Reclaiming Sanity

It finally happened. We lost Jon Stewart. The man who brought us the Rally to Restore Sanity went insane. When? It happened this weekend when his face appeared on a video screen at the Save our Schools rally in Washington DC. Jon, your mother was a teacher, so I understand that you feel a connection to the disillusioned teachers of America. But please, don’t join Ravitch’s Mob. They’re misguided.

That being said, I don’t want you to fall in line with the Corporate Reform movement either. Don’t start funneling your cash to the Gates, Broad, or Walton Foundations. Don’t talk about the necessity for increased accountability like you hear from the self-proclaimed high-performing charter organizations. Don’t tell me the best child-serving organizations in America are KIPP and TFA. Guess what? They’ve taken the means (high quality teachers, structure, and basic academic skills) and convinced us all that those are the ends. They’re wrong too!

The SOS rally was about teachers. The Corporate Reform movement is about numbers. At Reach Incorporated, we try to focus on a different entity – gasp! – the students. In Corporate Reform, we often hear about efficiency, scaling, choice, and accountability – the language of business. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this talk, but we fail to acknowledge the assumptions behind the discussion. Specifically, the current conversation assumes that the role of schools is to ensure that students learn basic skills in math and reading. The ultimate goal: escaping the current community to a “high-performing” school somewhere else. Find me a parent that has no bigger dreams for his or her children or community.

The SOS community exists, almost entirely, as a counter to the Corporate Reform movement. As far as I can tell, most of their strategy revolves around pointing out the flaws in the Corporate Reform movement. What they lack in substance, they make up for in volume, outrage, and condescension (come to think of it, this strategy sounds frighteningly similar to what we’ve seen from the GOP). It’s tough not to be moved by the passion of their leader, Diane Ravitch – as long as you forget that, until recently, she was advocating for the other side! When listening to the SOS community, you might even forget that our schools have failed to serve poor students for generations – preparing students for an economy that no longer exists. Yes, we’re pretty good at educating kids from families with resources, but our efforts with poorer populations have been pathetic. The Corporate Reform movement has shown, with small successes (let’s not forget that only about 2% of US kids are in charter schools), what is possible.

The sad truth about the current argument (it doesn’t deserve the honor of the word “dialogue”) is that both sides are taking away from a needed conversation about education. Teaching is hard – it must regularly confront the reality of poverty and under-prepared parents. Teachers are also handcuffed by a system designed, unintentionally, to remove the freedom that has motivated teachers for generations. It is also true that some teachers are bad, and they are doing a disservice to students in classrooms across the country. We need accountability – the question is: Are we holding our students and teachers accountable for the right things? What do we want from our students? As my own high school asks: What is the portrait of the graduate? What skills do we want our graduates to have? No one is asking these questions. On one side, teachers yell “It’s not our fault!” On the other, the Corporate Reform movement yells, “Then why can we get better results for poor kids with untrained go-getters?!”

We have fallen prey to a failure in planning and leadership. We have decided that accountability is important (true) and that educators should be accountable, in part, for student progress (true). This is where we messed up – business professionals brought knowledge of efficient accountability systems, but they didn’t bring knowledge about what actually matters in education. As a result, we created systems that measure those metrics most easily collected, not those that are most important.

Here’s the rub: Education is minimally efficient. It should be our aspiration to be as efficient as possible, but we have a responsibility to both each kid and every kid – and efficiency-based business principles will inevitably create system gaps. Increasing human capacity (at both the student and teacher level) involves investment of resources over time. It involves defining the mission, setting goals, providing support, then getting rid of low performers. It involves sticking with a plan despite failures. This is not done by running statistical analysis, though data should be used to drive improvements. Most important, it starts small, its built on trust and respect, and is extraordinarily difficult to scale. You scale products, not people.

In the end, the Corporate Reform movement has created improvement, but not enough – they made things better, not good. The SOS community has responded with principles, not strategies. To both groups, our students deserve better. If both groups admitted that the other had something to teach them, then we might create a better experience for all our students.

For now, Reach stands in the middle. We know our students. We know our community. We are researching ways to measure confidence, spark, and engagement while also using data to drive academic skill development. Most important, we value people – increasing the capacity of parents, teachers, and principals is the only way to create a better system for each of our children. And, despite the best intentions of all involved, that process is not quickly scalable.

Thanks, as always, for reading.
Mark

Posted in Ed Reform Notes |