The current education reform climate reminds me of a 4th grade kickball game in a New York City school yard in the 1970’s. The coolest kids were immediately dubbed team captains and soon commenced wading through the class social ladder to create their teams. The agile, athletic, and popular kids got picked first. The mediocre but reliable ones were selected one by one after that. They never seemed to mind being second draft picks because they were always too relieved to be saved the humiliation of picked last. Finally, there were the "leftovers" - you know the ones, they didn’t kick straight, they missed the catch even when the ball was kicked directly in their vicinity. If it was a particularly awful day, and the popular kids were in a cruel sort of mood, there'd be an open debate about how much the “leftovers” sucked and why neither captain wanted them on the team. As for me, I was first in reading and last in kickball. It was a tough time.
In my view, we have the cool kids in education reform in one corner and the so-called villains of American labor in the other corner of our symbolic school yard. And, the kids and their parents are often the "leftovers". They eventually get placed on a team, but they don't get picked first. I am bewildered by the degree to which this discourse has become so polarized that those of us on "Team Kids" are swiftly cut out of the conversation. Community-based organizations are often overlooked, underfunded, and dismissed for one reason or another even when the young people we are committed to helping continue to thrive socially, emotionally, and educationally. Over the last year, I've been approached by education advocates who want to know how much I hate unions (I don’t), and community leaders who want me to summarily denounce the charter movement (I won’t). It seems the pressure is always on to pick a side or be silenced. It seems to me that if you’ve been called to fish the survivors of the Titanic out of the water (Okay, I exaggerate, maybe it’s not that bad), you don’t sit there arguing about what color lifeboat they should climb into.
The people the farthest removed from our kids socioeconomically and culturally believe they not only have the best answers to what ails our schools, they have the only answer. Regrettably, that answer is rarely tied to the undoing of systemic and institutional racism and classism; or, a redistribution of wealth (1% of the American population presently has control of 90% of our wealth) in order to restore our middle class; or, a commitment to actively engaging those on the front lines who work from a youth development milieu. I love to hear people who’ve never gone hungry a day in their lives denounce poverty as a factor in school performance. It’s certainly not an excuse for schools to lower expectations and for teachers to underperform, but my grandmother told stories of how she could barely hear her teacher’s voice over the sound of her own growling stomach. Poverty is a biting punishment that can overwhelm your senses and sensibilities. It’s no excuse for a teacher to check-out, but to diminish its impact on the quality of life many kids face is ridiculous. Socioeconomic status is definitely not the defining factor for what our children are capable of, but that doesn’t excuse us from the obligations of ensuring that more often than not our kids have safe neighborhoods, adequate housing, and quality healthcare while we go about the business of improving our schools.
Somehow, and in the name of education reform I might add, collaboration has been posited as a profane approach to any high-stakes social program. After all, why would I want to speak with anyone who doesn’t agree with everything I have to say? Why would I want to give parents, community members, and teachers any input into and dominion over how to transform education? True story: “Those people don’t know how to pick a school,” a cynical audience member announced to members of a panel I was sitting on as we discussed the subject of school choice. And, said audience member was only outdone by the public school administrator who told me my daughter was “legally hers” and who emphatically stated “she belongs to us” when I announced that we were transferring to a parochial school mid-year last spring. Wowsa! Was she telling me that even a fancy degree from an Ivy League institution wasn’t enough to buy me my freedom? Hmmm.
I thought this education reform movement was progress rooted in a moral commitment to provide all parents with a choice about where, when, and how our children are educated. To what extent has the current reform effort transcended its own political agenda and truly taken copious notes from the families and communities they purport to serve in ways that are selfless and transparent? Scripting kids and parents to show up at rallies to defend “reform” falls flat if those parents don’t have real governance authority in the movement toward choice and reform. We don’t to serve a different master – we just want our children to have a fighting chance.
Alternately, many of the folks crying for the need to push back on the charter movement and to maintain unions in the public schools have yet to engage in the kind of self-examination the urgency of our need requires, or to unveil the progressive agenda needed to make anyone who really gives a damn about children sit up and take notice. I can guarantee that I was listening closely for an earth shattering rebuttal to “Waiting for Superman”, but I still have heard one. Believe me, I’ve got enough colleagues in the classrooms to know that teachers sometimes require strong advocacy to overcome building politics and district bureaucracy in order to do a good job. Everyone who got sent to the infamous “Rubber Room” didn’t deserve to be there. The best thing our teacher unions can do for teachers right now is to design, implement, and promote an ingenious master plan the likes of which our nation has never seen. Our unions should be leading the reform movement – to make teacher education more relevant through innovative partnerships with higher education; to further professionalize the field by way of implementing new standards of their own; to leverage years of experience and best practices to transform education for all; and, yes, by continuing to uplift and protect the interests of the professionals who dedicate their lives to building an educated citizenry.
Maybe I am naïve, but I’ve met some New Jack Educators nurtured by this current reform movement (hey, this isn’t the first iteration of this ballet you know) whose commitment to young people who don’t look like them is only to be outdone by their ability to use data to make instructional decisions on a dime. And, I’m cool with that. And, I may be naïve because I am deeply in awe of the Union Teachers who will go to a child’s home to welcome them to school without fear or trepidation, and turn around and use data to make instructional decisions on a dime. That’s hot! The truth is, the next time you see me or my daughter flailing against the tide at a local NY beach, if you can swim and you’ve got a life preserver –save us immediately! I promise I won’t ask what kickball team you’re on.