Tear It Up And Start Again
“All happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”
If I read the phrase “a national model for school reform” one more time in the context of rapid charter expansion, I may scream. It’s a phrase that’s gotten a lot of use lately. “A national model for school reform” is also being thrown around to describe what has already happened in many places and what is proposed to happen in still more cities. The proliferation of this ideology makes it easier for charter opponents to characterize the sector as the boogieman many suspect us to be.
At the crux of the matter we became charter school supporters and advocates because we believed in a system where quality education choices were available to all students, not just those fortunate enough to afford tuition or live in the right neighborhood. In its purest and most honest form, that should also mean we support all school choice even if that means people decide on something other than charter schools.
The freedom of school choice is parallel to the freedom we experience as citizens of a democracy; while we may not agree with those who make choices different than our own, we need to respect their right to make that choice. Yes, that goes for parents that make the decision to enroll their child in a struggling district school. There’s a saying that it’s easier to open a new school than to close one, and that’s true for many reasons political and otherwise. Furthermore, even in the instance of struggling district schools, parents and students routinely rally against the closing of a school for a variety of reasons. The reason at the top of the list for why communities fight the closing of a school is because many of these institutions weren’t always struggling and have a long history of positively shaping their surrounding communities. That should certainly count for something. Here in New York City, Jamaica High School comes to mind as fitting this description. For the majority of its more than one hundred year history, the school was an exemplar of the transformative power of a strong public education, producing students who went on to win Pulitzer prizes, leading scientists, and politicians. Its once sterling reputation was not enough to keep it from being closed for good in June of 2014 after a slow and painful decline to the dismay of the surrounding community.
As a lifelong New Yorker, the notion of a “national model for reform” is offensive, because it implies that all cities are the same and therefore share the same culture. I’m sure any lifetime resident of Boston, Detroit, Los Angeles, Atlanta, or Newark will tell you that there are certain hallmarks that make their own city unique. They, like all cities, have their own quirks, perks, culture, and pitfalls, making the causes of their problems different, meaning that the solutions should be particular to their root causes.
It is also worth mentioning that the culture and experience of city dwellers often changes by neighborhood making the notion of a “national model for reform” all the more ludicrous. Which part of the nation? What model? Which pieces of which reform plans?
Another staple of this ideology is getting rid of teachers who aren’t helping their students to learn. It is vital to any reform movement to have people who are committed to the cause in order for change to occur. However, it is absolutely unnecessary to negatively characterize all of the teachers in a struggling school as not being up for the challenges ahead; too often this train of thought is also associated with the ‘national model for school reform’ mentality. Remember, the veteran teachers in struggling schools have often experienced several ‘silver bullets’ intended to fix all of their schools ills and have stuck around in spite of a kaleidoscope of policy and personnel changes. Why do these teachers choose to remain in situations others often flee? The answer is simple -- they stay for their students. In fact, I find it shocking that education has become one of the few fields where experience is seen as a liability instead of an asset. Somebody is responsible for the issues facing education systems nationwide, but let’s be real, the vast majority of those problems did not start with teachers.
I get it, we’re ed-reformers and it is our job to come up with ways to fix what’s broken with the system. However, we should remember that in the end we are talking about people and neighborhoods, not just models. If we forget the human aspect of changing education, then we will become the thing that goes bump in the night.
Christine Nick, Associate Director of C3S