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A Few More Thoughts on Alinsky and School Reform

By Sara Mead — March 14, 2012 2 min read

A couple points following up on last week’s post about Saul Alinsky, school reform, and why people who want to make the world better for kids need to pick the target they can change.

First, just to be clear, I’m not trying to claim Alinsky for any side in contemporary ed reform debates. Given how some on the right have seized on Alinsky as a symbol of, um, something bad, I’m not sure his is a name either side wants to claim. More to the point, Alinsky was determinedly non-ideological in his life and work and would be unlikely to take sides with any of the ideological camps here.

Second, while I am critical of the “fix poverty first” folks, I actually do think there are targets related to abating child poverty that we have the power to change outside of education. I think it’d be hugely productive if more of the energy currently devoted to explaining why we can’t improve schools until we fix “poverty” writ large when into identifying and tackling specific, concrete targets around improving kids lives separate from education reform.

Along those lines, Mark Anderson has some interesting thoughts here about the role of teacher voice in sustainable education reform. One of Mark’s comments is that people need to get more engaged in “messy issues” of education reform. And I don’t disagree with that; messy issues are messy in part because they have a lot of important stuff tangled up int hem. But you can’t engage a tangled, messy issue all at once, whether it’s at a policy level, at a school or classroom level, or something as personal and mundane as cleaning your house. You have to break it down into targets that you can change and leverage little victories on some of those targets into eventual bigger ones.

Mark’s also surely correct that ed reformers shouldn’t think we can “somehow sit from outside of schools and tweak external mechanisms and change the culture inside of schools.” But I’d challenge both the extent to which education reformers actually think that or some of the implications Mark draws from it. Policy types need to have real humility about what policy can and cannot do. To my mind, a big part of what policy reform needs to do is NOT try itself to change the culture inside of schools, but to eliminate obstacles and put in place conditions to enable effective teachers and leaders to do the real hard work Mark is talking about here (with accountability--and I mean that broadly, not in the specific terms it often takes in the current debate--as the natural and enabling counterpart to that).

The opinions expressed in Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.