education reform

Every few days something crosses my mind to post here, but the fact of not updating in a month makes me feel like I need to squeeze out an epic narrative about what we’ve been up to. Rather than wait for that, I thought I’d just start posting those little things. Like this commentary from an education-related blog. It’s mostly about the recent New York Times Magazine piece about New Orleans (a much-covered topic in education journalism and TFA alumni newsletters). There’s a quote at the end that articulates well what frustrates me about 90% of the education reform commentary I read on my beloved liberal political blogs. Okay, here, I won’t make you read the whole post to get to it; here’s the Louisiana state superintendent on whether schools should be expected to successfully educate kids in the face of all the other social ills (from the magazine):

“It would be convenient to say that it’s a whole lot of other people who need to be part of the equation,” he replied. “But we have the job. And we have to do something.” Pastorek said he didn’t want to fall back on the excuse that he had heard from many other school officials, in Louisiana and elsewhere — that it was impossible to fix their schools until other social problems had first been corrected.

But then he switched direction somewhat. In many ways, he said, he was sympathetic to the Ravitch position. “If we want to really get kids to the level that we want to get them,” he said, “and we want to do it in a more efficient and effective way, then we would be well served if we took care of those kinds of problems — if we provided more resources to kids from conception to early childhood, if we took care of mental-health issues and physical ailments and teeth and eye examinations. Including, you know, where these kids go home to sleep at night. I’ve lived in this community a long time, and I can’t imagine how I could ever feel comfortable in neighborhoods that these kids live in at night. And yet they do, and we still expect them to do well.”

Pastorek paused for a moment. “So, now, can I solve all those problems tomorrow afternoon? Can I even get the attention of the people who have control over those things? Right now, in New Orleans, after Katrina, the answer is no, I can’t. But I can’t take the position that I can’t succeed unless I have those things. I have to take the position that we’re going to do it in spite of that. Now, will it be hard? Will I be less successful? Probably yes. But I have to take that approach, because I don’t have really any other cards to play.”

Me again: So yes, I think we ask too much of our schools, but throwing up our hands until we’ve ended poverty is not an acceptable response. And that’s why *I*…conduct research that is vaguely related to the field…

3 thoughts on “education reform

  1. hi leslie. i don’t think the only options are eradicating poverty completely and continuing with conventional inspirations about improving teacher quality and affecting the achievement gap.
    something as simple as a targeted, enthusiastic, purposeful movement to create very serious and very consistent parental and community involvement is something that may be needed. it’s not going to eradicate poverty, but it is a more complete picture than placing all responsibility on schools.

    i actually think that the monopolizing of responsibility by groups such as Teach for America and other essentially wonderful, well-minded groups reeks of the worst kind of paternalism.
    accountability fetishists, i call them. teacher accountability is all fine and good and crucial, but when we place ZERO expectations on communities and families and individuals we are failing to show these communities, families, and individuals any respect, any faith, etc.

    the harmful effects of poverty on children and teenagers can be minimized or better controlled with improvements in parental and community norms and behaviors.

    also, in my experiences, the adult educators who themselves emerged from “ghetto communities” are usually the most empassioned voices for demanding greater parental and community accountability. it’s the rest of us outsiders, whiter, more privileged, really travelers and tourists into the cultures, who are enslaved by our own superiority and usefulness and bleeding-heart liberalism.

    i don’t know. i could be completely wrong. of course educators can’t wait for “eradicating poverty” but i don’t know if people understand how difficult it is for some of us who have tried (in our current schools) to implement REAL parental involvement. i’ve worked so hard my first year to create plans, make connections with like-minded folks at my school, wrote a masterplan, volunteered time for “parent nights” for “African-American Studies” nights and clubs with parents, parent led-workshops, donated food, extra credit, etc., and established relationships, etc etc, only to really be ignored/discouraged. To have the plan completely ignored despite the support of other teachers.

    Here is the thing: we have to remember that there are administrators who won’t allow really community involvement at their school sites. we claim we want to increase the achievement of african-americans, for instance, in SF Unified. but some “leaders” in education don’t exactly want to increase their population of this group. (obviously success of this group in 2007-2008, for instance, will most likely trigger higher enrollment by the same group in 2008-2009.)

    as long as we place all blame/power/responsibility on teachers, we will continue to fail. i used to think that this was an accident of concentration. i’m learning that’s it a deliberate move.

  2. i should add that i definitely DO think that annual “big hairy goals” can be successful without parental or community involvement. the teachers who achieve these goals with their students should be endlessly applauded and appreciated in the face of conventional mediocrity in teaching.

    i am more interested in where the students who achieved those big hairy goals end up in 2,3, 5, 10 years. It is long-term progress (real progess, the real effects on the achievement, opportunity, and income gaps) that cannot be done without serious parental or community or cultural involvement.

    i always found it strange that TFA, for instance, had no long-term studies on the students of TFA teachers. of course it can be a confidentiality issue, but i don’t understand why there was no interest in discussing or exploring a longer term understanding of where the kids “go.”

  3. Leyla, thank you so much for such thoughtful comments. I certainly would not trivialize the IMMENSE importance and difficulty of engaging parents, nor would I argue that education alone is a silver bullet. What frustrates me is the use of poverty and lack of social safety net as an excuse to give up on education reform and investment.

    Anyway, thanks again for your comments–it’s great to hear from you!

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