Sunday, September 18, 2011

"Magnet Bullets"

With charter schools being universally hailed as a magic bullet to all our public education woes despite all the evidence, critics of the charter movement often counter with magnet schools. Magnet schools have been hailed as THE resounding success in urban education. Why have we forgotten about magnet schools? If magnet schools are so great, why not make all schools magnet schools? Could magnet schools be the "magic bullet"?

Unfortunately, there are no “magnet bullets” for problems in urban public education. Magnet schools enjoy success only in so far as many of them are even more elitist and discriminatory than charter schools. I taught for many years at a “Gifted/High Achieving” magnet. Federal integration funds were designed to give poor minorities the same choices as more affluent suburban students who had access to private schools. It didn’t exactly work out that way. I ended up teaching the richest of the poor and the poorest of the rich. Acceptance into the magnet program in LAUSD is all about amassing enough magnet points, an insanely complicated system requiring many years of persistence which at the get-go often eliminates all but the most indefatigable of gifted parents. You’d be surprised, or maybe you wouldn’t, how many of my students were children of LAUSD teachers and administrators.

My only real problem there was the three or four students who were in the class each year because they had been misidentified, being labeled as “gifted” in something like the First grade by some unbelievably unreliable non-verbal test like the RAVEN. Some of these children were labeled “gifted” despite all evidence to the contrary for six years. Once you are “gifted”, you can never be “ungifted’. The RAVEN was the bane of my existence because it put all these average or below average kids in a class with a bunch of geniuses or near-geniuses and these kids quickly gave up because there was no way for them to keep up. Even when they tried, they ended up feeling stupid. Heartbreaking! 

How would you feel if you were a normal eleven year old born in the year 2000 and the teacher mentions on the first day of school he wants you to carry a library book at all times in case you finish early and it should be a “fun” book, not one your mom is “making you read”, and the teacher also mentions he is reading Don Quixote which is actually a really famous book, the kind your mom might actually “make you read” if you were much older, but that’s not why he is reading it, that he is reading it because it is one of the funniest books he has ever read, and as he is tilting you with windmills and regaling you with wonderful tales of wayward wenches to promote an interest in reading, the kid next to you raises her hand and interjects, “Excuse me, Mr. K., but isn’t The Man from La Mancha a musical adaptation of that book?” and the teacher says, “Why yes it is, as a matter of fact, and how does an eleven year old born in the year 2000 happen to know that?” and the kid replies casually, “Oh, I don’t know, I’ve just always been interested in musical theater.” I was fifty and I felt stupid. Fill up a number of schools with eleven year old Man from La Mancha fans and you’re more than going to make up for the other magnet schools with no discriminatory admission policies outside the Faustian point system.

Now don’t get me wrong. I loved teaching those kids. We need magnet schools, especially for high-achieving kids. I once had a Sixth grader who was so far ahead of all the other ninety-nineth percentile students, I just gave him the fattest algebra book I could find. And not just any fat algebra book, mind you, but one of those “newfangled” jobs that taught algebra strictly through the use of application problems and abstract analysis. It had been rejected by the algebra teachers for just that reason. It was too difficult! I told him to get started, that I would try to get back to him every once in a while, and to let me know if he ever had any questions which of course he never did until sometime in the middle of March. We sat down together and the book said something like, “You’ve got a 1,400 square foot house with a 500 foot facade topped by a 15 foot roof pitched at 37 degrees. How much material do you need for a new roof?” 

Well I lived in a house, so I knew something about houses. I had been on my roof and had learned what “facade” meant thirty years previously in a college course I once took on Pre-Soviet Russian Culture. So I drew a fa├žade and I pitched a pitch and quickly began to realize I had pretty much exhausted my expertise with the experience. I did have a vague recollection of these things called trigonometric functions which I seemed for some reason to have learned how to pronounce in my Tenth grade math class in 1974, something about opposite over adjacent or adjacent over opposite, and if I could only remember the difference between an opposite and an adjacent I might possibly have a shot at saying something pithy like, “I think this has something to do with trigonometry.”

Unfortunately, before I could impart my wisdom, the kid looked at my scribbling and blurted out something like, “Oh my god! You said the roof was 15 feet high, so all I have to do is use the tangent (or was it the sine? co-sine? arc-something-or-other?) of 37 degrees to get the width of the roof, multiply by 500, double it, and oh my god Mr. K, you are a genius! Thanks!”

“No problem,” I said getting the hell out of there as quickly as possible so I could go back to teaching eleven year old HUMAN BEINGS. “Be sure and let me know if you have any more questions,” which of course he never did because fractals were easy.

Magnet schools, some of them anyway, are great!