Sunday, January 3, 2010

Military School -- commentary

The next two sentences should be read in a shouting voice. "Hup, two, three, four! Hup, two, three, four! Platoon halt! Report!"

"First platoon all present or accounted for, sir."

Is this the way the school day will begin for your child in the future? As I write this, five public schools in Chicago are now operated by the military and a sixth one will open in '09. When this happens, Chicago will be the only city in the United States to have at least one school operated by each branch of the military.

Students attend these academies by choice and according to a Nov. 2, Associate Press report, 7,500 students applied for the 500 freshman vacancies this school year. The students have to enroll in the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps. This means uniforms, inspections, drills and lessons in military history. These are college prep academies with an emphasis on leadership training, discipline and character-building.

The academies are built in the poorer parts of the city with large minority populations. Statistics show attendance rate at 94 per cent compared to 84 per cent for neighboring schools. One academy, created out of one of the lowest-performing schools in Chicago, saw graduation rates climb from 55 to 71 per cent in 2006. So far test results have been mixed.

However, when the Brits, who are having education woes similar to ours, sent some observers over here to look at possible solutions, they didn't come to observe our public military academies. They came to observe what some call "extreme education: 10 hour days, parental contracts and zero tolerance behavior policies in small, 200 pupil academies," according to The Guardian, a British newspaper.

The schools they visited are Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) schools. KIPP schools are small public charter schools being sponsored by the KIPP Foundation and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. These schools, built in some of the most impoverished areas of our inner cities, boast of 100 per cent college acceptance, test scores to match private schools and students who play classical music like their uptown neighbors.

The KIPP school principal in Newark, America's second poorest city, told The Guardian, "We have established a school culture which is very distinct from the attitude they walk in the door with. It's a college-bound culture."

If you want your child to go to one of these schools you will have to enter into a three way contract between the principal, you, and your child, each of you agreeing to carry your weight. If your student doesn't have his/her homework in by 8 a.m., you will be called and a meeting set up. Miss the meeting and your child will be sent home and not allowed to return until you show up. Students are tested every six weeks and the school motto is "No Excuses."

Who goes to these schools? The Newark school is 85 per cent African American and 90 per cent of them get free school meals.

What do the critics of these two approaches have to say? Some say the military schools are just recruiting tools for the military and should not be allowed. I guess they figure it is better for kids to be poorly educated and spend a life in poverty than run the risk that a few of them might actually want a career in the military.

The small school movement has been accused of "undoing decades of progressive education," according to The Guardian. This puzzles me. From what I have been reading in the news for at least the last four decades, American education has been in trouble. How could a successful experiment set back progress when there seems to have been so little of it? Those who make such an argument must have some agenda other than just educating our youth.

It is my philosophy that persistent problems need radical solutions. These academies work for several reasons. They work because young people need structure, especially if internal discipline was not established in the home. They work because accountability is required from all participants, the parents, the students, and the teachers. They work because they are small. This is a topic I will address in another column, but I am a believer in small schools.

However, the most significant reason they work is because all the students are there by choice. The unmotivated and the disruptive students are not welcome. These schools demonstrate there are just as many bright kids in the poor areas as in the middle and upper class areas and they will learn if they can go to decent schools populated by others who also want to be there.

We will know in time whether either of these experiments will become widespread. The military approach can certainly provide some much needed discipline, but we are not a militaristic people. I doubt that it will succeed much beyond a few inner city neighborhoods. The KIPP program requires a tremendous amount of energy on the part of the faculty, the kind of energy that resides mostly in young idealists. For this reason, it too is a self limiting reform.

However, maybe we can learn from these experiments about the benefits that come with offering choice and with spending our energy on students who want to learn.

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