July 13, 2020

The award for the world’s best school reformer goes to…

Last year I excused myself from a ballroom full of confident well dressed people as awards were handed out to school reformers as if it were the Grammy’s. It was all in good fun, but still felt bigheaded and smug.

I asked a friend if she thought abolitionists ever held lavish events to praise themselves for freeing God’s children from the obscene inhumanities of enslavement (before the people were actually freed)?

Totally gross.

I had forgotten about all that until reading a thoughtful blog post by Neerav Kingsland a few weeks ago. His words returned me to that ballroom, those reformers, and their awards.

Reflecting on the accomplishments of school reform since 1990 Kingsland admits it wasn’t all award worthy. Among the notable shortcomings he says reform leaders didn’t prioritize serving all children, building a movement with “large constituent bases,” fostering student individualization in discipline or instruction, or fully respecting educational entrepreneurship.

I encourage you to read his post because it is a rare moment of humble reflection from an ardent movement voice. His timing is deft too because reform is fraying over teacher evaluation, charter school backfilling, and racial justice issues. It feels like a time to stop, admit, learn, and improve – together.

After more than 25 years of the reform project (including 10 years of remaking an urban school system into the image of the reform gods) the project managers and their backers are having a moment of doubt. It may be a sign that reform is maturing. Sometimes gracefully, sometimes not. Either way, it’s a good time to be straight up about our work.

The sobering truth about school reform

Remember, our goal is to light the minds of marginalized children and arm them with skills for a good life. We live in a knowledge economy, which means knowledgeable people rule. Given the array of confounding obstacles (political, economic, social, and historic) to our goal nothing will hurt us more than premature accolades, intellectual inbreeding, facile fraternity, and smarmy congratulations in insular power circles.

We are fond of saying “we’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.” It gives us license to celebrate every bright spot healthily with a small disclaimer about the failures we cover with denial.

The truth is, reform warrants no celebration until it has freed America’s children from systemic educational malpractice and academic oppression. On that score we have more than “a long way to go.”

Consider the most deeply loved ornaments of the reform playbook, and assess them honestly.

If charter schools are our beloved renovation of public schooling, then it must be humbling to note they’ve grown to serve only 5% of American students after 25 years of trying.

If we believe that Teach For America brings a critical form of occupational dialysis to the fossilizing “profession” of teaching, then the fact that TFA teachers account for less that 1% of American teachers must be frustrating.

If accountability policies are as important as we profess then the massive pushback against those policies, and the institutional gamesmanship that beats them in most places, must be a buzzkill.

If we see school choice as liberating for poor families then the fact that most of America is still without it must sting. To make matters worse, in the places where school choice rules the day many of us still would never send our own kids to the “choices” that are available.


The other truth about school reform

Don’t let me be the grim reaper of reform here. We need reform and something more drastic and urgent. Schools must improve, now. Teaching and instruction must modernize for the students and world we have today. Families who are redlined into inequitable systems that offer opportunity by zip codes need life-saving options.

We know traditional public schools stopped being relevant years ago, yet they live on like an institutional version of Weekend At Bernie’s only sitting upright because of guaranteed government revenue.

Clearly, this system must be abolished so we can free millions of children from the bondage of illiteracy, innumeracy, and cultural deprivation.

But – and this is one damn big “but” – we need the right project leaders to get us there.

Kingsland’s blog post seems hopeful about the next generation of education leaders.

He says:

a new generation of reform has formed and this generation believes it can be the next evolution of public schooling in America. This generation believes it can serve every student; it understands that it will need to be build a broad base of support in order to do so; it knows that it will have to invent new models of schooling to prepare students for higher education and career; and it believes that educator led non-profits, rather than government, will deliver these educational opportunities.

I would like this to be true, but I’m not so sure.

If these new educational leaders that Kingsland speaks of are empowered people from marginalized communities who are supported by indigenous members of those communities, then I’m fully on board. But, is their evidence that this vision is where we are heading?

Looking at education reform discussion panels, executive director seats, and reform network leaders running whole ecosystems in targeted cities, this “movement” – ironic as it seems – has race issues itself. It has a power problem. Like the schools it aims to fix, it needs reforming too.

If we continue to see a never-ending wellspring of white Ivy League millennials funded to oversee a colonial system of tokenized people of color the new generation won’t be an improvement on the old. We need mission-driven truth tellers who are in it for the end of oppression, not self-congratulating careerists who could very easily become the new, younger, whiter hegemony peddling educational oppression 2.0 – just with better test scores in a few poor schools.

My hope comes from the many committed, empathetic, and intelligent people I meet who are grinding it out every day to change policies and build schools that work for kids. Especially those who rarely get an invitation to the first, second, or third meeting where the movement agenda is determined and rockstars are knighted. The real people who walk out of ballrooms shaking their head too.

I hope Kingsland’s moment of reflection becomes a bigger moment of sobriety for the movement.

My vote for the world’s best school reformer goes only to a person who would decline that award on the basis that its gauche.

That would be reform.

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