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Leadership and Activism, Philosophical Meanderings

Wake me up, America: zip codes, destiny, & the rebirth of self-determination

In education we talk a lot about zip codes:

“Zip codes and demographics must no longer be educational destiny for our students.”
Robert Carreon, Executive Director of Teach for America – Rio Grande Valley

“[It was the ] biggest social injustice that skin color and zip code determined a child’s education and future opportunity.”
Michelle Rhee, Founder and CEO of StudentsFirst

“Our goal is easy to articulate and hard to get there. It’s to make sure every child in this country has access to a world-class education. Race, social and economic status, zip code, neighborhood shouldn’t matter.”
Arne Duncan, United States Secretary of Education

“A child’s ZIP code or street address should not determine their destiny.”
Mick Zais, South Carolina Superintendent of Education

“Destiny should not be determined by zip code.”
Chris Christie, Governor of New Jersey

“For far too long, a child’s zip code determines destiny.”
Mark Bounds, South Carolina Deputy School Superintendent

“Most of our students enter our schools below grade level in reading and math.  With hard work and determination, they close the gap, proving that their zip codes do not determine their destinies.”
KIPP: Chicago

“Because of the Zip Code Education policies that predominate today, poor families are restricted to failure mills in their neighborhoods, while middle class families (especially those who are minority or the first in their generation to achieve such status) are often restricted to warehouses of mediocrity whose shiny new buildings hide laggard instruction and low expectations for poor white, black and Latino kids. ”
RiShawn Biddle, Editor of Dropout Nation

I agree wholeheartedly that every child should receive an authentic, personally meaningful education of lasting value to herself and her community. I also support school choice; however, I think school choice means something bigger than moving students from school to school.

I think school choice means increasing families’ educational options within each zip code. I think school choice means offering enough types of public education so that every child, regardless of where she lives, can find and enroll in a school she loves within the support network of her home community.

I think school choice means that school divisions get real about the horrible, obvious obsolescence of a grinding, incessant decade and a half plus of content delivery and begin some serious catch-up R&D in portfolio divisions and customized education. We have to stop treating teaching like a guided missile strike meant to hit its target and wipe out all resistance.

I think school choice means that a family can choose to enroll its daughter in community-based classes and apprenticeships for credit. I think school choice means that school divisions learn from home-schoolers and unschoolers in designing learning spaces and experiences.

I think school choice does mean that we experiment with new kinds of learning spaces under the purview of the public education system which, when it’s not navel-gazing and awarding competitive grants to yes-folk, can reach an extraordinary number of youth and impact them positively.

School choice needs to begin in every child’s home zip code – and here’s why:

We are in a gut-wrenching stand-off. Schools that fail to meet testing benchmarks are not being given the flexibility to be anything other than schools trying to meet testing benchmarks. These schools are labeled “dropout factories.” They are sanctioned and sometimes closed without being given any opportunity to be something else.

Even so, there is hope. We are overlooking a bright, shining truth that is somehow still alight in the mire of United States public education:

A school that doesn’t meet testing benchmarks doesn’t have to be a dropout factory. A public school can be an amazing place without ever giving a test.

In fact, if given meaningful waivers and freedoms from testing, these schools might be brilliant farms, movie studios, or recording labels. They might consumer-testing labs, small-business incubators, or game development shops. They could be the headquarters for children and adults committed to reclaiming neighborhoods from generations of conflict.

If “dropout factories” could be any of those things, would we care whether or not their students even took a standardized test?

Let’s fund these schools with grant programs that reward true innovation, like the DML competition does. Let’s let private partners support schools that are pipelines to their industries, new and old. Let’s authorize the hell out schools kids could love. The Ford Middle School for Automotive Design? Hell yes – and I can’t even change my own oil, dear readers.

We have to find the political will to re-invest in “dropout factories” as new kinds of schools. They are not generating the pass rates we want, anyway (right, #edreform?). We should use these schools to revitalize public education in the United States and prove to their communities that we care more about them and their children than about their children’s test scores. Until we do so – until we care for kids where they live over scores where we move them – we will be caught in wretched conflict of interest that fuels the standardization industry and the frustration we transfer to students through our hierarchical, pervasive, and sometimes grossly punitive control of their lives.

While we like to assume some correlation between failing test scores and dropping out of schools, I suspect that our schools themselves turn our students against them much more than any set of standardized test scores ever could. In trying to meet our mandates for adult performance, we have created schools geared more toward patently inhumane sorting and scoring by standardized measures than toward civic care, inquiry, and learning in community.

It’s true that child’s zip code should’t be her destiny. It’s also true that a child’s new zip code should’t be her destiny. We educators should not be in the business of managing kids’ destinies.

We should be in the business of helping children decide their own fates in relationship and communion with their neighborhoods and worlds. We are the stewards of stewards, not the teachers of students.

When we move children from their neighborhood schools, we keep from them the problems we have caused, the righteous indignation they might have felt, and the solutions they might have found.

When all of a zip code’s schools are closed, who will move there? Who will invest there?

What is our destiny, as educators, working with the kids we are failing?

Where are we called?

Will we go there without being told?

These are the questions I ask myself.

I am worried that I will fail, so I share them with you in hope that we will succeed together in igniting a renaissance of public education in the United States. The rebirth of our schools will be the rebirth of a shared self-determination and promise to preserve it held between schools, their students, and parents.

There’s no way to promise a child that her schooling matters until we are doing the work that matters to us, our sleeping neighborhoods, and our shuddering country.

Wake me up, America. I am ready to work in your new schools.

About Chad Sansing

I teach for the users. Opinions are mine; content is ours.


9 thoughts on “Wake me up, America: zip codes, destiny, & the rebirth of self-determination

  1. You make quite a few assertions here, only to be supported by YouTube videos? What are you talking about? This is some pretty sloppy work, a thinly veiled treatise supporting “choice” from a charter school advocate. And you must know that if you hold your hand out for funds from the private sector, you will be beholden to their ideologies and priorities. Grants come with strings attached, some very heavy strings that will be pulled. And your ultimate claim that zip codes don’t determine destinies, that might technically be valid in some way, sure enough. But what this really means to a lot of public school advocates is that you feel that poverty should not be an excuse for failure. Oh I get that, but I’m not sure you’d really want to align yourself with folks who make the forceful claim that poverty must not be used as an excuse. Because those same folks wish to undermine teaching as a profession, a profession that you claim to enjoy.

    Posted by Chalk Face | December 10, 2011, 11:43 pm
    • Ed reformers believe that zip codes, a code word for SES, should not be an excuse for failure. I do not find anything here that suggests the writer believes the worn out Ed reformer narrative or aligning with it. No question of the land mines when accepting corporate dollars, but we should not exclude what federal dollars have done and are poised to do under RT3. I thought you once taught at a charter or thought about starting one yourself, or did I misunderstand something you wrote or am I confusing you with someone else? I find nothing of a substantive nature in your comment that extends, illuminates, or widens meaningful discussion. And gets us nowhere where we need to be to confront the huge fight in front of us in January 2012.

      Posted by Grumpy Educators | December 11, 2011, 12:04 am
      • What Shaun do you consider within the current system that can change the system? Does ending the test solve all the problems? Chad would agree that the test is not in anyway helping to fix education.

        Is it enough to give teacher autonomy, or school autonomy? Are all teachers concern with larger social justice issues?

        Poverty does not make you less than other students. It however changes what school is for you and your community and our families. At this point Corp Reformers, want all students to be treated the same as if can just reject the influences of reality outside of school. They say poverty is not an excuse, but they also claim in many ways it should not be a factor how we interact with students.

        I believe Chad is not only calling them out on that fact, but also challenging all of us to also see that many schools, even so called successful ones, are not treating students in a way that truly benefits them. That includes their voice and their choice in education into the design and creation of schools within the public school world. We must take some of the blame for the success of the Corp Reformers. Yes Corp Reformer have taken control of education reform, but we often make it so easy to do and have for years failed to use our massive power to change education to truly be transformative.

        It is broken in many ways and as we have seen, Corporate reformers have key in on this and created the narrative that best serves them, not the students, not the teachers and not the community.

        They have not done anything to fix the system, but do a good job at claiming they do. Yet in the same way many of us public school activists have done little to truly address the systematic problem of Public education that allowed Corp Reform to come in as so called heroes.

        We don’t need to fix the system, it is broken. We do need to reinvent public education, to reclaim it for the people, to make by the people and made of the people. What Chad suggest might not be the answer for everyone, nor does he purpose it is. But if we continue to just call for the protection of the system, we will fail. Public Education needs to be the center piece of any society. It should not in any way, space or form be controlled nationally or even regionally by any corporation for profit.

        However until we as teachers stand up against not only corp reformers, but also education that is not about learning, stand up against school systems that fail students on many levels, that don’t truly give families choice, that does not offer quality engaging education for all communities. Until we say an education system built in the 1900 in not the education system for current or future students and communities, that we might move the deck chairs on the Titanic, but we will not truly save Public education.

        I continue to encourage you to be more nuance in your fight for public education. Public Education by,for and of the people is my goal, not keeping a broken, outdated, education system.


        Posted by dloitz | December 11, 2011, 12:39 am
    • Hi, Shaun. Chad here. I hope this helps.

      My argument:

      School choice needs to begin in every child’s home zip code – and here’s why:

      We are in a gut-wrenching stand-off. Schools that fail to meet testing benchmarks are not being given the flexibility to be anything other than schools trying to meet testing benchmarks. These schools are labeled “dropout factories.” They are sanctioned and sometimes closed without being given any opportunity to be something else.

      My proposal:

      We have to find the political will to re-invest in “dropout factories” as new kinds of schools.

      My reasoning:

      Until we do so – until we care for kids where they live over scores where we move them – we will be caught in wretched conflict of interest that fuels the standardization industry and the frustration we transfer to students through our hierarchical, pervasive, and sometimes grossly punitive control of their lives…

      …and that which follows.

      What this really means is that poverty should not be an excuse for removing public education from impoverished communities or for keeping new ideas about why and how we should educate children from impoverished communities. I’m not categorically against neighborhood schools or public schools; I am entirely against schooling that doesn’t approach standardization and testing critically. I am entirely in favor of acknowledging that all communities and schools – including the children in them – should be able to practice more self-determination in creating learning spaces of value to those communities and their children.

      I would take private money that serves a locally-developed, community school’s mission over public money that mandates more testing any day. There is tremendous political and practical cost in taking state and federal education money.

      Poverty is an excuse the system uses to sanction impoverished schools that don’t generate high pass rates and high graduation rates. I don’t think the fault lies with poverty; I don’t think the fault lies with students or their families. I think the fault lies with the system for turning its back on a wealth of human experiences that all schools – including those in impoverished communities – could be providing for their students and communities.

      If you read the piece again, as well as other posts I’ve written regarding school choice, you would know I decry the pedagogy of most charter management firms, that I work in a grassroots charter school started locally to address local needs, and that I support student-directed learning, which means that I care less about labels like “charter” and more about democratic education that shows kids they can set, pursue, and meet their own goals for learning in increasingly sophisticated ways when adults allow them to do so. Don’t forget that I support homeschooling, unschooling, democratic private schools, and all the public schools, public school teachers, and public school administrators, students, parents, and tax-payers willing to assert that the status quo sucks – schools should be about more than 16 years of test-preparation – and willing to say so publicly and to do something about it in the public space.

      There are so many people with different beliefs about schooling who would agree that poverty shouldn’t be an excuse; for me it shouldn’t be an excuse the system uses to justify its abandonment of impoverished neighborhoods and its insistence that all kids go to test-prep schools when test-prep is not a worthy goal of a public education system in a democracy. I’m not going to shy away from saying we could and should empower communities do more creative and meaningful things with their schools.

      As for undermining the teaching profession – that accusation is leveled differently from the eye of every beholder. I think kids should be engaged in personally meaningful, inquiry-driven work. I don’t think that can be scripted; I don’t think that needs to be “paced” or planned as a pre-packaged curriculum. At the same time, I do think there are plenty of unscripted ways to teach in teacher-centric ways that deny students freedom and support in problem-solving and learning from failure. One doesn’t need to work in a charter management organization charter school to boss kids around all day. One doesn’t need to work in a private democratic school to run a democratic classroom. What does it mean to undermine teaching? To criticize industrial-era management of a classroom and content delivery or to keep teaching that way?

      My ultimate claim that zip codes don’t determine destinies is a self-evident truth of humanity and personhood. We are people; we choose when to oppress; we choose when to fight oppression.

      Corporate #edreform, on the other hand, says your zip code is not your destiny; it is, however, the reason we support your local, state, and federal governments in moving you to a new school as we punish, take-over, and/or close your old school without taking community bids for its rebirth. That position carries with it hypocrisy and conflict of interest (failing schools must pay private tutors, buy interventions from private companies, and face take-over facilitated by private consultants and management firms), and I think that for those who have experienced pop #edreform, the quotes I share expose that hypocrisy and conflict and more eloquently than I could. At the same time, the quotes speak truth: even by our own educationally inadequate systemic standards, we have created a substandard system of public education in impoverished communities.

      Given your enthusiasm for veganism and applying its lessons to education, maybe we could at least agree that a public school – charter or not – teaching sustainability and healthy eating through urban agriculture is worth more than any school focused on test scores and “discipline?”

      All the best,

      PS – Come on, Shaun – “thinly veiled?” I’m not thin and I’m all for school choice as a parent, educator, and person. I’ll try to include some music you like next time, so long as it’s angsty enough to fit the mood; any requests? 😉

      Posted by Chad Sansing | December 11, 2011, 2:18 am
  2. I like the collection of quotes that expose the organized and persistent narrative regarding zip codes, destiny, and failure. What a generalization and oversimplification of the human condition. Test outcomes do not determine destiny.

    There are communities that are abandoned, overrun with crime and drugs, where children are dropped off at schools without the community supports mentioned in this piece – because they do not exist. When communities and neighborhoods are revitalized, where community members have employment, then community supports emerge. It is not the learning environment that needs attention, but the larger community itself.

    Ed reformers persist in the notion that if we test more, make cut scores higher, then the achievement gap will narrow. Over a decade of test-centric learning environments have had the reverse effect. There is no reason to believe more of the same will yield anything different than more of the same. Until the national narrative focuses on children, then we remain stuck in the mud.

    Posted by Grumpy Educators | December 10, 2011, 11:44 pm


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