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Paul Horton: Charter School Design: The New Streamlining

Guest post by Paul Horton.

Do a simple online search of "charter school design" and see what pops up. While some of the images you might see might be urban warehouse and public school gut "rehabs," most of the images are straight out of the "Jetsons," down to the furniture.

Now contrast the images of Carl Schurz High School (search Google images to see) in Chicago with the charter school images. Schurz High School, like many public high schools built in the early twentieth century, was built to last by craftsmen. It represents a massive investment in public education. It is based on Frank Lloyd Wright's idea of "organic" architecture that expresses John Dewey's idea of education as an organic endeavor: the idea of the school as a community center that is a beehive for the construction of Democracy. In this context, Democracy is about relationships and the school is comprehensive: it is the place where kids and adults come together to acquire skills and knowledge: a hybrid of the public school and Hull House, where John Dewey spent a lot of time thinking about how to reconstruct public education as community education.

Charters are designed to do something much more limited in scope. Both charter design and early twentieth century public school design represent an aspirational utopianism. But they differ in that they represent different images of American Progressive philosophy.

To my mind, Schurz High very clearly represents a scale up of Dewey's organic model of "associated living." Dewey's idea of education was organic, in the tradition of Plato, Rousseau, Emerson, and Thoreau. His idea was that individual creativity in all forms needed to be drawn out of individuals to create a vibrant new democratic community. His chief concern was the impact of the corrosive individualism that was the product of Gilded Age Social Darwinism.

Most of the charter school designs I see reflect a different perspective. They represent the "dark side" of Progressivism that came to dominate progressive discourse in the nineteen twenties and thirties. As historian David Noble has pointed out in his book, America by Design, the progressive movement also created a "cult of efficiency." In the early twentieth century, according to Noble, engineers increasingly took over as managers of corporations and began to apply the efficiency studies of Fredrick Winslow Taylor to organizational structures and production processes.

In the nineteen twenties, this business model was applied to schools when business organizations decried the failure of Dewey's ideas and businessmen were appointed to school boards across the country. Above all, schools needed to train workers for the international workforce, curricula required standardization, and data would measure those students who were the fittest for managerial positions. In this view, data was king. (Callahan, Education and the Cult of Efficiency)

That the business model dominated discussions about public schooling in the United States at the same time that the eugenics movement reached its apex is not merely coincidence. Before WWI, Progressives targeted immigrant communities for political and cultural reform. Progressive political reform sought to remove immigrant backed machines from power and immigration reform that culminated in the Immigration Act of 1924 lowered the numbers of immigrants from southern and eastern Europe. Discussion about schooling, eugenics, city political reform, and immigration were motivated by concerns about race: would the Anglo-Saxon "race" be mixed with "inferior stock?"

Within the context of schooling in the 1920s, the genetic material (in this context) that could be assimilated to "100 percent Americanism," was determined by test scores, raw data.  The original IQ tests used to induct immigrants into the military during WWI served as the basis for the standardized testing of the twenties. 

The new wave of standardization being pushed on schools is also designed by engineers-- IT engineers. Their model for school design has its origins in the streamlining movement of the early thirties that became popular at the Chicago World's Fair of 1933 and in the New York World's Fairs' "Futurama."

According to Christina Cogdell in Eugenic Design: Streamlining in America in the 1930s, "As a result of the public frenzy created by these trains [the Burlington Zephyr] and the huge popularity of the Chicago World's Fair, between 1933 and 1934, streamlining took the nation by storm, symbolizing at once progress in science and industry, racial advancement, increased speed and efficiency of bodies and machines, escape from the problems of the Depression, and the onset of industrial design as a national passion." (91)

A leading designer, Egmont Arens, wanted to see America "Streamlined for Recovery." "Streamlining...had fired the imagination in all walks of life, that it has become a new live word in the language. It had become, "a new attitude," a "national state of mind," shaped utopian aspiration into "scientific efficiency." Perhaps, most importantly, streamlining represented an "expression of American genius." (91-92)

The streamlining and eugenics and movements, according to Cogdell, were so closely aligned that they were obsessed with health and hygiene as a way to distinguish the healthy genetic material that could create an efficient future and the inadequate genetic material that did not aspire to assimilation. At a time when curators from major American museums like the Field Museum in Chicago were planning eugenics exhibits, the "medical displays created for the Chicago World's Fair by the Deutsche Hygiene Museum went on tour between 1934 and 1935, accompanying a major exhibition on "Eugenics in New Germany" that promoted the Third Reich's race hygiene and sterilization programs to citizens in at least six U.S. cities." (94)

The new Charter School design creates a different hygiene. I would call it aspirational multicultural hygiene.  Urban Charter schools are designed to "save" young people and families who have middle class aspirations from "cultures of poverty." The new hygiene is modeled on the idea of mixed-income housing in gentrifying areas of cities where most charters are being built. The new urban "Futurama" is a mixed income community that attracts upper middle class whites and blacks anchored in a streamlined charter school. These neighborhoods are "cleansed" of working class or unemployed Latinos, African Americans, poor whites. The new hygiene is based on race and class, it creates a safe space for assimilation into the middle class by teaching aspiring minority children how to live in mixed communities by learning how to value data and take tests, something that the upper middle class hygiene requires for upward mobility in a multicultural meritocracy. In short, Charter Schools are designed to deliver that "eight or nine percent who can make it" from the "culture of poverty." (Conversation with a close friend of the Obama administration invested in charter schools)

In the words of Professor Pauline Lipman, despite the best intentions of some local housing and education advocates, mixed income schools in areas where public housing is being cleared are designed to "dilute the political power of low-income working class African Americans in particular. They serve to attract middle class property tax payers and consumers of gentrification while legitimating the displacement of those who formerly lived there on the premise of bettering them. They shift millions in tax-payer dollars to developers, open new areas for capital accumulation, and fuel speculative financialization of the urban economy. The centrality of real estate development and gentrification to capital accumulation and the politics of racial exclusion and containment are rationalized by pathologizing Black and Latino/a urban spaces and denying the humanity of people ejected from their homes, schools, and communities." (Lipman, The New Political Economy of Urban Education, 96-97).

In the new age of the neo-liberal "futurama," charters schools are designed like "rocketships." Those who want to be saved in a society that combines multicultural meritocracy with social Darwinism and assimilated upper class aspirational hygiene will jump on board and learn the culture of data-driven success. Those who are left behind will be mired in an ignorance of their own making. This is the neo-liberal solution for dealing with poverty. The new regime and discourse reflect the language and attitudes of minorities who have made it and who are willing to offer a helping hand in the form of charter schools. These same leaders take on the attitudes of the 1% when it comes to taxation and renewing the war on poverty. Sadly, they believe in the potential of a select few aspirants. The market will select the fittest: those who are great test takers.

Cogdell says it all at the end of her book, "Whereas in the 1930s and 1940s, streamline industrial design and advertising for corporate profit seemingly occupied a separate cultural realm than the science and politics of eugenics, despite their sharing a common ideological base and goals, today those promoting the new eugenics have coopted the discourse and marketing strategies of design." (240)

What do you think? Does modern charter school design have a story to tell us?

  Paul Horton has taught for thirty years in virtually every kind of school. He began his teaching career in a recently integrated rural Texas middle school. He then taught for five years in a large urban high school in San Antonio's West side where the majority of young people were ESL. He has been teaching at the University of Chicago Laboratory Schools, the country's most diverse independent school founded by John Dewey, for fourteen years.

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