Sunday, August 17, 2014

Local vs. Global

One of the advantages that the reformsters have in the ongoing debate is that their POV is one-size-fits-all large scale national by its very nature, while those of us in the resistance are fighting largely local battles. And each one of those is different. It's a single ocean on one side and a million Dutch boys and girls on the other, each with a finger in a different hole in a different part of the dike.

This plays out in many ways. My home state of Pennsylvania is always a study is divisive politics-- on every issue you find Philly-Pittsburgh-Harrisburg on one side and every other place in the state elsewhere. Where we are not urban, we are exceptionally rural. The district covered by my House Representative is huge-- to drive along either the east-west or north-south axis would take a good three hours.

So while I would love to say that the rural teachers of PA totally have the backs of the teachers in Philly, I'm not sure that's true. Because PA's divisions run through everything on the state level, including PSEA. But here in the northwestern corner of the state, we don't know much about what it's like to be in Philly's setting. We're also kind of prickly about how we tend to be ignored. Retailers, media outlets, just plain people from Pittsburgh either ignore us completely or talk about us as if we are a suburb of the Burgh, as if, of course, we want to be part of the city, even though we are a 90 minute drive away.

There are whole different issues between city and country. In rural areas, homelessness is far less of a problem than a lack of transportation. Racial issues look different. Employment issues look different. And education issues look different.

Community works differently. In small towns, every relationship is several relationships. In other words, your boss is also your sister's neighbor and your nephew's godparent and your co-chair on that church committee and the person you play in town band with. Strong-arm tactics that work well in big cities are overkill with far too much collateral damage in a small town, while small town quiet leveraging of relationships would accomplish nothing in a big city.

Rural voices are often shut out of conversations, and rural voices often contribute to the problem by enjoying our quiet isolation a little too much . On top of that we can throw in the mid-size cities like Erie and Altoona, and you get a very broad range of issues in schools overlaid with a difficult struggle for voice, resources and attention. And that's just one state.

And the reformsters, by the very nature of what they're pushing, can come into the state and treat all of those many and varied communities as identical widgets in a machine. "Does your district face unique challenges? Don't care. Everybody drink this snake oil down. It fixes all problems."

Meanwhile, all the different local communities struggle to pull together. We argue over priorities and perspective (this issue that matters hugely to us should matter to everybody). Identifying the concerns that should unite all of us is an ongoing conversation. Meanwhile, the reformsters have no such stumbling block in their paths.

Still, their strength can easily become their weakness. They are not well tooled for dealing with a hundred different little problems in a hundred different places, and they are not well-equipped to put out a hundred little fires. Fordham can only send its response team so many places.

So I don't have a dream that everyone in the resistance will join hands, sing Kum Bay Yah and unite behind one universally accepted vision or set of tactics. Personally, I have always thought part of the beauty of American public education is that is NOT one monolithic vision, but a big messy conglomeration of visions and goals and strengths and weaknesses reflecting people and places and hopes and dreams. I know that there will always be people who want to neaten it all up and get it organized, and God bless them, their inevitable failure is an interesting thing to watch.

Point is, it's natural and normal and a point of strength that we can't all agree on the same exact priorities or methods. It's natural and normal that we all have to fight our own local battles, but it is powerful when we can share what we know, what we understand, what we see. That kind of power is only unleashed when we listen without dismissing people for seeing different things or being in a different place.

1 comment:

  1. Peter,
    Sixty years ago, the brilliant teacher and writer, Jacquez Barzun, cheerleader for the local control but federated association that underpins our great American democracy, wrote about what in another context he called our "once-proud public education system."

    Barzun (with many others, to be sure) would agree with your notion that the "big messy" stuff of American public education is a strength. He was eloquent on that very topic on pages 21 and 22 of his book God's Country and Mine (Little, Brown, Boston, 1954). He went on to detail a consequence of that strength on pages 214-15, writing that "At any rate we were the first people in the world to attempt the heroic task of bringing millions and their offspring out of ignorance and uncouthness," and "The Western countries that are only now beginning to copy us in popular secondary education are going to find out that it is not the easy thing they bargain for. Their old superiority was easily attained by ruthless selection --- 5 to 10 per cent of the children, mostly from cultured homes, gave them little trouble."

    Barzun, while recognizing the hard work of public education for each of our individual citizens, nevertheless revered its power to make us succeed as a nation of educated immigrants. He would also agree that centralized command will lead to "inevitable failure," but might add "heart-breakingly" to your "interesting" characterization of that failure.

    Thank you for your post,
    Jerry Masters