Monday, August 31, 2015

Middle Way

In the midst of the back and forth over her comments about New Orleans' Myth of School Makeovers, Andrea Gabor dropped this quote from  Howard Fuller:

“I do believe things are better for a large number of kids than before Katrina. But I don’t want to be put in the position of saying: pre-Katrina was all bad, post-Katrina is all good. When we set it up that way, we’re negating anything that was positive before Katrina. What that tends to negate is the capacity of black people to do anything of excellence. 

 “The firing of those teachers is a wound that will never be closed, never be righted. I understand the issue of urgency. But a part of this quite frankly has to do with the fact that I do not believe that black people are respected. I don’t believe that our institutions are respected. And I don’t believe that our capacity to help our own people is respected…

 “Its hard for me, because I do support the reforms and think there are some great things that have happened. I do have to ask the same question as Randi (Weingarten)—at what cost? 

 “Even if you talk to black people who drank the Kool-aide: The issue still is– this was done to us not with us. That feeling is deep. It can’t be ignored. It speaks to any type of long-term sustainability of what’s happening in New Orleans. 

 “When black people came out of slavery, we came out with a clear understanding of the connection between education and liberation. Two groups of white people descended upon us—the missionaries and the industrialists. They both had their view of what type of education we needed to make our new-born freedom realized. During this period there’s an analogy—I’ve said this to all my friends in Kipp And TFA. During this period two groups of white people descended on us the industrialists and the missionaries. And each one of them have their own view of what kind of education we need. 

 “What people have never grasped is that we want to be helped, we don’t want to be controlled. In this process, we wanted to be a critical part of defining what role education should play in our continuing struggle to truly realize freedom in America. That’s the thing that’s truly unsettled in my soul. How do I make that happen, when I’m swimming with sharks on the left and on the right. And trying to find an independent course that speaks to the pain that my people experience every single day.” 

It's a bruisingly honest response from someone who has paid double dues on the front lines of education and education reform and who has been a willing voice for the privatizers and charter pushers for a long, long time. And it's a reminder of what is wrong with the most extreme narratives on opposite sides of the public education debates.

The cartoon reformster narrative: US education was hopelessly effed up in a morass of self-serving institutionally calcified failure. Our poorest, most vulnerable, and historically most underserved populations were being left further and further behind. Only a complete guttting of the system can blast loose the systemic problems.

The cartoon public school supporter narrative: the reform movement is an unnecessary attempt to gut public education, and they should go away and let us get back to what we were doing.

The challenge in threading the space between these two narratives. each side has things it needs to face up to.

Public education advocates need to recognize that there is no going back, that in some places, public schools have functioned primarily as institutions heavily embedded with all the neglect and racism and dumping on the people at the bottom of the ladder that we could possibly hate. New Orleans was, by most accounts, terrible in every way that a school district can be terrible. Many other poor urban schools were in a similar place.Something had to change.

But reformsters need to recognize that many of those districts were filled with excellent teachers in excellent schools working in communities where they were the educational equivalent of strong salmon trying to swim up Niagara Falls. And many of the reformsters of good faith (I believe there are such people) need to recognize that they opened a door that let it all manner of money-grubbing vermin who had no real interest in improving education for anybody-- just cashing in on a movement that opened up a mountain of public money to private profit.

The irony is that while reformsters recognized that some aspects of the system needed to change, they have ended up holding onto the aspect that needed the most change of all-- the continued disempowerment, disenfranchisement, disinvestment, and disintegration of the communities in which the schools were found. Folks in places like New Orleans traded a system in which it was hard for community voices to be heard, hard for community leaders to take charge, and hard for community needs to be considered-- they traded that for a system in which it is now impossible for the community voices to be heard, empowered, and responded to. In both the old version and the new version, schools are something that is "done to" the members of these communities.

And yes-- I did not represent the two sides as needing equal amounts of correction. They don't. By disregarding the expertise of professionals and the voice of the community, reformsters have put themselves far out in left field. They are not wrong about the need for change and improvement and a system that better responds to the needs of America's poor, and they have won plenty of support by showing they get the need while public education advocates have said, "Look, we're doing great. Just let us do our thing, and trust us."

But reformsters are dead wrong, and have been dead wrong nearly every step of the way, about what reforms will improve the situation. Some don't care about being wrong; they're simply focused on "solutions" that will redirect that beautiful river of money and power to The Right People, the Betters. Or they have a blind and foolish faith in The Market (which will never, ever, get us better schools). Or they have blind faith in their own superior wisdom.

But those who do care about getting it right have listened to the wrong people, and supporters of public education have made it easy for them to do so by being slow to respond to real concerns, real needs, real problems.

It's something to read Fullers words, to see a guy who's been unapologetic about taking mountains of Walton money (re: John Walton "I love that man"), say straight up that nobody on any side of the fight gets it. Not his opponents, and not his allies, either. The NOLA restrospectives taken together highlight one thing-- that all of this public education stuff is complex, and that people who believe in simple answers or explanations are kidding themselves (and lots of other people, too).

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