Less Uncommon

In his recent book on Charter Schools, economist Thomas Sowell compares the outcomes of students in regular New York public schools with students in Charter Schools that are housed in the same building. He finds overwhelmingly in favour of Charter Schools and notes that one of the key features of such schools is an approach to classroom discipline that is very different from their public school neighbours. This may be one reason why Charter Schools in New York tend to be oversubscribed. Parents value what they have to offer.

And why wouldn’t they? Charter Schools serve disadvantaged urban populations and education is a potential way out of that disadvantage. Knowledge is power, so they say, and if you can gain the knowledge afforded to more affluent populations, explicit and implicit, declarative and habitual, you can wield that power. However, this assumes that society as it stands – a society that values punctuality, mathematical ability, literacy, the use of standard English and that expects people to be familiar with a particular body of historical events or scientific concepts – is relatively stable and that it is therefore in the individual’s interests to accommodate themselves to this society.

What if there were an alternative? What if we could completely remake society to a new plan? What if we could achieve the ends of including marginalised people in the upper echelons of the public realm by educating executives and officials into a new set of expectations, and by instituting quotas for representation and systems of enforcement? Then, we wouldn’t need to bother educating the disadvantaged in the conventions of society and could, instead, affirm what they know.

I do not think such an alternative is likely to happen, however great the revolutionary fervor of our indigestible times. And if it looked likely, I would fight it. Why? Because it sounds a lot like the various Utopian projects of the 20th century that invariably resulted in mass slaughter and the gulag. Whenever we move decisively away from evolved relations and evolved culture and give the power to define relations and culture to an elite, we create the conditions for the most egregious abuses of power which then assume a ticking inevitability.

An attempt at such a project is underway and some people cannot see it for what it is. Yet. In 2015, when professors were being harangued on campus in a sickly diet version of the cultural revolution, the liberal left were more concerned about the conservatives who were highlighting this behaviour than the behaviour itself. It’s just students, they thought. Maybe they have gone a bit far but what is university for if not for trying out new ideas?

The campus antics of 2015 are now the behaviour of elite culture at large across much of the English speaking world. Corporations are hiring consultants to tell them how to police the thoughts of their employees and the consultants are writing their own cheques.

Education is far from immune. Educational progressivists have gleefully rolled-up their sleeves and rushed to associate themselves with this movement, convinced that it will be an effective Trojan horse for the imposition of their 19th century tradition.

And so the consultants are at the door of Uncommon Schools, one of those Charter School chains that Sowell found to be so effective. On the 2nd of July, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd, the President of Uncommon Schools announced that it would be hiring Promise54 to review their practices. That review has apparently now taken place and the President and CEO have announced a whole raft of measures in response.

These include the abandonment of practices such as silent corridors and ‘SLANT’ (Sit Up, Listen, Ask and Answer Questions, Nod Your Head, Track the Speaker) that attempts to teach students the interaction habits of the professional classes. There will be no more detentions for ‘minor infractions’. It is hard to know what such infractions are from outside of the school culture, but if it means something like forgetting equipment then hopefully the school administration will supply the teachers with plenty of pencils.

But it is not just about discipline. There will also be a thought-policing initiative that includes: “Training all staff on the actions we must take as an organization to be anti-racist, including understanding individual cultural frames of reference and any unconscious/unmitigated bias.”

Again, many are left remarkably unconcerned. Despite the staff at Uncommon Schools being more than 50% teachers of colour, more than double the national average, and despite the fact that the disadvantaged students Uncommon Schools serve come from a range of backgrounds, the issue has been simplistically framed by some as that of mainly white teachers not understanding mainly black students. What’s the harm in a little more understanding? We shall see.

It may be that this initiative washes away on the ebbs and flows of educational fashion. In the short term, this means that Uncommon Schools will need to buy a lot of pencils and their staff will have to sit through a few pointless and patronising training sessions, but after a while, the situation will land on a new, ever-so-slightly-different normal that consolidates the successes of Uncommon Schools past. It may even be that some of the changes made are beneficial and represent an opportunity. Students may perhaps start to discuss philosophy in the corridors and alternative strategies may be found to transition from the hype of recess to the calm of class.

The alternative is that, in looking at Uncommon Schools through distorted spectacles, the administration and their consultants have lost sight of something that is important. The unique selling point that represents an alternative to the public system will be gone and, with it, the academic outcomes and parental demand. If the wider revolution does not in fact materialise, we can at least take comfort from the fact that, a few years from now, a new provider will emerge to fill that gap.

So what is the lesson for the rest of us? It is that the attempted coup against democracy, free speech and free thought has far from run out of road and could soon be arriving with a carpet bag full of irrational jargon at a school near you. It won’t do to be an apologist. We’ve had enough of being told that the real problem is elsewhere. It’s time to start thinking through a response if we value what we have so meticulously built for the benefit of our students.

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2 thoughts on “Less Uncommon

  1. J.D. Fisher says:

    “And if it looked likely, I would fight it. Why?”

    I’ll give my reason(s). Because, looking back over my adult years (and speaking with others about theirs), there are, in fact, a few episodes where I think the right move was (or should have been) for the world to get the hell out of the way–especially once someone has achieved a level of expertise that other people don’t notice. But these are far outnumbered by those episodes where people, myself definitely included, need to adjust their behavior and thinking to be better in the world we lived in.

    Of course, you have to be vigilant. If you adopt the strategy of adjusting yourself to the world first, you have to always ask whether you’re being conned or systematically manipulated. But the same goes for the opposite view. If you adopt the strategy of asking the world to change for you (or your group), you have to always ask whether you’re being an annoying whiny-baby drain on your fellow citizens’ time and energy.

  2. And so it goes…the ever continuing downward spiral.

    It is mystifying to me why, as successful as they are, Uncommon Schools decided to do the review in the first place. Isn’t the first rule of education (and business), “Don’t mess with success?” Would be curious to know if the impetus for the review came from the outside (a fightable disease) or internal (a fatal disease). But that is a question that will likely never be answered.

    I admired what Uncommon Schools had achieved, and had hoped to work there someday. Another place to strike off a very short list of oases in the ever-encroaching desert. *sigh*

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