There was an incident at a city school this week which, all things considered, reflected well on the community and its values. Ironically, when a suburbanite coworker recounted it to me the facts were reshuffled in such a way that the hero in the story became the goat and if anything a response indicative of extreme care was made to look irresponsible. The bottom line was that a troubled child with special needs who lives in a group home had run off after being brought back to school for misbehavior on the bus, and “teachers” who were still at the school at nearly 4 p.m. were so concerned about the child’s well being that they called upon the police department to aid them in a search of the city’s largest park to find him. In the end a worker from the group home, not knowing that there had been an issue at the school, saw the child walking on the street and brought him back to the residence.
Also this week Strong Towns reposted a series of 4 podcasts that one of the site’s editors viewed as the most important of the year. Among them was the interview I had with Chuck Marohn on the topic of urban schools. The point of the interview was that city schools are often labeled as “bad schools” erroneously specifically because the students they educate are more difficult to educate. The correct way to analyze whether a school is “good” or “bad” is to view how a school’s outcomes correspond to the school’s demographic “predictors” such as parental income, transience, and English language proficiency. When one does that, instead of the overly simplistic comparison of school against school without taking those things into account, urban schools considered “bad” often turn out to be over performing.
I was thrilled to see that, of the four podcasts reposted, mine was singled out in the comment section as being of high importance, but one response in particular completely ignored the entire premise of the interview. In essence the comment was that the commenter hypothesized that gentrification improves urban schools. The post didn’t seem designed to contradict what had been laid out in the interview, which of course it did, it just seemed to completely ignore every point made in the discussion replacing them with exactly, precisely, the demonstrably flawed premise the interview was meant to reject: schools do not “get better” when neighborhoods gentrify, the gentrifying students improve outcomes because they are better prepared as students.
Not seeing that is like putting a NBA players in the uniforms of a CYO league basketball team and concluding that the team’s improvement is due to better coaching!
To repeat, (it’s a good analogy, really) seeing the improved record of a church basketball team as being caused by improvements in the coaching staff or coaching techniques when the normal CYO kids have been replaced by NBA caliber players is identical to believing that a gentrifying school achieves better outcomes because instruction improves.
Think about it.
What connects these two stories, that of the podcast and that of the misunderstanding of the news item regarding the runaway boy? The power of the preconception. As a teacher I could give you at least a handful of specific examples where I have learned that my students’ greatest challenge in mastering new material is prior learning which contains inherent contradictions to the new. ER and IR verbs are always confused with the more dominant AR verbs, the rules of the present tense override the new learning about the preterite, and those examples don’t even begin to scratch the surface of the different historical and cultural perspectives of the Spanish speaking world relative to the United States and our perspectives.
The point here is that overcoming the power of the preconception takes time and repetition, and time and repetition, and time and repetition. I once taught an entire unit on the overthrow of the Allende government with readings from newspaper reports, short stories, and novels, compounded with viewing and listening to actual White House conversations, documentary films, and full length feature films, with the outcome that 1/4 of the class reported to me on the test that the Soviet Union had overthrown the socialist president of Chile. What other country would have so little respect for democracy?
It doesn’t matter that published, peer reviewed papers can demonstrate that stranger danger INCREASES as you move further from a metro center, or that an analysis of data shows that “school quality” is both difficult to determine AND not a particularly significant factor in individual student outcomes, it has to be said over, and over, and over again to even begin to make a dent in the barrier that is the preconception.
Here at Rational Urbanism I’ll just keep pounding away.