Unbundling and neighborhood schooling: A policy debate over imagined differences

The November 2010 Phi Delta Kappan featured a set of articles and an editorial on educational unbundling, “…a process in which innovators deconstruct established structures and routines and reassemble them in newer, smarter ways” (Hess and Meeks, 2010). The collection includes some pretty disparate essays and there are some interesting elements (too many to write about in only one post).

The conflict over “unbundling” mirrors the contrasting views of community I have discussed previously: 1) A non-spatial, interactive understanding of community based on John Dewey’s work (here); 2) An understanding of community rooted in place and space that is based on sociology and critical race theory (here). Unfortunately, in the unbundling debate outlined below, neither of these positions are critically examined.

Henig and Hess, in their article on the declining significance of space and place, imagine the possibilities of a schooling system not restricted by geography. Phi Delta Kappan editor-in-chief Joan Richardson, in contrast, laments an era of neighborhood schools she believes used to exist and is now disappearing in an era of unbundling and school choice.

Henig and Hess write, “Transformative change that substitutes technology for laborious tasks, allows teachers to instruct more students, or otherwise remakes schooling implies shifting away from the traditional shape of the schoolhouse and school district” (p. 58). They continue, “New educational technologies make space and place less relevant.” (p. 60). The authors compare the traditional structures of schooling to leftover and soon to be useless biological vestiges like wisdom teeth.

Richardson, in contrast, waxes poetic about the value of place. She writes

I have fond memories of my neighborhood schools…When I walked to and from school and home and back for lunch every day, neighbors often shouted greetings or simply waved at my friends and me. And there was one absolute: If I misbehaved, my mother would know about it by the time I got home. (p. 4)

Richardson concludes, “We need audacious and comprehensive approaches, not isolated strategies that will create a greater and more dangerous fragmentation of education” (p. 4). This expressed concern over fragmentation and idealization of comprehensive solutions is a common theme in the history of education reform, as is Richardson’s nostalgia for an imagined by gone age. In tomorrow’s post, I will use the article from this set by Mehta and Spillane to examine this point.

Both Richardson and Henig and Hess say things I agree with and both take us to extremes I don’t really understand.

I am a believer in community schooling, but Richardson’s vision of walkable neighborhood schools seems like a non-starter for many Americans. Those who live in the suburbs frequently have no choice but to drive children to school and for at least some of those that live in poor urban communities, having students walking the streets alone is often not a safe option. Furthermore, many neighborhood schools in urban centers are chronically terrible, decaying, violent institutions.

Having said this, Henig and Hess also seem to lack some perspective. While it is true that space and place matter less in a technology rich world, one’s socioeconomic status is still a prime determinant of how much space does matter. Many of my former students from inner-city Philadelphia had rarely been out of their local neighborhoods.  I took a group into center city on the subway one day and discovered that several on them had never been even in the vicinity of city hall.

Furthermore, As Massey and Denton detailed in the mid 1990s in American Apartheid, racial and economic spatial segregation have had a profound impact on the poor, urban communities of color.

It seems to me that finding our way forward requires taking the best that space and place have to offer and integrating these aspects of schooling with the valuable aspects of virtual interaction and learning. Experimentation and exploration are going to be required to get and right and if we are going to experiment, we need to let go of some of our groundless fears and focus instead continuous learning and improvement.

**Check out this follow-up attack on Richardson by Hess in his blog.

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