In Defense of Big Schools

Gotham Gazette’s Reading NYC Book Club met with author Samuel Freedman, New York Times education columnist, and Jessica Siegel, the teacher who is one of the subjects of “Small Victories: The Real World of a Teacher, Her Students and Their High School.”An edited transcript is below:

The problem is that you have this tail of this big grant from the Gates Foundation wagging this policy dog at the Department of Ed. Because Gates has a big priority to start small schools, the Department of Education is jumpstarting 50 a year, year after year. It’s just impossible to have quality opening up schools in that kind of frenetic way. It also means a lot of these schools get opened up with these ultra-niche academic orientations – sports careers or architecture – that I think are really preposterous for a ninth grader. I think what they tend to do is serve the interests of community organizations that are sponsors. These may be perfectly well-intended sponsoring groups, but that doesn’t mean that the high school as a whole is going to work with a curriculum that is defined that narrowly, especially when there is a good reason to put more emphasis on language, science, math and a lot of the core subjects.

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Gotham Gazette: Jonathan Kozol recently wrote an article for Gotham Gazette Segregated Schools: Shame Of The City, in which he argued that one issue that is being ignored is racial segregation. He said that until that is confronted, other reforms will not accomplish much. What is your perspective on that?
Jessica Siegel: What is the percentage of the public schools students that are children or color? Eighty-five percent? It’s not even relevant. That’s who is in the public schools. To me it’s not an issue of segregation so much as what kind of education you are going to give to the kids there.
Samuel Freedman: I completely agree with Jessica. Kozol espouses a point of view you pick up in education schools. But it is a high-minded excuse for paralysis.
. . . It’s part of educational suicide to say now, however well intentioned you are, that until you solve poverty or segregation nothing can happen in the schools. Something has to be able to happen in the schools.