Thursday, September 18, 2014

Another Call for a New Conversation

Patrick Riccards, of the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation and the Eduflack blog, has made a fairly reasonable addition to the burgeoning sub-genre of "We reformsters need to get a new conversation started, because we are losing the old one" posts. But this one is interesting.

"Seeking Collaboration Between Reformers, Educators" is his contribution to the field. The opening line of his EdWeek piece sounds familiar:

But if we are truly serious about improving public education for all children, if we honestly want to close those achievement gaps and ensure every child is on a path to success, we need to change how the debate is framed.

The piece-about-the-piece on Eduflack is more direct:

For too long, we have heard of the battles between the education reform community and educators. From the way these debates have been framed, one would think the two sides couldn’t agree that the sky was blue or that water was wet

Part of what makes Riccards piece interesting is that it appears addressed primarily to the reformy camp, and it lacks the usual tone of "You resistance people should stop being so strident and political with us." He admits that the post-Vergara discussion led to even more folks acting as if teachers were the sworn enemies of education and the root of all failures. He counters that folks on both sides agree on more than they disagree, including a desire to see students succeed and make sure that schools have necessary resources.

Riccards sees three areas that "demand a new look." Classroom teaching, charter schools, and instructional practice.

When it comes to teachers--

We must also realize that real change and improvement come only with the involvement and support of teachers. We fool ourselves when we ignore that teaching is an incredibly difficult job, and getting more so by the day. We should lift up our most successful educators, support those in need, and seek ways to better engage and involve teachers in the process. Without them, even the most meaningful changes will be denied passage at the schoolhouse door.

This really shouldn't be news, but it's still nice to hear somebody say it for a change.

On charters, Riccards points out that even if we doubled charter capacity today, charters would still be an educational approach unavailable to 90% of US students, and a solution that leaves 90% of the student population behind does not qualify as a "Holy Grail of school improvement."  He would like to focus on transplanting the most promising practices of charters into traditional public schools.

That's not really a great idea, since the most promising practice of the most successful-on-paper charter schools is to weed out all students who would make them look not-successful, a technique not available to traditional public schools.

Riccards has some other concrete suggestions and wonders what would happen if "instead of fighting, supporters of charters and the like worked together with teachers' unions and individual educators to:"

Open lines of communication. Here's a remarkably sensible idea. Instead of sandbagging teachers and their unions, Riccards suggests that telegraphing what you're going to do and why can lessen the outrage responses. He references his own actions as head of ConnCAN, where he admits that he didn't make nice, but he did reach out to union leaders to let them know "what was coming" when he would release delightful tidbits like the teacher-contract database.

Look for areas to partner.  He doesn't really elaborate; it's a simple idea.

Recognize that the union and the teacher are two distinct audiences. Don't write off teachers because of what the union or one individual teacher might say. I would add that reformsters should probably not assume that just because the union has signed off on something, the members will happily go along.

Establish a practitioner advisory board. Riccards suggests that reformsters listen to teachers. And not just in a general fuzzy way, but by developing actual formal structures and bodies to which teachers can be attached. "Have them be part of the reform process, and not just someone reform happens to."

There's positive and negative here. The positive is the willingness to invite teachers to the table and the commitment to listen to them. And I don't want to minimize the degree to which that represents a positive shift in reformster rhetoric.

However. The willingness to invite teachers to the party also underscores the fact this is not the teachers' party. If I gather some teacher friends and start a movement to tell the local doctors, nurses, and hospital personnel how to run their business, I'm not sure how much they'll be mollified if I eventually add, "Oh, and we'll be happy to listen to your thoughts as well." When tourists pass through your town and stop a moment to decide how it should be run, offering to let local folks have say is kind of beside the point. If the guy who is sleeping with your wife calls to tell you that it's okay if you want to stop by at the birthday party he's throwing for her, your first thought is probably not, "Oh, how magnanimous of you."

See, here's the real sticking point about calls for working together, cooperating, changing the conversation, starting a new conversation. Those of us who decided to devote our lives to teaching and education have been having a conversation about how to grow and change and do better and do our jobs and make our schools better-- we've been having that conversation our entire adult lives.

Reformsters did not come along and say, "Hey, we have some thoughts. Can we join your conversation?" No, they started their own conversation, and declared that it was the only conversation, that our conversation was stupid and bad and a big failing failure; and then they gathered money and political power that let them hook their conversation up to giant mega-watt speakers that helped them drown out all other conversations. And now that they've hit a rough patch, they've started saying, "Okay-- you can come be part of our conversation now." But they are still not saying anything remotely like, "You know, as actual practitioners of teaching, as trained professionals who have devoted their lives to public education, you guys are the people having the conversation that counts. Can we come join it?"

No, even the reformster peace offerings are predicated on the notion that their conversation is the real one, and they are the deciders about the course of any conversation about public education.

I don't know. Maybe that's just a political, power and money reality and as a teacher I just need to suck it up and accept that the conversation of my peers and me has been rendered second best, a conversation that only matters to those of us having it. Maybe I have to accept that a bunch of rich, powerful, well-connected amateurs have bought not just a seat at the table, but the table and the room it's sitting in.

But damn-- some days that's a hard pill to swallow, and all the noblesse oblige in the world doesn't make it go down any easier.

Here's how Riccards finishes up

Yes, some may see it as heresy for someone who calls himself a reformer to take issue with the what-about-the-kids, charters-first, all-but-the-classroom approach to school improvement. But as a father, a former school board chairman, and someone committed to improving opportunities for all children, it seems worth taking issue with this view.

The time has come to turn away from the divisive, us-vs.-them approaches of past policy fights. Instead, we must work together with educators to improve our public schools. We must focus on options and opportunities that can have real impact on all our children, not just a select few. And we must do so in a way that improves teaching and learning for all.

It's as close as anything I've seen from reformsters to a viable way to move forward. Maybe we're getting closer.

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