Context, Local Control, Democracy, and Public Schools

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photo credit: Mika Twietmeyer @mikajhunter

Context matters. It is pretty simple idea. One of the most solid indictments of the education reform movement is the fact that they advocate blanket policies that impact all schools, all districts, and all states based on experience in just a few districts. From an analysis of a few urban centers, generally in the Northeast, assumptions have been made, policies have been written, and lines have been drawn in the sand. From reading the ed reform blogosphere, it would appear that New York State is an assumed to be an analog for the entire country—urban, suburban, and rural. The conversation about rural poverty is slim, often based on wrong assumption that rural poverty does not impact students of color or that issues in rural schooling are similar to those in urban settings. The constant discussion and debate about teacher’s unions ignores the large number of non-unionized teacher work forces in this country. Also ignored are the varying histories of segregation and desegregation in different regions or the existence (or lack thereof) of a traditional presence of private schooling.

More concerning that the ignorance that education reform advocates seem to have about important structural and contextual factors is the fact that many seem to simply not care. Whatever they perceive is the “crisis” in public education is the only thing that matters. Everyone else be damned, even if we can clearly demonstrate the negative consequences of those blanket education policies on disadvantaged students in other contexts. Perhaps they don’t believe the evidence. Perhaps they play moral equivalency games and decide that these students over here are somehow more worthy or somehow more vulnerable than students over there. Maybe it is simply a game of “out of sight, out of mind” and they just choose to ignore the problems that aren’t visible to them every day.

Given that, it is refreshing when someone in the ed reform camp can drop a little of the arrogance and spend some time contemplating larger implications of their policy positions. Andy Smarick does that just a bit in this article, while simultaneously demonstrating the many flaws within education reform logic.

Many education reformers once thought that parental choice was the “ultimate local control.” When opponents of choice programs defended the district monopoly system by rhetorically asking, “Don’t you believe in your locally elected board?” we’d reply, “We want education decisions to be made as close to kids as possible—by families.” …We assumed that school results would be much better, and school politics much reduced, if we dramatically decentralized the system by handing authority to families, educators, and civil society. Teachers could start and lead schools, nonprofits could operate and support schools, and parents could match their kids to the programs that fit them best… We could rid ourselves of all the campaign nastiness and government sclerosis that comes with embedding public education within a political system.

(On a side note, the idea that education reform was meant to empower teachers is some sort of revisionist fantasy. The burden of proof is on Mr. Smarick here since there are mountains of evidence out there that policies of “choice” and “accountability” have caused, and were in fact designed to cause, the deprofessionalization and disenfranchisement of teachers.)

Of course, the problematic assumption here is that the needs and desires of all families are somehow magically in alignment. Public education is embedded in a democratic and political system because public schools are ground zero for the balancing of individual rights and the greater good of a community that is the nature of living in a democracy. A system based solely on parent choice ignores the fact that parents make decisions based on inherent self-interest. It also makes the incredibly wrong assumption that the primary function and role of public schools is instructional.

Educators watch as some vocal parents serve as unwavering advocates and supporters of public schools—that is until their last child graduates. Then they are never seen again, well until that county commissioner meeting where they show up to speak out against high taxes. We politely listen to the parents who want books banned, want prayer (to just their God, of course) back in school, want the kids with AIDS and those who wear hijabs kicked out of the schools. They want the coach that benched their child fired. We watch, as many who advocate for the needs of black students remain silent as brown students are arrested on their way to school, imprisoned, and deported. We watch, as many advocates for brown students stay silent about the inequity faced by black students. We watch, as the same people who express concerned about policies that perpetuate oppression for students of color demand that transgender students not be allowed in the restroom with their children. If you have ever had the pleasure of studying and reading original historic school board minutes, like I have,  you will see the same themes, patterns, and concerns addressed repeatedly throughout at least 100 years of public schooling.You will see the fundamentals of democracy at work in interesting and surprising ways. In the ed reform utopia, exactly who is negotiating these issues and how? 

Finally I am still confused as to what Mr. Smarick thinks a democracy is if removing democracy gives power to “families, educators, and civil society.”

Local school boards, many reformers believed, were populated by aspiring politicians with pet issues and petty grievances. They were controlled by powerful interest groups who cared about things other than student learning.

I contacted a couple of people I know who have been involved in state level education policy and politics for many, many years in NC. I asked them how many politicians they could name whose “stepping stone” throughout the years was service on one of the 115 local school boards in NC, or even the state school board. They both laughed—hard. I don’t think NC is an outlier, in fact, if there is any truth to the idea that school boards are populated by “1) aspiring politicians for whom this is a rung on the ladder to higher office; 2) former employees of the school system with a score to settle; and 3) single-minded advocates of one dubious cause or another who yearn to use the public schools to impose their particular hang-up on all the kids in town” those few districts would be the outliers. (Irony alert: education reformers being concerned about “single minded advocates of one dubious cause or another.”)

Seems like something that would be easy to compile data on, yet Mr. Smarick does not cite any data. He sites a 12-year-old article also coming from the Fordham camp. This article only quotes 2001 data from a “representative national sample of 827 school districts” to demonstrate that teacher’s unions donated more money to school board elections than parent groups did. So we have completely outdated data that does not reflect the current realities of campaign finance laws or patterns and again, completely ignores that fact that there are a very large number of states where teachers unions basically do not exist. I won’t even bother addressing the flawed logic that the needs of teachers are somehow in opposition to the needs of students or that the “union” is somehow a separate entity from “the teachers” with nefarious string pullers in control.

But a curious thing happened along our righteous, electorally watertight path to greater choice: People decided that they liked democracy, too. [Well, they didn’t just decide that, they have always felt that way] So today, in cities with too few options, families clamor for more choice. At the same time, in cities where charter sectors have blossomed [um, you mean where the earth was salted for traditional public schools?] (e.g., New Orleans, Detroit, Newark), communities are demanding more democratic control. How to balance the two has turned out to be one of the most interesting and difficult quandaries in schooling today…A community’s voters want to have a say over what types of schools exist, what constitutes “good schools,” who runs them, how an area’s culture and traditions are passed on, and much more. Decisions are more reflective of the public’s will when these issues are litigated through the democratic process. Additionally, we can have faith that the discussion is transparent, that people feel agency, and that the results—even if imperfect—will be durable and respected. The “local” and “democratic” aspects of school authority can be especially important in historically underserved communities. Because of segregation, redlining, and other unjust policies, many of our fellow citizens don’t merely suffer unfair conditions; they suffer environments they’ve been precluded from changing. They want and deserve the right to have a significant influence over the policies affecting them and their neighbors— especially those related to the education of their kids. And therein lies our fundamental challenge…So what in the world do we do?

Wow, what a cogent and thoughtful discussion. It almost seems sincere enough to even be divorced from the profiteering motives and market forces mumbo-jumbo that generally underlies the corporate education reform movement. This clearly articulates exactly why so many are deeply opposed to these reform policies. So Mr. Smarick, of course the logical conclusion is that we must embrace democratic control of schools and work to strengthen and improve that practice of democracy and to correct the disenfranchisement of people within the democratic system. We must get rid of charter schools with unelected boards those run by private management companies since they are the antithesis of democratic public schooling. Right…? Surely that is where you are going next…?

We need to begin experimenting, in earnest, with democratically controlled authorizers. If a city has a large charter sector, state government could create a new authorizer with an elected board (or require existing authorizers to move to elected boards). That democratically controlled authorizer would then have a performance contract with each of the city’s public schools, including those operated by the district. The city would preserve its diversity of schools and operators, as well as the right of parents to choose schools, through such an arrangement. But voters would have a say in how the system worked… this approach recognizes the virtues of decentralization and choice as well as democratic control. It gives the community a voice while making it clear that the board’s role is to authorize schools, not operate them.

Nope—so close, yet so far. First of all, notice all the mentions of “cities with large charter sectors.” Yet again, we are writing policy for the whole country based on some isolated examples. Also, if you really believe the problem is cumbersome democracy, how exactly is the creation of two parallel and possibly contradictory democratic systems better? In fact, placing a “democratically controlled authorizer” in a performance oversight role over schools “operated by the district” removes the democratic control of existing public districts run by elected school boards. A plan like this gives citizens less democracy, not more.

Also, Mr. Smarick is forgetting democratically controlled authorizers already exist in many states. North Carolina is one of those. In NC, state lawmakers determine charter schools authorization and review policy. The authority to grant and revoke charters is given to the State Board of Education whose membership consists of two state elected officials (the Lieutenant Governor and the State Treasurer) and others who are appointed to the position by the Governor with confirmation by the state legislature. An elected State Superintendent of Schools guides the work of the State Board of Education. Despite the rather democratic nature of the authorizers, our state has been riddled with charter school scandals (here is one of the best examples), abrupt school closures, and negative impacts on students statewide.

Unfortunately, the evidence already exists that democratic authorization without democratic operational control and continual democratic oversight of public and charter schools can create even more inequity and reduce the quality of education that students receive. The conversations we should be having are about how to actually strengthen and improve democracy in our public school system, not continue to undermine it with schemes that only provide the appearance of democracy.

 

Cartoon gravity and reform logic

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Most people who don’t work with them see teenagers as moody, impulsive, and unpredictable. Actually, the opposite is true. Teenagers are completely predictable—that is once you understand teenage logic. Teenage logic is sort of like cartoon gravity; it has its on set of strict rules, that just don’t always happen to align with reality. As a new kid on the block of the education policy blogosphere and twitterverse (really, did I just use those words?) I am beginning to see that education reformers seem to have their own form of cartoon gravity logic. So here we go in no particular order, the most head scratching logical fallacies I have seen so far (this is likely to be a reoccurring series).

  1. “The public school system is broken because it is horribly bureaucratic and inefficient…so lets make that same system give secure high stakes standardized tests…!” Seriously? You give a system a bureaucratic task to do and then try to deflect blame when ridiculousness ensues?
  2. “Democracy is not working and communities of poverty and color are disenfranchised…so lets break democracy even more and give those folks charter schools with unelected boards and start pumping money into local school board elections to impact the outcome…” So exactly how are those disenfranchised people now empowered? How exactly to they have a voice in their children’s education? Why do you trust their decision-making skills when it comes to school choice but not when it comes to authentic democracy?
  3. “The public schools system perpetuates systemic racism, so the solution is different systems run by for-profit companies.” Racism is not systemic, it is endemic; it impacts all systems, even the very education reform movement itself. Replacing public schools with charter schools does not address the problem, relying on another government system does not address the problem. Systemic racism can only be addressed by the building of solidarity, community, and authentic democracy.
  4. “Those darn selfish, greedy teachers are always using the union to what they want at the expense of students…lets give the money instead to these charter operators who are making ginormous profits at student expense.” Or the simpler way to say this: unions = bad, capitalists = good. Seriously, this is where I start cussing. Teachers are selfish and profiteering for daring to demand reasonable working conditions (that also benefit students) but testing companies and charter schools are just doing an honest business (despite the market forces that pit their interest against student interest)? Excuse me while I put on my Furman University t-shirt…
  5. “We want social justice for one group of people (students of color and disadvantaged students) and to accomplish it we engage in perpetuating oppression another group of people (the overwhelmingly female teaching force).” We are all fighting the same systems of power and privilege. Divide and conquer is a key tool of oppression—pit one group against another. Y’all quibble amongst yourselves and pay no attention to the man behind the curtain…
  6. “We want social justice for these groups of students over here, but we don’t care if those same reforms actually oppress other disadvantaged youth in other contexts across the country.” Apparently reformers sleep well at night under the illusion that they have “saved” some young people and can ignore all the others that their policy decisions have negatively impacted.
  7. “Public schools perpetuate systemic racism; now where did all those teachers of color go after we weakened the unions and career protections…?” Really, did y’all think systemic racism is only a problem for students? Reformers have done everything they can to destroy the teaching profession and now wonder “where all the black and brown folks at?” Hint: there are several thousand of them y’all fired somewhere near New Orleans
  8. “Education solves poverty…” I have written at length on this one. Lets also add the fact that those who come from poverty and earn a college degree will make 91% more in their lifetime that high school graduate of similar demographics. A college graduate from a more affluent background will make 167% times that of a similar high school graduate (see this blog from EduSyster). Currently black women are the demographic with the highest rate of college attendance. Of course that fact is reflected a proportional representation in the workforce, leadership, and salary, right? (In case the sarcasm is not clear, the answer is no). No, equity in education does nothing to address the larger inequities in out society.

Unfortunately, I doubt any education reform minded folks actual read this as they tend to ignore and dismiss all voices outside of their own echo chambers. Despite painting all teachers and all traditional public schools with a broad brush they also get rather testy when the same is done to them, preferring to draw fine distinctions between what reforms they do and don’t support and between their ideological grounding and that of others. Most troubling is the fact that they eschew the very accountability that they demand of teachers and schools and stubbornly deflect any blame for the negative consequences of the policy efforts they have a been a part of.

Testing and Ethics, Part 2

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After I wrote this post about the testing code of ethics in NC, a few parents and teachers contacted me about practices in some districts. It appears that one of the big sticks being used by districts to discourage parents from refusing to test is AIG placement. This is in opposition the state testing code of ethics that seems to define using test scores to make such decisions as unethical. The NC Academically or Intellectually Gifted Program Standards specially states “measures that reveal student aptitude, student achievement, or potential to achieve” are to be used including “both non-traditional and traditional measures that are based on current theory and research” that “respond to traditionally under-represented populations…including students who are culturally/ethnically diverse, economically disadvantaged, English language learners, highly gifted, and twice-exceptional.” Despite the all-important OR in the statement on measures, a review of school district AIG plans demonstrates a majority include EOG scores as a possible pathway to identification and some as a required part of placement. That would mean that a family that refuses to take EOG test would be considered ineligible for AIG placement in that district as the student who does not test is given a score of 1.

This is problematic for other reasons. State EOG tests are supposed to measure student mastery of a set of standards, not necessarily academic achievement in general. We are also repeatedly told that EOG scores are design to hold teachers accountable and measure the ability of teachers, yet the use of such scores for AIG identification would point to student test scores as a result of innate student ability, not teacher instruction. We also know that the tests are culturally biased and have the greatest correlation to student poverty level. That would place using EOG scores as an identification marker in direct opposition to the state mandate that districts must take measures to identify traditionally under-represented students.

Now we get to the worst part. Universal screening is expensive and teacher recommendations can be problematic. So it makes some sense that districts would take advantage of EOG data as a tool for targeting AIG screening. However, that data can take months to be compiled and disaggregated. From multiple reliable sources, it appears that some districts in the state are also using EVAAS data as a short cut to help them to target students for identification.

In other words, some districts are using the predicted student test scores produced by a black box algorithm (that statistical experts have expressed grave concerns about) to help identify student giftedness. Not an actual student score, but one predicted by the software. I can’t think of a better example of how far down the rabbit hole the standardized testing obsession has taken us, or a better example of highly unethical testing practices.

To be clear, there is no evidence that EVAAS data is being used in isolation or without multiple paths to AIG identification. However, in some cases those other paths can place the burden on the family to pay for student testing. On the other hand, many NC districts actually have put in place innovative practices that ensure equity and identification of under-represented groups. Moving forward, it is time for North Carolina to provide guidance on how both actual EOG test scores and EVAAS predictions should and should not be used in student AIG placement.

Déjà Vu All Over Again: NC, Politics, and Education

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Updated 6/16/2016

Here is a lesson in public education and politics in North Carolina. Late last week, a news report from one part of the state started being noticed elsewhere. It would appear that buried in the 187 pages of the NC Senate’s version of the budget (a bill that was whisked through committee and floor votes in a matter of days) was a definition that would eliminate year-round schools that operate on a single track as opposed to a multiple tracks effective for the 2016-17 school year. For schools that start in mid-July, that provides families and schools less than a month’s notice to rearrange work and childcare arrangements, change bus routes, rearrange staffing, etc. There are dozens of single-track, year-round schools in the state. In my district at least, year-round is a choice option for families and they enter a lottery to be placed in those schools. Many families prefer the year round option and some research suggest that all students can benefit academically from the schedule; specifically economically disadvantaged students and some students with disabilities show the most benefit.

Strangely, the same GOP lawmakers who espouse school choice, less government, and more local control have snuck in language that will eliminate these school choice options for families and override the decisions of local elected school boards. Those of us in single-track, year-round schools in the state were left puzzled. Where did this language come from? What is going on? UPDATE: In an news article from a local TV station, appears that everyone is struggling to find where the language came from. “It’s been like cockroaches when the lights come on,” according to one local lawmaker. Fingers have eventually pointed to Senator Tom Apodaca, who claimed that the lobby group Save Our Summers came to him and requested it. A spokesperson for Save Our Summers says it is not true. Logic would tell us one of those two people is lying. So bottom line, 21 school districts in the state impacted and no clear indication of where the language came from. Welcome to what we call “governing” in NC these days.

Well, I have read enough Nancy Drew and Encyclopedia Brown in my life to take a stab at this. The first clue is the use of the terms multi-track and single-track. Wake County is the primary district that uses a multi-track system to reduce overcrowding in their schools. The new story also included this quote: “According to Senator Michael Lee, the language in the budget was not intended to impact New Hanover County Schools, but address another issue in another part of the state.” Hmm…so the language in the bill was clearly intended to target only one school district. Well, a quick Google search provides us with this news report. I am no Sherlock Holmes, but those dots seem to connect.

Apparently Wake County Public Schools wanted to explore the option of moving some low performing elementary schools with large percentages of disadvantaged students to a year-round schedule. This would allow for focused remediation or enrichment during intersession, common time for staff training, and breaks to reduce student and staff fatigue; in addition to the research supported benefits of a shorter summer break. In other words, practices that benefit students academically. After surveying parents and finding that in 7 of 8 schools, less than half of the parents said they would stay at the school if the calendar changed, Wake County School Board decided to only move the one school that demonstrated overwhelming parent support to the year-round schedule. From the news report it appears that no families would be forced onto the new schedule, they would be able to change to another nearby school that was still on a traditional schedule.

Sounds like basic good management. Come up with a research-backed proposal and then get feedback from stakeholders. When stakeholders did not respond positively, the School Board did not approve the proposal and are now considering other solutions. Of course, the only information I have is the news report, so there are lots of nuance to this that I may be missing. Regardless, it doesn’t seem like an overreach worthy of interference on the part of our state legislature. Now we are in a position where a small group of parents in one district who are displeased that the school board would even consider such a policy, apparently have the right connections to shut down every single-track, year-round school in the state. It is important to note that the Wake County School Board made the decision to not change the calendars on May 17th, while the budget bill was still behind closed doors. The language was clearly not designed to address the immediate issue, but to prevent the board from exploring the option in the future.

The worst part is this is déjà vu all over again. The bill in question amends NC G.S. 115C-84.2, commonly referred to as the NC school calendar law originally passed in 2004. This law too was the result of a group of well connected families in one NC district that were unhappy with the early August start dates for school. Unfortunately, a majority of parents in their district preferred the early August to May calendar instead of a late August to June calendar. In further validation of the policies, the community reelected the school board members. Unhappy that they did not get their way, these parents teamed up with the coastal tourism lobby and some powerful politicians and suddenly we had a state law mandating school could not start before August 25th and must end by June 10th. A few disgruntled parents succeed in disenfranchising every elected school board in our state and limited their ability provide students with calendars that maximize learning. (For fairness sake, I must point out that this law was passed by a Democrat controlled legislature—you know the party that “supports public schools”). Despite perennial bills to change the law or add various loopholes and lots of vocal complaints about the lack of local control, the law still stands with only a few tweaks.

As chair of my school’s Site Based Decision Making Committee at the time, I was engaged in a lot of the debate and discussion of the original 2004 bill including attending legislative comment sessions. Our high school opposed the proposed law as it would place finals for first semester classes after winter break–clearly not ideal to ensure that students did their best on the test. I was shocked that so many fanatical parents who somehow perceived a long summer vacation as both a constitutional right and a family values issue (it might have been somewhere in the fine print of those tablets Moses brought back down the mountain to0). There were also clear regional tensions as early August to May calendar was traditional in the South whereas transplants from the North and Mid-West were not used to starting school until after Labor Day. Without fail, parents framed the discussion around what they perceived to be best for their family, not what is best for learning for either their child or other students.

For the past three years, I have worked at a year-round, 6-12 school. I love it. Long time year-round teachers will tell you that all students, families, and staff that actually try year-round also love it. No one ever wants to go back to traditional. It keeps kids and adults from burning out. It creates large blocks of family time throughout the year. In areas where year-round schedules are common, there are plenty of camps and other enrichment experiences available during intersession breaks. The beach is lovely in late September too (though I have not spent a dime on my own coast since the school calendar law was passed nor the coasts of VA and SC that have similar laws).

While lawmakers are assuring their constituents that the language will be fixed as it was not intended to impact year-round schools in other districts, the larger principle here is that a state budget bill never should have contained language designed to interfere in the work of a local elected school board. It is also sloppy lawmaking. How much intern research time would it have taken to realize that the language would impact dozens of schools across the state? Why is legislation in our state being written behind closed doors and without public input (that could have easily pointed out the problem with the language before it made it to primetime)? Why do the same lawmakers that demand rigid and harsh accountability for our public schools routinely disenfranchise the local policy makers who are trying to use research based strategies to improve student achievement? Functional accountability necessitates functional autonomy, a lesson that we are currently failing to learn at all levels of education policy.

Research and Complacency

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So a lot of recent conversation in the education blogosphere has been about research, specifically whether or not it used or used wisely (here and here).  These are timely and important conversations to have as I find a lot of truth to them.

An excellent example of the role of research in the education reform conversation can be seen in this blog. I don’t know the author of this blog, and it is certainly no better or no worse that many others, it is simply one that came across my social media feeds and caught my attention as a topic that I have read a lot of research on. So my apologies to the author in advance for being singled out.

The blog discusses the fact that improvement of schooling at the high school level has been particularly difficult. The author mentions a series of articles from EdWeek that are located behind a pay wall, so I am unable to determine what, if any, research or examples are cited in the material. The only other citation of “research” is from a policy paper from a philanthropic organization. The author concludes that the reason that it is so hard to reform high school is that most communities are complacent about the quality of their high school as simply “good enough” and that they reject the idea of changing the system as something that only those poor, inner city schools with “nothing to loose” do. The may very well be a valid conclusion, but the author cites no research or data or even personal experience to back it up.

A quick ERIC search of the key words “high school reform” returns almost 7,000 results. Out of thousands of possible pieces of research, the author could have taken a few minutes to locate some relevant information to determine if the conclusion that communities were resistant to high school reform due to complacency was supported elsewhere. It is also easy to find many other lists of research based recommendations culled from more authoritative and unbiased resources than a policy paper from a philanthropic group. Again, the larger concern is that discussions about education reform are not well grounded in research with policy voices from all directions cherry-picking and/or distorting only the research that fits a predetermined agenda. In this case, a narrative of “complacency,” “low standards,” and “mediocre or failing public schools” is a tried and true refrain of those within the education “reform movement.”

Inconveniently, a lot of research on high school reform demonstrates that some of the best practices for high school education are in direct opposition to some current education policies. As Davies points out, K-12 teachers, without a university affiliation, rarely have access to the body of educational research located behind expensive databases and journal subscriptions. So, unfortunately, I am limited to working from memory, abstracts, and a few freely accessible sources. Regardless, there are two other important themes that routinely surface when considering the body of high school reform research. Those are the need for interdisciplinary study in high school settings and the need for multiple authentic assessments such as portfolios and performance assessments. These are reforms that are extremely difficult in today’s policy climate of Common Core standards (that isolate, not integrate the disciplines), excessive testing pressures, and teacher “accountability” (that undermines interdisciplinary study since it complicates measuring teacher effectiveness by means of standardized test).

I have been part of a school redesign project for four years now, starting as part of the collaborative team that researched, planned, and designed an innovative secondary public magnet school. In our experience, the struggle for improving high school education is not one of complacency but of the opposite–the value communities place on tradition. Our experience over these years has aligned with findings in the bodies of research of both high school reform and the related area of change leadership in education. High school is a place where tradition is a fundamental force. Education reform efforts routinely gloss over the fact that public schools serve a multitude of functions in our society, and despite efforts from many directions to narrow and focus the work of schools, developing content knowledge is only one of these many purposes and functions.

Perhaps it relates to the unique developmental profile of adolescents. Perhaps some of the blame can be placed on Hollywood and its repeated unrealistic portrayals of the high school experience. Perhaps it is the longing of adults to right the wrongs of their high school experience. Perhaps is the role that high school plays in important rights of passage for young adults. Or perhaps “tradition” is just the exertion of privilege to maintain the existing structure of power (or sometimes challenge it, in the case of the deep traditions of historically black schools or the ever rebellious senior prank).

Regardless, communities of all types and parents from all demographics seem to view the high school experience is another form of the American dream. Schools that try to make even the smallest, research-based reforms often face backlash. Exhibit A is the recent decision by Wake County, NC schools to switch to a Latin Honors system instead of recognizing only the valedictorian and salutatorian. The community response has been passionate, to say the least. That is not a sign of indifference but of active engagement. Efforts to focus energy and resources on academics instead of extracurricular and social aspects of high school find multiple forms of resistance in all most all community settings regardless of race or socioeconomic status. That is not complacency, it is an attempt to actively shape the high school experience for students.

I agree that truly improving high school education is a daunting and complex challenge. However, we will get nowhere in the process if we start by misdiagnosing the problem and ignoring both research and experience.

Bad Teachers

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OK folks, the teacher in me can’t resist this one. I have been struck by the parallels I see in two public discourses. Bear with me as outline them. We will then explore some critical questions together (at least as much critical thinking as I can muster during standardized testing week).

People are fat            .
Well I never!…of course you don’t mean me?                       
Well yes, just look at your BMI!
That is a very limited and unrealistic measure that doesn’t consider other health factors.
That sounds like an excuse. You are simply lazy and lack self-control.                                     
What about all the research on the impact of genetics? Of gut biomes? Of environmental factors?
What about the fact that healthy food is more expensive than junk?
Those sound like excuses. You simply eat too much and don’t exercise enough.
Well, I don’t completely agree, but I would like to loose weight.
Here is an expert program on diet and fitness that can help you loose weight. Thousand of people have bought this program.
But the people who designed that program were never overweight, and there is no evidence this program works. I have an idea of how I can work some exercise into my schedule…
Oh no, we can’t trust you to follow your own plan. Obese people drive up the cost of health care for all of us. You are the reason the heath insurance system is broken.
Wow, sounds like you really hate fat people.
Oh no, you have it all wrong! We are only trying to help; we want you to be healthy.
Feels more like we are being shamed.
Oh no, no one is shaming you. That is all in your head.
Really? What about all those media messages and those judgmental looks…?

Teachers are bad (and perpetuate systemic racism).
Well I never!…of course you don’t mean me?
Well yes, just look at those test scores! (Especially for students of color and poor students!)
That is a very limited measure that doesn’t consider other aspects of student growth.
That sounds like an excuse. You just refuse to hold students accountable for high standards.
What about all the research on the impacts of poverty and racial isolation?
What about all the policies and mandates that are out of our control?
Those sound like excuses. You simply want to maintain the status quo and like being able to put your needs before the needs of students.
Well, I don’t agree with you there, but I agree that we need to improve outcomes for disadvantaged students.
Here is an expertly designed program on accountability and high standards that can help you. Thousands of people have bought this program.
But those experts have never been teachers and there is no evidence this program works. I have a lot of great ideas based on my decades of first hand experience and connections to the community…
Oh no, we can’t trust you to follow your own plan. Poor and minority students are not being served in our schools and teachers are the reason.
Wow, sounds like you really hate teachers.
Oh no, you have it all wrong! We LOVE teachers. We are only trying to help; we want you to be better (and stop systemic racism).
Feels more like we are being bashed.
Oh no, no one is bashing you. That is all in your head.
Really? What about all those actions that speak louder than your words?

So dear readers, what can we take from exploring these two dialogs together? Can we take this analogy further? In what way is the comparison apt, in what ways is it not aligned?

We still have inequity in public schools for much the same reasons that we still have an obesity epidemic in our country—because the causes are complex, varied, and contextual. The education reform movement has ignored this fact and decided that there was only one problem and therefore only one solution. In some ways I can’t blame them. Obesity seems deceptively easy to fix too. People simply need to exercise more and eat less. This approach, of course, ignores all the many reasons why people eat too much and exercise too little or the fact that there are other variables complicating the data. Most importantly, fat shaming has not cured obesity any more than teacher shaming (and student shaming) has improved our schools or student outcomes.

Allies and Enemies

The recent conversations in education reform movement circles have all been about who does and doesn’t belong in the reform coalition. While the reformers play with their seating chart, they seem to be forgetting that there are many, many other voices that still haven’t been invited to the party at all; teachers among them. Let me make sure I have this correct: people who use the phrase “social justice” with derision are considered allies of a movement to improve educational outcomes for poor and minority students yet teachers are treated like enemies of this movement? Educational reformers would rather partner with those with whom they have irreconcilable existential differences than those who would dare question their corporate reform orthodoxy?

There is a simple truth that reformers are in denial about—no one can control what happens when the teacher closes her classroom door. God bless them, they have sure tried. But no policy, mandate, law, accountability system, or evaluation system can truly control everything that teachers do. Public education has real enemies—we cannot forget that. When the reformers act just like our enemies, why would teachers un-circle our wagons and let them in? Reformers have launched an assault when then should have been trying to win hearts and minds.

One of the tactics used to discredit teachers critical of education reform is to charge that we are complacent about and complicit in the widespread unacceptable educational outcomes of disadvantaged students. This claim is so infuriating, disingenuous, and insulting it is hard not to react in anger. Yes, there are absolutely a number of critical conversations that teachers need to have with themselves and each other about equity and assumptions—about students of color, poor students, and students with disabilities, just to name a few. Yes, it is frustrating that those who are privileged have to be slow walked to the epiphany of unpacking their privilege while others suffer from the effects of oppression—but that is exactly the nature of privilege. The inconvenient truth is that all (and I do mean all) of us always have some unpacking to do, regardless of our experiences with oppression or the awareness of some forms of privilege we experience. The truth is that these critical conversations have always happened within and among teachers in our private spaces.

(Remember how educators have been pointing out the inequities caused by corporate style reforms and high stakes testing? Remember how all that is being dismissed as just selfishness and laziness…like we are all motivationally challenged high school students who would rather complain about the assignment than just do the work? You know, the same teachers that happily work 80-hour weeks, spend hundreds of dollars on classroom supplies, take literal and figurative bullets for students yet suddenly get selfish and lazy when it comes to testing? As teachers, when our usually motivated students question an assignment, it is usually a sign that it is a poor quality assignment…)

Reformers have not earned the trust to enter into these spaces and conversations. You don’t invite nonbeliever to your critical theological debate. Teachers need space and time to engage in the kind of work that makes more socially just schools. Instead of doing that, the current reform approach has overwhelmed teachers with scripted curriculum, assessments, busywork, red tape, and extra duties and left no intellectual space or time for the work that matters most.

I am truly puzzled in the lack of faith and hope in a group of professionals who work in the currency of faith and hope every single day.

Another reason why reformers have not been welcomed into these spaces is the combination of naivety and arrogance with which they approach social justice issues. The simplification of the deep and dense philosophical underpinnings of current social justice movement has left us with a false narrative of “good guys vs. bad guys.” Reformers tend to self-righteously label themselves as defenders of justice and teachers as part of the “status quo.” Unfortunately, that is simply not how systems of power work. All of us (and yes, I do mean all) contribute everyday to the perpetuation of systems of oppression and privilege. Many of us also routinely challenge those same systems. Nobody understands this better than teachers.

To understand what teaching is like, imagine the most gut-wrenching decisions you have had to make in life, specifically those choices (such as parenting decisions) which impact someone else. Now multiply that by 100 decisions for 100 students everyday. Forgive us if we are uninterested in your expertise if you have never experienced that pressure. Teachers are painfully aware of how small miscalculations or thoughtless actions on our part can dramatically impact a student; that everything we do and say to those students could help or hurt them. Teachers work within a number of mind-bending contradictions, paradoxes, and ironies. We know we are part of a system that perpetuates oppression; we also use that same system to challenge inequity and contribute to more socially just outcomes for our students.

An overwhelming majority of teachers in this country do not need an “accountability” system. We remember the face of every single student that we suspect we did not serve effectively and every single student that we watched the system fail. Unfortunately, sometimes those memories are of faces in caskets, in mug shots, and in news reports when ICE picks them up on their way to school. The sooner that those who wish to reform public schools acknowledge this fact, and the role they themselves play in perpetuating inequity, the sooner we can get to actually improving in our public schools. The sooner we bring more authentic voices to the reform discussion and consider a wider variety of policy approaches, the sooner we can get to actually improving our public schools. Perhaps it is time to not just to recast the parts but reconsider even the definition of “ally” and “enemy.”