The schools we need

If you haven’t already read David Brooks’ op-ed in the Times yesterday, you should.  Brooks describes a Brooklyn elementary school (that is public and unionized) doing progressive education right with some creative staffing:

When you visit The New American Academy, an elementary school serving poor minority kids in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, you see big open rooms with 60 students and four teachers. The students are generally in three clumps in different areas working on different activities. The teachers, especially the master teacher who is floating between the clumps, are on the move, hovering over one student, then the next. It is less like a factory for learning and more like a postindustrial workshop, or even an extended family compound.

The teachers are not solitary. They are constantly interacting as an ensemble. Students can see them working together and learning from each other. The students are controlled less by uniform rules than by the constant informal nudges from the teachers all around.

I find it interesting that the conservative Brooks is usually much more on point when it comes to education than the liberal Nicolas Kristoff, who is anti-union and believes in centralized, silver-bullet efforts to save urban public school students.

It’s also important to read Sam Chaltain’s response, which points out one signficant flaw in Brooks’ analysis:

The problem arises in Brooks’ fascination with the way the school is able to create such an environment. “The students are controlled less by uniform rules than by the constant informal nudges from the teachers all around,” he writes, adding later that a key part of the school’s growth came when it “learned to get better control over students.”

This is a subtle but significant misunderstanding of what great schools do; they don’t control their students — they provide an orderly environment in which all people can thrive. If you think that’s a trivial point, look up the definitions of each word. One is about power; the other is about harmony.