Education Opinion

Open Up Camp Philos

By Jill Berkowicz & Ann Myers — June 03, 2014 6 min read
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The website of Education Reform Now clearly states, “Education Reform Now, a non-partisan 501c3 organization, is committed to ensuring that all children can access a high-quality public education regardless of race, gender, geography, or socio-economic status.” Dig a bit deeper, to another webpage, and one finds both purpose and perspective are more clear.

A first-rate public education system is the cornerstone of a prosperous, free and just society. Yet millions of American children (particularly low-income and children of color) are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of a deeply dysfunctional system.

Who isn’t invested in a first-rate public education system for all children? But, we have a funding system, often based on home values and property taxes that embeds inequality into the system. Because of this, a first-rate public education system regardless of race, gender, geography, or socio-economic status is too often denied children who are low income and of color. Failing schools are part of a deeply dysfunctional funding system. Let’s start there.

We have written about this before...we have a students with a broader range of learning challenges, more ELL students, more classified students, more mobile students...and our standing on national and international tests haven’t dropped. That is a result of hard working educators. We have also written that there have been things we need to change and haven’t yet changed. We have left ourselves open for the reformers to blame us for not making the changes we need in order to do a better job of bringing more students forward with stronger skills.

The April 14th issue of TimesUnion.Com reported Governor Andrew Cuomo, long a charter school advocate, was to serve as honorary chairman of a three day retreat called “Camp Philos” to be held in Lake Placid. Though this camp, organized by Education Reform Now had tremendous potential, it has left us confused.

We have long thought that the conversations taking place around education, its successes, its weaknesses, its failures and plans for improving are expressed with unproductive, broad sweeping brushes. We have heard:

  • Public schools are essential and have supported our economy and our democracy.
  • Public schools are failing us now.
  • Teachers are primarily good and teaching is a meritorious calling and profession.. Teachers are self-motivated and resist change.
  • Unions have protected teachers from local politics.
  • Unions protect bad teachers and created benefit system for its members far greater than the local communities can sustain.
  • Common Core is the answer to raising standards.
  • Common Core is a top down nationalization of public education.
  • Standardized tests will measure student and teacher success.
  • Standardized tests will not measure success of anyone and hurts children by adding stress and labels to their lives.
  • New teacher certification exams are good.
  • New teacher certification exams are bad. And...
  • Charter schools are good or they, too, have a badly designed funding system.

Camp Philos’ title holds out hope and possibilities. “Camp Philos: A Philosophers’ Camp On Educational Reform” The listed presenters and supporters (as reported in the Times Union article) are noticeably lacking those who have studied and understand teaching and learning, what works in public schools, and what public schools need. In March, the Adirondack Daily Enterprise reported attendees were “leaning heavily toward Democratic politicians from across the country, including U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu of Louisiana; Denver Mayor Michael Hancock; Sacramento, Calif., Mayor Kevin Johnson; Russlynn Ali, the assistant secretary for civil rights at the U.S. Department of Education; and movie maker M. Night Shyamalan.

Russlynn Ali, former Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights, now leads Emerson Collective’s investments and partnerships to accelerate progress in US education and serves as Emerson’s leading thought leader on education reform. Wouldn’t that have been an interesting address to hear? The Emerson Collective is the brainchild of Laurene Powell Jobs. No, Camp Philos is not a conservative think tank. Very well meaning and wealthy people have gathered to consider our work and our future....don’t you wish you had been invited? With a $1,000 registration fee for the three day and two night event, the audience likely wasn’t full of teachers. Titles of concurrent session offers a glimpse into what they were thinking about.

  • The Next Big Thing: Groundbreaking Approaches to Teacher Preparation
  • Up, Down, and Sideways: Building an Effective School Reform Coalition
  • Rocketships, Klingons and Tribbles: Charters’ Course to Where No Schools Have Gone Before
  • Tight-Loose Options for Ensuring All Kids Have Access to a Great Education
  • Living to Tell the Tale: Changing Third-Rail Teacher Policies
  • Adequacy, Fairness and Equity: School Finance in the Age of Austerity

Most of us work daily at another level. The beginning of May is the time in schools when the race to the year’s end has begun. Finishing projects, play and concert rehearsals and performances, preparing for final lessons and assessments...no one takes leaving the building lightly. That is better planned for earlier in the year.

We do think the idea of organizing a philosophers’ camp is a good one. We could all benefit from gathering in a calm mountain resort to share our bigger thoughts and vision into solving problems. We could all benefit from an open and honest conversation in which we acknowledge our shared passions about educating all children well. But we weren’t there.

We hope the organizers used this year to figure out how to open the doors to those of us who work in those “deeply dysfunctional systems.” Maybe they really solved the dysfunctional funding systems upon which education has been built. But a current Google search about the Camp Philos event reveals little about what actually happened. The posts announcing it, the objections of those not able to attend, and a static site announcing Philos Camp 2015 are all that can be found. What was accomplished is not being broadcast. Wouldn’t it help those of us who lead on the ground to know where the minds and pocketbooks of the rich might be taking us? Secrecy doesn’t serve well. Shouldn’t we be thinking forward...or do they think we would use the knowledge to fortify dysfunction and stir up resistance?

Creating the environment for an education summit such as this is laudable. But, we want in. We all want what is best for children. We are the closest to the heart of the matter. We are the ones who love the children enough to make them our daily work. We have something to say.

If there is to be a Camp...let all who want to be there attend, contribute, and help define the place from which the trajectory for schools for the future begins. What good is the Camp if we don’t know what happened? We encourage these thoughts...spend the year raising money and advertising an open and welcoming discussions. Spend the year finding facilitators who can lead discussions between opposing positions. Spend the year planning a summit that will make a difference by calling a broad and diverse group of planners to the table. Open hearts and minds to remember we are talking about children and their futures.

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The opinions expressed in Leadership 360 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.