Thursday, July 24, 2008

Reviewed in Horace

Horace Book Review
Horace Summer 2008, Vol. 24 No. 2

Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society by Michael Klonsky and Susan Klonsky (Routledge, 209 pages, $26.95)

Mike and Susan Klonsky’s Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society deserves to have sunscreen stains on its pages and sand within as an unlikely recommended summer read for CES network educators. Okay, if there’s a great novel that you’ve been saving for the week that school’s out, read that first. But before school starts up again,* read Small Schools to get angry and radicalized, to remind yourself of the extraordinary value of your work, to cheer for yourselves as worthy alternative underdogs, and to rekindle your fire.

A nightmare gallery of monsters menace public education, and the Klonskys invoke some of the most frightening: the gang of politicians, foundations, think tanks, and corporations that have invaded schools during the still-current Bush administration. Documenting the ways that “the progressive grassroots educational reform movement for small schools has been hijacked by business groups, right-wing ideologues, and the ideology of the Ownership Society,” the Klonskys throw readers into the deep end of the small schools movement, the threats posed by corporate and governmental encroachment on public education, and the toxic ground on which privatization forces have co-opted small schools for corporate gain, both in the authors’ home turf of Chicago and elsewhere.

The breathless pace slows in the first chapter, which unpacks small schools’ “traditional democratic values of Deweyan progressivism combined with Information Age notions of professional community, personalization, and safe learning environments in an unsafe society.” This chapter focuses on the story of opposing school reform movements in Chicago, serving as a useful primer on that city’s tension around school size, control, and ideas of whom its schools are for. This inside baseball of Chicago politics, school reform, and role of the Klonskys’ Small School workshop is contextualized within the movement that includes Deborah Meier’s work in New York’s District Four, southern Freedom Schools, and other results of progressive efforts around the country. This chapter also captures the “politics of disaster” that have been created in response to public schooling’s complex challenge, describing how a deficit model of education has evolved to dismantle existing public systems.

The sprawling second chapter details and defines the forces and practices of the Ownership Society and its “all-out assault on teachers, public schools, and public space in general.” Featured in President Bush’s 2005 inaugural address, the term was intended to sell the idea that individual citizens should control health care, finances, education, and other key factors of their lives. The Klonskys vehemently oppose the political practices that exemplify the Ownership Society, and their arguments effectively encapsulate the rhetorical co-option of words and ideas—such as the very concept of small schools—that may have originated from the grassroots progressive education movement, but have come to be fully integrated into the current administration’s “demagoguery.” This is compelling stuff. It’s also densely written and presented in a careening trajectory that might have benefited from chapter headings.

The third chapter deals with the privatization of our school systems. When the Klonskys write, “In many districts around the country, the best of the small and charter schools have indeed become agents of change, responding to a national sense that the traditional system of public education needs transformation,” you’ll think “Hey, that’s us! That’s CES.” But such schools are anomalies whose existence emphasizes the gulf between intended purpose of charter schools—to provide stimuli to the system and grassroots-driven alternatives—and their current uses as for-profit collectives that rob the public system.

The book concludes with considerations of the role of philanthropy, with most of its attention on the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (a CES funder). “It’s hard to say whether the world’s richest man has been part of the problem or part of the solution,” the Klonskys observe. They are far less ambivalent on the role of conservative think tanks that rose to power on a tide of private funding and adept use of technologies that allowed them to emerge from the shadows.

The conclusion “Alternatives to Top-Down Reform,” offers a welcome, and familiar, note of hope, with its faith in the power of professional learning communities. Critical Friends Groups to the rescue! Though its documentation of the forces that oppose what we know works to educate children, and preserve and improve the intellectual and other forms of health of their communities, is daunting and at times heavy-handed, you’ll finish Small Schools with renewed faith in your work as a CES network educator, and a healthy infusion of anger and energy.

* Year round schools: the bane of the education book reviewer. Sorry to slight those of you who are at year-round schools, but you still experience summer, yes? And you still read? Apply this as you see fit (Horace suggests liberally).

This resource last updated: July 24, 2008

Database Information:

Source: Horace Summer 2008, Vol. 24 No. 2
Publication Year: 2008
Publisher: CES National
School Level: All
Audience: New to CES, Teacher, Parent
Issue: 24.2

Friday, July 11, 2008

Quoted in Gazette.Net (Maryland)

...Beginning in the 2009-2010 school year, the students would be separated into smaller, 400-student clusters within the school buildings.

...‘‘It enables teaching to become personalized and enables teachers to connect the curriculum to kids’ own experiences and lives, and research shows that’s key to the intellectual development of youngsters, especially kids from low-income families and minority students,” said Michael Klonsky, director of the Chicago-based Small Schools Workshop and author of ‘‘Small Schools: The Numbers Tell a Story.” Klonsky has also co-authored ‘‘Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society.”

Sunday, July 06, 2008

Reviewed in Teachers College Record

By Clive Harber — June 30, 2008

Title: Small Schools: Public School Reform Meets the Ownership Society
Author(s): Michael Klonsky and Susan Klonsky
Publisher: Routledge, New York
ISBN: 0415961238, Pages: 209, Year: 2008
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The title of the series in which this book is published is “Education, Politics and Culture” which suits the lively and politically committed content very well. Fundamentally, the book is about how a progressive educational movement aimed at facilitating smaller and more democratic urban schools in America became hijacked by the neo-conservative agenda of the Bush administration and its many powerful allies. In so doing it cannot fail to tackle the wider educational and political issues of the last eight years and their antecedents, which it does with admirable clarity and detail.

Although school size is important, the small schools movement has traditionally been more about a democratic ideology of education that rejects the mass, bureaucratized authoritarianism of many large publicly funded schools. Smaller schools potentially make it more possible to organize education in a more supportive, inclusive, egalitarian and humanitarian way. Moreover, this smaller scale is also seen to have significant curricular advantages in that learning can be cooperatively designed to meet personalized learning needs rather than the ‘one size fits all’ approach of larger, more conventional schools. The democratic ideas behind the small school movement stem from both the ideas of John Dewey and progressive educational writers of the 1960’s and 70’s and the practical realities of trying to provide a higher quality and more meaningful educational experience for alienated and marginalized young people in American cities. Indeed, the book reviews evidence that suggests that small schools of this sort were indeed providing better learning outcomes and a safer and friendlier learning environment.

The problem that the book confronts is that the notion of freedom contained in the decentralized ability to set up small, but still essentially public, schools concerned directly with issues of social justice has come up against another notion of freedom based on the private market and a consumer notion of freedom. The book discusses how the original small school movement grew in strength, size and influence via the introduction of public Charter Schools, and how the Bush administration and its local allies in big cities have used the greater autonomy of these schools to essentially privatize them by bringing in private management companies with many close ties to the administration itself. Ostensibly these are “not-for profit” organizations but there are many indirect ways of making considerable sums of money from the now essentially privately run schools such as:

•Creating non-profit organisations to obtain the charter and then hiring themselves to run the school

•Hiring younger, less experienced and less qualified staff which are therefore cheaper

•Charter companies teaming up with developers to offer home buyers an upscale amenity – tuition-free, taxpayer-funded schools for their developments

Moreover, in the increasingly privatized context of a single-minded focus on standardized test scores and a punitive approach to low-performing schools, there is little time or concern for children with special needs or children with English as a second language.

Rather than reduce the role of the state, except in terms of the funding of public schools, the Bush administration has used the power of the state embodied in the No Child Left Behind Act, to control education by enforcing a “teaching to the test” mentality that reduces both the range and depth of the curriculum. In this way schools can be compared in the market place via their test scores, and closed or taken over by private management companies as appropriate. Thus the Ownership Society, the term that the authors use to describe what has happened, uses government as a conduit for public funding of politically aligned private enterprise. In order to justify this they use a post-9/11 language of permanent crisis in education, further hijacking the radical critiques of conventional schooling, to provide a narrow, privatized alternative of their own making.

However, the book argues that most of the resulting privatized small schools have become big schools with authoritarian principals, disempowered and uninspired educators, dubious high-stakes tests and Eurocentric curricula. Indeed, the need to keep costs low through economies of scale has also meant that the size of the schools has inevitably started to drift upwards.

Chapters 4 and 5 provide interesting reading on the role of both philanthropists and well-funded conservative think-tanks in the top-down nature of the whole process. The first by holding the purse strings and setting non-negotiable conditions—making schools offers they can’t refuse—and the second by providing the philosophical underpinning of the changes and by dominating the discourse of educational reform. The final chapter strikes a more optimistic note about the future and the need for democratic civic engagement with public education by parents, teachers and students, trying to get the initiative back into the hands of the key participants and stakeholders.

For all those in America and elsewhere concerned about not simply giving into the models of education that have been imposed from above by a decidedly right-wing government, this is an informative and useful book. It may even be that the ushering in of a new administration in January 2009 will create a political environment where the original small school ideas of democracy and social justice can flourish and grow once again. However, experience in the UK where a right-wing government gave way to a supposedly centre-left one in 1997 does not make me particularly hopeful, as the educational machinery stayed essentially the same and some screws were even tightened. One thing that is for certain is that the arguments will go on and the supporters of democratic small schools will need to mobilize to put pressure on the new administration. I wish them luck from afar.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: June 30, 2008 ID Number: 15296, Date Accessed: 7/6/2008 4:52:05 PM

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