The community schools con
September 24, 2008
When Randi Weingarten introduced her brainchild, the "community school," in her speech accepting the presidency of the American Federation of Teachers, we found it sorely wanting. And, of course, we found it not the least bit new, either. Scads of existing schools already worship at this altar and 120 or so extant groups are already tied to the Coalition for Community Schools. The Charles Stewart Mott Foundation has been promoting this concept for 70 years or so, first in Flint, Michigan, then nationally, and now around the world. (See, for example, here.) And there's a vast literature on this topic. (Google "community schools" and you'll get a couple million hits.)
Surely Ms. Weingarten and her allies know all this. If anything is new under the sun, it's their proposition that every young American should have access to such schools-and that the federal government should make this happen and, by the way, ease off other stuff like standards and results-based accountability until that halcyon day dawns.
Ever since this proposition tripped off her tongue in July, indeed since the "Broader, Bolder" crowd declared itself in June and right up to and including yesterday's shindig at the National Press Club, we've found this idea gooey and emotional, focusing on the externalities of daily life that drip into America's classrooms-poor healthcare, single parent families, unemployment--rather than on what schools can do with the kids who actually turn up there. We judged it a well crafted (and exquisitely timed, considering the election) attempt to change the subject, to divert attention away from achievement by taking a defeatist attitude about the conditions that prevent children from learning.
Having just published David Whitman's singular treatise on "paternalistic" schools, it struck us that these could be said to possess a resemblance to "community" schools. After all, both consider the whole child, involve families, focus on disadvantaged children, etc. But be not fooled. These similarities are superficial at best. And it is precisely by analyzing these apparent commonalities that community and paternalistic schools reveal themselves to be polar opposites-and underscore why the latter beat the former by miles.
The holistic approach means understanding students as more than just receptacles for skills and knowledge. The Coalition for Community Schools describes its vision thusly: "a community school is both a set of partnerships and a place where services, supports and opportunities lead to improved student learning, stronger families and healthier communities." The school, in this view, is a hub for community life, providing not just education but also such services as family counseling, medical and mental health care, and community service opportunities. It tries simultaneously to address the educational, medical, and mental needs of children, believing that only then will children--happy, healthy children--truly be ready to learn things.
Paternalistic schools also consider the whole child. David Whitman explains their philosophy as "a highly prescriptive institution that teaches students not just how to think but how to act." In other words, academics are not their sole focus; paternalistic schools also teach students how to live, from tucking in their shirts to what sort of shirt to wear, from having a firm handshake to sitting up straight in class.
But where community schools look at the whole child in order to turn the spotlight away from cognitive learning, paternalistic schools do so to intensify the beam. They acknowledge the multitudinous challenges facing their students. But instead of focusing on a broken system and troubled society, the paternalistic school focuses on the child. You may have a difficult home life or parent in jail, these schools tell kids, but we know that you can learn anyway, and you will. Paternalistic schools "teach children how to live," explains Whitman. This is a big difference indeed.
The community school movement implicitly blames externalities (poor health care, single parent households, maldistributed income, bad housing, etc.) for weak academic performance. Everything except the child and teacher seems to be culpable. Paternalistic schools also acknowledge these externalities, but don't tarry over culpability. Instead they preach no excuses (and have garnered the "No Excuses" sobriquet as a result); poverty, single parent homes and everyday difficulties are just par for their pupils' course, challenges to be overcome. Students must perform in class regardless. This, too, is a very big difference.
Both models also encourage increased parental involvement and stay open longer than normal hours. But there's nothing similar in how they treat parents or use that extra time. The community school sees itself as a one-stop shop where parents, too, can come for career counseling, medical check-ups, nutrition seminars, etc. Again, though, the message is one of implicit blame; it's not your fault, they suggest to parents, that you can't take adequate care of your children or ensure that they show up to school on time, clean, clad, fed, and ready to learn. The system has shortchanged you and we will provide you solace--as well as Family Learning nights and community service opportunities for you to become a better parent.
The paternalistic school does no such coddling. KIPP, for example, has parents sign a contract agreeing to be held accountable for their children; schools are open late for parent-teacher conferences instead of parenting seminars. In both instances, the school building becomes more than a locus of classroom instruction; but where community schools indulge parents their shortcomings, paternalistic schools hold them to account for their own and their children's behavior.
Finally, there's a huge difference in how these two types of schools understand and interact with their host communities--and the political signals that they send. The community school seems to view middle-class America as the source of an oppressive system that ravages the lives of poor families and communities, parents and students alike. The school is there to help push back against that system. By contrast, paternalistic schools observe that successfully joining that value system and the middle-class society that gave rise to it is the best possible thing that could happen to a low-income kid from the wrong side of the tracks. And so these schools strive to bring about precisely this result with their students--and, as Whitman found, the best of them do it very well indeed.