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What Johnny Learned

A journey to the land of charter schools

12:00 AM, Oct 15, 2010 • By MATT PATTERSON
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Philip Brand has made an extraordinary journey.

What Johnny Learned

Students at the New Heights Charter School

Beginning in New Hampshire in September, 2008, Brand and his brother Evan spent seven months traveling the country, visiting two schools in each state (except Alaska). They visited inner-city schools, home schools, suburban schools, rich schools, poor schools--all in a painstaking attempt, as Brand puts it, to “understand American schooling.” The result of this sojourn is an invaluable, sometimes heart-breaking, treatise on the state of contemporary American schools.

Perhaps without realizing it, Brand has made a history in the original meaning of the term, and it could not come at a more propitious moment. Our fickle zeitgeist has belatedly turned to the shameful topic of America’s continuing failure to properly educate its young people, and books like Brand’s--in conjunction with movies like Davis Guggenheim’s Waiting for ‘Superman’ and the headline-grabbing efforts of reformers like Washington, like D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee--are at once riding this long-overdue cultural wave and helping to shape and propel it. What Guggenheim’s movie and Brand’s book have in common is their studied interest in the front-line troops of the education wars: the parents, teachers, and students who are so often the victims of government bureaucracies and teacher’s unions, who together conspire to grow their own feathered nests--often at the expense of the kids whom the whole bloated edifice is ostensibly designed to serve.

This approach has yielded Brand some valuable insights. For one, he has come away skeptical that the answer to America’s failing schools is more power in the federal education establishment. As he writes in the introduction:

I am convinced that centralized solutions to education’s woes will not work because they cannot address the diverse and local character of education. Worse, centralized solutions corrode the function of families and communities, whose vitality is truly important to a child’s education.

From this singular observation, Brand has gleaned an enormous amount of wisdom. The inherently localized nature of education is embedded even in the book’s title, he writes, which is “meant to convey two central lessons I learned on this trip. The first: When it comes to picking a school many parents care most about the kinds with whom their own children associate. Not the curriculum, not the teachers, but the other kids. ... It was what they thought mattered most in providing the best education for their child.” This insight, perhaps more than any other here, will surprise and unnerve liberal elites in the education establishment, and not without reason. As Brand admits, it was precisely these sorts of parental concerns that fueled some of our most explosive education controversies, including busing and property tax relief. Yet for parents it will come as no surprise, for they intuitively understand what recent research suggests: A child’s peer group--which will largely if not exclusively be formed in school--can equal or exceed all other influencing pressure. Indeed, a child’s personality can be more powerfully and frequently shaped by their peer group than by their siblings and other close relatives.

This point is brought home by three students--two girls and one boy at the New Heights Academy Charter School in New York--who extolled the virtues of their school to Brand. Specifically, they mentioned that there were fewer fights at New Heights than in the schools they had previously attended. “Why is that?” asked Brand, to which the boy responded, “There aren’t as many kids here who get in fights.” This paucity of unruly children--and the corresponding safer learning atmosphere--is one reason why charter schools like New Heights are so sought after by concerned parents, and by talented teachers. 

The contrast between New Heights (a charter school funded publicly but operated independently from the local school district) and New York City public school C.S. 211, two schools which Brand visited back-to-back, is stunning. At New Heights kids rhapsodize about the safety of their hallways; at C.S. 211 Brand witnesses a student screaming to her teacher that she had just been groped. At New Heights an enthusiastic young teacher is instructing her students in the basics of respectful adult interaction, how to shake hands while looking someone in the eye, how to listen with “eyes and ears”; at C.S. 211 a disengaged teacher assigns busy work to a bored class for an entire period. 

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