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John Thompson: Documentarians Uncover the Trauma in Urban Schools

Guest post by John Thompson.

Brilliant documentaries, such as PBS Frontline's "Dropout Nation" and This American Life's "Harper High School" do what "reformers," who mostly lack knowledge of teaching and learning, should have done. They go into troubled schools without preconceived notions, and document what they find.

"Dropout Nation" covers the School Improvement Grant (SIG) "turnaround" of Sharpston High School in Houston. It centers on a Campus Improvement Coordinator's, two deans' and a principal's efforts. Even though the cornerstone of SIG turnaround was the replacing of half of its teachers with young idealists with "High Expectations!" So when these new teachers are largely invisible in this powerful documentary, education wonks should take notice. It is a reminder that schooling is a team sport.

Superintendent Terry Grier conceived of the Houston experiment without taking the time to study the social science on urban education. Confident that we know how to fix failing schools using instruction-driven methods, Grier deputized teachers to reverse the effects of extreme poverty. But, in "Dropout Nation," the heroic non-teachers featured in the documentary went on record repudiating his fundamental assumption. One dean pushes back tears for Lawerence when acknowledging, "Ultimately, we're not equipped" to make up for the legacy of trauma.

The radio story of the SIG turnaround of Chicago's Harper High School does not even mention classroom teaching, and it also reveals the toll on its social workers and counselors. A counselor, Crystal Smith, goes to the ER because she was worried she was having a stroke. After she and two other grieving counselors recieve professional help for their stress, they still recognize the pointlessness of so much of the conflict. Like the students they serve, the counselors know, "It's not over ... the shooting hasn't stopped."

Part II of "Harper High School" begins with reporter Alex Kotlowitz's explanation that whenever he visited the school's social work office, Thomas would be there. Asked why he hangs out there so much, Thomas replies in a "muffled and sluggish" voice, as if he's "speaking from deep inside a cave." "Nay, I ain't gonna give you no answer for that. Every time I come here, you come. And I'm for real."

Thomas sounds like the type of black male who frightens so many people who don't understand his world. "His braided hair hangs over his eyes. He often has a hood on. He won't look you in the eye."

Last June, Thomas was standing on a porch, talking with another Harper student, Shakaki, when she was shot and killed. In 2006, at a birthday party for 10-year-old girl, "Nugget," Thomas say her brains laying on the floor after being shot. And according to his social worker, there have been "many, many in between."

But, then again, perhaps society should worry about Thomas' expressed fears that he will "try to hurt somebody." Angered by an older bully, Thomas punched the aggressor so hard that one of the boy's teeth got stuck in Thomas hand.

My purpose here is not to criticize "reformers" as much as to praise "Dropout Nation" and "Harper High School." But I have rarely seen my students' experiences in inner city schools in the theories presented by instruction-driven reform. These documentaries bring me back to my kids. Listening to Lawerence, Shakaki, Nugget, and Thomas, I am brought back to the students who I loved, and to the teens we lost. These reporters capture the essence of teaching and learning in the inner city.

These great documentaries may not mention the prime theory that "reformers" brought to school, but they explain the trauma that the kids carry to the classroom.
They do not diminish the importance of classroom instruction as they focus on the socio-emotional keys to schooling. These documentaries can now take their place in a great tradition of print and internet journalism, from special investigations in the Philadelphia Inquirer to special editions of the Chicago Catalyst, that has documented the same. These journalists have brought fresh eyes to inner city schools, and discovered the same dynamics described by scholars at the Consortium for Chicago School Research and the John Hopkins Everyone Graduates Center.

What do you think? Why did "reformers" not find evidence to support the theory that classroom instruction, data, and "High Expectations!" can turnaround schools serving intense concentration of extreme poverty and trauma? Even if they will not bother with volumes of written documentation of why schooling must be a "team sport," and why teacher-driven "reforms" are inadequate, will policy-makers watch and listen to "Dropout Nation" and "Harper High School?"

John Thompson was an award winning historian, with a doctorate from Rutgers, and a legislative lobbyist when crack and gangs hit his neighborhood, and he became an inner city teacher. He blogs for This Week in Education, the Huffington Post and other sites. After 18 years in the classroom, he is writing his book, Getting Schooled: Battles Inside and Outside the Urban Classroom.

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