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Common and Uncommon Ground: The Kingsland-Thompson 'Not-Quite' Manifesto

Today, we're running a one-off guest blog. I don't usually do this sort of thing. Actually, I don't believe I've ever done it before. My policy on guests has always been to turn the blog over a week at a time during my occasional respite. But, what the hell... it's good to try new things.

Here's the deal: Neerav Kingsland, CEO of New Schools for New Orleans and occasional RHSU guest blogger, wrote last week with a proposition. He and John Thompson (of "This Week in Education" fame) had penned a piece that explored key agreements between these sharp (and generally opposed) thinkers. He wondered if I'd run the piece in RHSU. Those familiar with these two can see why I'd be intrigued. Moreover, I agree with most of what they have to say--and think they've said it pithily and powerfully. So, here you go:

Note: This guest post is co-written by John Thompson and Neerav Kingsland - two bloggers who often find themselves on different sides of education reform debates - but who tell me they've learned from each other's writings. John took a trip to New Orleans (reported itinerary: crashing at Neerav's, eating po-boys, visiting Big Easy charter schools). Neerav has never been to Oklahoma but reports he is eager to visit and check out John's instructional chops.

There is much we disagree on - don't worry we'll get to that. But in writing this joint post we hope to flesh out some common beliefs that unite two very different people - and, perhaps, two different wings of current education debates. The recent events in Chicago make very clear that there is a great divide between different factions of reform and that this divide continues to greatly impact children. We hope that this divide need not be permanent - and that a common agenda may be found between different reform camps. At the very least, we have found common ground where few would have expected.

Some Background on Us

I (John) taught and participated in whole school and district-wide reforms in the Oklahoma City Public School System (which is 90% low income). On the eve of No Child Left Behind (NCLB), I served on the steering committee of a bipartisan reform effort that was a down home version of the Broader, Bolder Approach -- and was a team member of a school that was improving faster than any other high school in the district. I blame NCLB for wrecking our promising community-wide school improvement effort, driving hundreds of students out of my school, and turning it into the lowest performing school in the state.

I (Neerav) am the CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), which launches and scales charter operators and human capital organizations. NSNO has been an accelerator of the New Orleans reform efforts - which has led to over 80% of New Orleans students attending charter schools. I (Neerav) blame local government monopolies for taking power away from educators and parents - as well as for operating stagnant school systems that fail to harness entrepreneurship, innovation, and competition.

Where We Agree

We agree that top-down, command and control governance, has failed. And that it will continue to fail regardless of the talents of the elites who run these systems. Technocratic reformers will never be able to design enough "transformational policies" to solve the complex problems facing families, educators, and communities. We are against: district-wide curriculum mandates, legislatively enforced teacher evaluation systems, and personnel decisions driven by central office bureaucrats. We've each seen some of our generation's greatest minds seduced by the idea that "if I'm in power, I'll be able to fix this."

It's hard to overstate the importance of this agreement: a "labor activist progressive" and a "Relinquisher" both feel that the much of the current reform movement is extremely misguided. And we both point to overreaching bureaucratic elites as the source of the problem - even if we sympathize with their intentions and are hopeful that they succeed in increasing student learning.

Where We Somewhat Disagree: How to Empower Educators

We agree on the problem, but our solutions take somewhat different paths. In short, where we agree and, yet, start to disagree is with school autonomy. Both of us are for it - but in different ways.

I (John) steadfastly oppose vouchers and worry about charter chains (CMOs). I never criticize charters. I've always celebrated when my students get into charters, magnets, or (below the radar) get into suburban schools. I believe that the safest way to gain the benefits of autonomy can be through "enterprise schools," or neighborhood schools that are granted autonomy. These schools should be governed by "thin contracts" that allow for collective bargaining agreements but do not restrict the operational autonomy of school site decision making for educators.

I (Neerav) believe that true autonomy can only be achieved by government relinquishing its power of school operation. I believe that well regulated charter and voucher markets - that provide educators with public funds to operate their own schools - will outperform all other vehicles of autonomy in the long-run. In short, autonomy must be real autonomy: government operated schools that allow "site level decision making" feels more Orwellian than empowering - if we believe educators should run schools, let's let them run schools.

Where We Really Disagree: Standardized Testing

Our biggest disagreement is all about standardized testing. The gulf here is significant but not as wide as one might think...

I (John) have mixed feeling about graduation examinations, but they are state mandates ratified by the voters. Educators should not impose high stakes standardized tests without the consent of educators and students. Choice schools, whether they are charters or enterprise schools, should be free to use high stakes tests if they choose. Educators in those schools, however, should stand with their colleagues and oppose such testing in neighborhood schools. We should unite in condemning value-added evaluations that are likely to increase primitive test prep and drive teaching talent out of schools where it is harder to raise test scores.

I (Neerav) am very conflicted about standardized testing. The libertarian in me just wants to give parents choice, provide them with a lot of information, and let the market work itself out. The pragmatist in me is familiar with the research on parents being unaware of the poor performance of schools to which they claim deep allegiance. I also have mixed feelings about annual high stakes testing (compared to once every couple of years) - which I worry (a) forces schools to shallowly cover grade level material and (b) is at odds with personalized learning. That being said, I feel that the near term costs to student achievement would be high if we eliminated testing - but am very open to the idea that long-term testing mania may have deleterious educational effects. So, for now, I'm on board.

A Not Quite Manifesto

To sum it all up: we agree that the progressive labor movement and Relinquishers should unite in support of the areas where we find common ground. We enthusiastically welcome all allies in liberating educators and schools from top-down management. And we feel that ideological blinders continue to prevent educators from supporting all forms of autonomy. Yes, we disagree on the structure of autonomy and standardized testing - but both of us are aware of the risks of our preferred approaches - and neither of us vilifies the other for his beliefs.

The outcome of current educational debates will affect the happiness and prosperity of the future adults of our nation. The stakes are high.

So let us end with this:

We believe that educator empowerment - in some form or another - must be the North Star of reform efforts.

We believe that the coalition in support of educator empowerment can cross political, ideological, and geographical lines.

And we believe that the coalition around education empowerment should air its disagreements on crucial issues - but that these issues should (for now) take a back seat to educator empowerment.

And we encourage you both to visit Oklahoma City and New Orleans. They are truly wonderful places.

--Neerav Kingsland and John Thompson

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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