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The Missing Link In Genuine School Reform


The big "reform" trucks have been rollin' down the education highway for nearly a decade now. Public school educators are used to faux reform's inconvenience and injustice by now--and some even accept endless testing, lockstep standards and curriculum, and systematic destruction of public schools as necessary for positive change. Parents and grandparents may like their children's schools and teachers, but have absorbed the incessant media drumbeat: public education has failed. Out with the old! Something Must Be Done!

If--like me--you still believe that public education is a civic good, an idea perfectly resonant with democratic equality, you're probably wondering if there's anything that can stop the big "reform" trucks. Those massive, exceptionally well-funded "reform" trucks with their professional media budgets, paid commentary and slick political arms.

I can tell you this: it won't be teachers alone who turn back the tide of "reform." Teachers have been backed into a corner, painted as unionists bent on their own security (whether they pay dues or not), unwilling to be "accountable." They have been replaced, willy-nilly, by untrained temps--without retaliatory strike-back from their national union leaders. They have been publicly humiliated by their own cities and media outlets, not to mention the Secretary of Education.

Besides, teaching--as an occupational cluster--tends to attract those who liked school and believe sincerely in the power of public education to do good in society. They're nurturers--four-fifths of them women, many with children and family responsibilities as well as professional careers. It's not surprising when teachers keep their heads down and follow orders, even when their hearts aren't in it.

We recently took a vacation with a wonderful couple who have eight grandchildren. Two of their grandkids live in Seattle, and benefit from Gates-funded children's programs there. They see Bill as hero--a kind of Lord Bountiful, sharing not only his billions, but his considerable expertise. If Bill Gates gives money to charter schools, a national curriculum and model legislation outfits, then those must be worthwhile things--because he also funds the youth theatre program where their grandson is a rising star.

I can't say the conversation ever got heated, even though I argued strenuously that Gates was threatening the civic, community-based nature of public education. In their (increasingly common) view, public education is terrible in many, if not most, places. (Just not the places where their adult children went to school, or the schools their grandkids attend. One of their daughters is actually a successful urban school teacher--coincidentally, her school is great, too.) Like a lot of well-meaning Americans, they welcome someone who will step in and take on the job of "reforming" failed public schools. Especially using his own money.

So--is there a firewall, a line in the sand where "reform" could founder? If communities, parents and teachers can't muster the political strength and media savvy to save public education by themselves, who has enough muscle to force the issue? Is there a weak link in the top-down pipeline, a place where thoughtful resistance might stop the conveyor belt of standardization, competition for resources, "data analysis" and just plain obedience?

What about school leaders? Superintendents, principals, curriculum directors, instructional coaches--all the layers of administration, supervision and management? What would happen if school leaders examined their consciences and said: No. Not in my school.

School leaders are squeezed between state and federal bureaucracies above and serving as foremen over teacher-workers below, but their true accountability is to the elected boards in the communities where they work--and to the children and families they serve.

The most impressive example of this is the number of New York State principals--now over one-third--who have signed a statement of resistance against a state-mandated teacher evaluation system they find at least unfair, if not ridiculous.

Imagine principals and superintendents pulling up their socks and doing the same all over the country: Refusing to threaten teachers whose work they have observed first-hand, in spite of weak test scores. Agreeing--without scare tactics--to let parents freely opt their kids out of standardized testing. Adding a fifteen-minute recess in the afternoon, because they know it's good for kids.

That would be genuine, grass-roots reform.

For school leaders who need inspiration, take a look at Texas Superintendent John Kuhn, standing on the steps of the Capitol in Austin, pouring out his dreams for education.

The real deal in courage and leadership

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