Debate Magazine

“Flipping School” in a Way That Matters

By Stevemiranda

My sister sent me a video link to a story about two teachers in New York City who are achieving some remarkable results with an innovative strategy. To help recent immigrant students pass the state regents exam, these teachers take the facts needed to pass the test and include them in rap songs.

The organization putting this on is called Fresh Prep, which calls itself “an innovative student-centered curriculum that uses Hip-hop music to review the key content and skills tested on the New York State Regents Exams.”

More than 70 percent of the students who have gone through the program passed the regents history exam after failing the previous year.

The Huffington Post writes, “Ultimately, students are able to recite lines and lyrics effortlessly while retaining the education and facts of the subject matter. In return, the grades of the those participating are rapidly rising, and like most catchy songs, the lyrics are sticking for good.”

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There is a lot to like about this. Creative people are dedicating resources to helping the young people who need it most. And you can’t argue with success: earning a high school diploma is a big deal for these kids.

That said, I can’t stop thinking that these kids are being shortchanged. If the goal of school was to prepare students to be contestants on Jeopardy!, then there would be no problem. For example, the news clip shows the text of one rap song that moves from Dred Scott to Plessy v. Ferguson to Brown v. Board of Education in six lines. If these kids ever needed to recite the names of these court cases on a game show, they’re ready.

But it’s hard to believe they’re getting a nuanced understanding of American history this way. And I doubt the teachers would argue this point. Remember, they explicitly market themselves as a test prep organization.

The real questions then are, Who gets to be the gatekeeper? Who gets to decide who graduates and who doesn’t? Who gets to decide what those standards are?

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There is a lot of chatter in education circles these days about “flipping” school. The new trend is to have students watch a lecture on YouTube for homework, then do the practice sets as classwork where the teacher can be present to offer help. There may be something valuable in this, but—as with most conversations about education—it’s asking all the wrong questions.

Years ago, a friend of mine suggested that the hierarchy of power in schools be flipped. Right now, teachers work to serve their principals, who serve the district superintendant, who is hired by the school board, which is elected by the community.

Parents have very little say in this arrangement, which leads to their children memorizing rap lyrics about Supreme Court cases instead of engaging in a process that will help them learn useful skills and information.

We could eliminate this if we flipped the hierarchy. What if teachers partnered with families to create educational programs that were appropriate for their community? My hunch is the result would be programs designed not to help kids pass a test filled with arbitrary facts, but to help get them ready to be an adult in the world.

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