impact this had.

      Even those from a poor background with little education can spot the difference in their children and their own education if their children are falling behind. I agree that some of this is perception but not all of it. It should not be discounted and dismissed the way it is.

  2. Interesting comments. As an ex-socialist (anarchist, really), I would want my kids to have the best possible education….so would support such as the Michaela school.

  3. I would support a good school like Michaela too. Commenting on goddinho’s point, I think Lenin said that the masses must be forced to be free. As a socialist I remember thinking this was true, it has taken a while to come to my senses and realise how undemocratic and totalitarian such an idea is, and I am sorry I ever agree with it in any way.

  4. Tall Poppy Syndrome. As soon as a school starts to offer something better for their students, it’s villified for doing so. Some are even shut down.

    I don’t know if Michaela is “the” answer, however I fully support Birbalsingh’s efforts and all those teachers who work there in trying to make a difference in their community, and most certainly for their students, by offering up a choice…something that so many are against.

    The continued race to the bottom in pursuit of education excellence must be acknowledged. Instead of standing on the sidelines throwing stones at those who are trying to make a difference, why not get involved and figure out what the real issues are, and what some of the solutions might be to support solid educational support for our students…and especially for those students who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

  5. I think there is also a dynamic of the Michaela model “scaling up” (see Larry Cuban’s recent posting on this point: https://larrycuban.wordpress.com/2017/10/24/scaling-up-to-mediocrity-the-myth-of-grow-or-die-part-1/ As there has been a tendency for educational movements/models to spread (and often not with good results), those pushing the progressive reform agenda, which ahs already scaled-up in the US, fear that their house might be built on sand. I think that’s also why they struggle with the cog psy developments.

  6. Read the AARE article, it seems to be looking at the school from a sociological/ethnographical angle, though paragraphs like the following are worrying, as I can’t tell if this is an opinion of what might happen, or a description of what did

    “What is gained by this integration of discipline with academics is questionable as, in many cases, students come to depend on it. As this approach to pedagogic instruction is what students are used to, when the clipboard is not on hand, and the codified behavior commands are not integrated with the teaching, the students become easily disengaged.”

    The author also likes alternating detached, if potentially nonobjective, descriptions with clearly unnecessarily subjective statements such as,

    “For the reform movement and Teach for America, teachers who come from traditional teacher education programmes are taught to ‘care too much’ and can therefore succumb to a bigotry of low expectations for their disadvantaged students.

    Surely saying the following would be more objective,

    Teach for America, and likely most CMOs, believe that teachers who come from traditional teacher education programs, are taught to have low expectations for their disadvantaged students”

    Seems like the author is misrepresenting a sociological analysis as an educational one instead.
    AARE seem to not mind,

  7. Are some white, middle-class people actively working against the wishes of communities that they seek to support?

    Well, it’s not clear that they actually seek to support them. They want to be seen a righteous, which is not quite the same thing.

    My school manages to get the “disadvantaged” ethnicities to have very nearly the same pass rates as the “privileged”. Taking income into account, it would be the same rate. We do that by what amounts to a “no excuses” policy on success (we don’t select entrants).

    The worst thing for such students is to be told that, on the basis of their skin colour, that they are kinesthetic learners, and then teach them on that basis. Or rather, not teach them. Yet I have seen it argued sincerely that they should not be taught Algebra in the same abstract way as White folk, but should have visual and hands-on methods.

    When people advocate different learning methods based on race, they are actively working against the good of the communities they wish to support. But I am the racist for ignoring them.

  8. Read the article on NYC charter schools. I knew about JS Mill. One of the problems the researcher seems to have (apart from the grid carpet!) is that when reading the story of grandmother moving house a child is not allowed to use the pictures to help interpret the story. From the point of view of beginning readers (and children first attempting to interpret inference from text) this is perfectly justifiable. Methods such as ‘look and say’ and ‘whole word’ when used for teaching reading actively encourage using the pictures as a means to read the text. I do not really have to explain what damage this causes when a child moves on to books which have fewer pictures which do not relate directly to the text, I am certain! So the NYC teacher is discouraging ‘reading’ the pictures for information, and is totally correct to do so. There is evidence in the text that grandmother is lonely, and that her husband is absent – he is not mentioned at all, and the inference is he must be dead or far away and not coming back. That can be inferred from the text – you do not need the pictures at all.

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