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Pulling the Levers of Power

Robert Pondiscio writes to Deborah Meier again today.

Dear Deborah,

Happy Martin Luther King Jr. Day!  Thank you for your latest thoughtful postLet me pull on a couple of threads. 

You're against public funding for charter chains that are "accountable to their 'owners' not their public."  Well, isn't everyone? The whole point of charters is public accountability in exchange for operational freedom. I've never heard a soul in the charter school world refer to themselves as "owners" of schools.  And for the record, I harbor no "general aversion to public institutions," but neither do I sentimentalize them.  Public institutions serve public purposes.  The public interest is in a well-educated citizenry.  Traditional public schools are one way—only one way—to serve that public interest.  But why are we talking about this, Deb?  I thought we agreed that we both liked small schools, operational flexibility, and public accountability?  I thought we were supposed to be designing a school system that accommodates our respective visions and others of educating for democracy and liberty.  We're in danger of falling backwards.

You remain fixated on the question of "who decides what" in schools at large, but still cannot name even a single thing that all American children should know. This depresses me.  Fair-minded readers of our posts can satisfy themselves if I'm "pretending there's one right answer to what a good school is."  I'm not.  Will you now stop pretending that what kids learn in school doesn't matter?  I continue to search in vain for some idea of what kids in your ideal school will actually study. I sense the question does not interest you; I fear you think it is irrelevant.

"What makes for a strong school lies somewhere else: in how the school responds to the cultural norms, conditions, language, relationships that all the constituents bring to school with them," you write.  That's it?  Nothing else?  If what makes a school strong is how it responds to cultural norms, conditions, language, and relationships of those it serves, how do I distinguish between a school and a grocery store, hospital, or any other establishment that serves the public?  What you are describing sounds more like an ingredient than a recipe. 

What will the students in your ideal school learn about history?  What math?  What science?  Will they spend all day every reflecting on their differences and "reading the teacher," or will there also be the occasional book?  And if so, which ones?  I don't mean to mean to make sport, Deb, but I have long since agreed with you that we need a school "system" that supports many different paths.  Help me understand your path.  I continue to think you misunderstand both my views on curriculum and the effect of common core.  But I'll even concede those for the sake of argument.  I'll accept your vision of school governance and accountability. 

Now speak to me as a parent considering your school, not a fellow educator:  The school down the street is offering a college preparatory curriculum rich in literature, history, science, and math.  They've got a grade-by-grade comprehensive curriculum that details what kids are learning each year.  What have you got?  What will my child be learning here?  And how will I know he's learned it?   If you want me to turn my child over to you for eight hours a day, five days a week, I want to know what exactly he'll be doing all day.  What's the answer? 

I'm not being blithe about school culture.  I have no trouble acknowledging that there is a "hidden curriculum," but I don't think we should be paralyzed by it. As a teacher and (I suppose by your definition) a member of the "dominant culture" I couldn't expect to be successful without sensitivity to cultural norms that are not my own. But what would you have us do with the fact of our difference, Deb?  Should we allow it to be an excuse to teach nothing? In unskilled hands, cultural sensitivity can become a kind of condescension. We might assume, for example, that Shakespeare has nothing of value to say to a low-income person of color.  If we leave it off the curriculum, or insist there should be no curriculum at all, our well-intended advocacy on behalf of other people' children does them a disservice in the world where people are only too ready to judge others harshly for all they do not know. 

I remain determined not to be defined by our disagreements, Deb.  So let me tell you about some of the work we're doing at Democracy Prep, a network of charter schools in Harlem that hosts our civic education initiative. I'm curious how this fits in with your view of the good school, the hidden curriculum, and educating for democracy and liberty.

We place a premium on civic education—a fairly hard-nosed version of it  that seeks to demystify the way power is wielded in our society.  One obvious means of obtaining power is through education.  That's why we stress college-going and persistence.  But we also endeavor to teach, practice, and master the civic knowledge and skills that can be used for advocacy.  We take students to Albany and Washington to lobby lawmakers, for example. They give oral testimony at city government hearings. Every year, all students register people in their communities to vote.  You can't graduate from Democracy Prep without having demonstrated competence in a series of civic skills, including publishing written opinion, public oral testimony, voter registration, and canvassing. 

As we speak, we're planning our first "Change the World" week.  I hope to make in an annual event.  The goal is for every single student across all our campuses to have an opportunity to practice one or more of these skills and connect them to a real-world outcome.  I'm heartened by some of the ideas and activities our schools have come up with. Some middle school students will study which levels of government have the most sway over issues they care about and will write letters to their appropriate representatives.  Some are planning protests and petition drives.  Others will write op-eds and letters to editors.  Still others will travel to Albany to lobby their state representatives.  Our seniors are already working on capstone "change the world" projects.  Each chooses an issue they're passionate about, studies it in depth over an entire school year, develops a plan to address it, and puts it into action.  Even our youngest students will play a part, volunteering and performing at a local senior center.  You're never too young to cultivate a civic disposition. 

Some of these activities are overtly political.  Sometimes they make me uncomfortable. But that's probably a good thing.  It's their country.  I'm just growing old in it. 

None of these activities are as important as the message they send to the predominantly low-income kids of color we serve: your voice matters, and you have a duty to use it.  Free people don't wring their hands. They stir themselves to action.  That's what I mean by preparation for democracy, Deb.  I respect your point of view about schools as democracies and the hidden curriculum.  I think part of the answer is overt, prescriptive education for participation and influence.  "Here are the levers," we say to children. "And here's how you pull them." 

Don't stay hidden.

Robert

Robert Pondiscio is the executive director of CitizenshipFirst, a civic education initiative based at Democracy Prep Public Schools in Harlem. A former 5th grade teacher in New York City's South Bronx, Mr. Pondiscio has written and lectured extensively about education and ed reform. He previously served as the vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation. Prior to becoming involved in education, Mr. Pondiscio was the communications director for BusinessWeek, and the public affairs director for TIME Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @rpondiscio. 

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