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In Modern School Reform, Is It We the People - Or Me the Individual?

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"Like a Family," the sixth chapter in the 10-part video series A Year at Mission Hill, is notable for its lack of action. Unlike past episodes, there are no images of children making masks, or digging holes - or throwing books. Instead, we see different configurations of adults and children, at different times throughout the school year, talking and listening to each other and slowly, deliberately, making decisions.

That word - deliberation - is so essential to the success of a school like Mission Hill, or a society like our own, yet it's becoming a lost art, surpassed in recent years by the sexier "D" words: the friendly and inviting dialogue; the edgy and intellectual debate; or the granddaddy of them all, the official and (ostensibly) authoritative decision.

In a school, as in a society, we need all four of these words - and in relatively equal measure. I was reminded of this after watching 180 School Days, another video story series about an alternative public high school in Washington, DC. The show introduces us to a small number of students and teachers and follows them for an entire year. These are teenagers who have been in and out of not just schools, but foster homes. They have lost parents and friends and, sometimes, they have lost hope in themselves. There's Delaunte, an 18-year-old whose mom always bought him the newest video game systems so she could keep him inside (where it was safe). There's Raven, who decided to have a baby at fifteen because, as she says, "I don't feel no love from my own family." And there's another Raven - she refers to herself as "the Raven that changed." A few years ago, she regularly robbed and assaulted people because "it was how I got my stress out. I wanted them to feel what I feel." Now, she's an active member of her local church - and she's hoping to be a member of DC Met's first-ever graduating class.

I urge you to watch the series so you can learn more about these young people - and about the educators who are giving everything they have to support them, albeit within the confines of a system that is actively disincentivizing them from doing much of what they know is in the best interests of their students. It's a complex, inspiring, painful up-close look at urban secondary education - and at the myriad problems we face.

As I watched, I thought back to Mission Hill, and to those four "D" words. What constellation of events have allowed us as a society to get to such a point - where a school like DC Met's success is gauged solely by the reading and math proficiency of its students; where a neighborhood like Delaunte's can continue to provide third-world living conditions in the world's richest country; and where DC Met's capacity to provide or coordinate sorely-needed social services for its students - from counseling to childcare to nutrition - is repeatedly sacrificed in the face of a steady wave of budget cuts, policy mandates, and demands for academic accountability.

The only thing that could be responsible for such a steady diet of poor decisions is exactly that - a diet of decisions. Simply put, we have fallen in love with the illusory certainty of making a choice, and abandoned any shared commitment to investing in the long and careful deliberative process that is necessary to ensure that the decisions we do make are both well informed and thoughtfully constructed. As one DC Met teacher succinctly puts it: "You can't tell me they're putting children first."

Which leads to our latest potential poorly considered policy decision - school choice.

To be clear: I support school choice. I helped found a charter school. And some of the best schools I've seen across the country are the way they are because they've been given the autonomy to make important, site-specific choices about teaching and learning. But that doesn't mean a system of schools that is heavy on decision-making power - and light on deliberative process - is going to get us where we need to go. Indeed, it may only dig a deeper hole.

Bruce Baker, a professor at Rutgers and the author of the popular School Finance 101 blog, made this point powerfully in a recent post. There are constitutional trade-offs implicit in our changing understanding of what "public education" means, he wrote. And we can't consider the costs and benefits of those trade-offs if no one's even willing to talk about what they might look like in action.

For example, imagine a scenario in which families only have access to privately managed charter schools (like New Orleans), and in which the schools themselves "may require that any/all that wish to actually exercise their state constitutional right to attend school, have to choose which rights to forgo in the process? Will 100% of parents in that zone be required to enter into contractual agreements (forgoing constitutional & statutory protections) with schools regarding disciplinary policies for their children?"

If it sounds far fetched, consider the emerging argument being employed by charter school attorneys - that, in effect, "charter schools are not beholden to federal constitutional and statutory provisions."

For scholars like Baker, this sort of argument augurs a landscape in which "low income minority children in America's cities must tradeoff their constitutional and statutory protections to gain access to schooling (which they may be compelled to attend)." Such a possibility suggests that despite the rhetoric, "we are not witnessing the emergence of a true, fair and equitable, demand-driven and fully open and accessible system of choice."

This is just one of the issues we need to be thinking through, which is why Baker urges us "to step back from these oversimplified talking points and buzz phrases which so illustrate the worst of intellectually lazy, undisciplined, under-informed policy development. Exploring and understanding these tradeoffs matters. Ignoring them is reckless." In other words, it's complicated - and we're going to need to have some long, slow deliberations (and dialogues, and debates) before we can expect to make the best possible decisions about our schools and our kids.

With those thoughts in mind, don't be dissuaded by the lack of traditional action in the latest chapter of the Mission Hill series. Indeed, its particular form of civic action may be precisely what the doctor ordered.

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