I’ve been re-reading Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals recently, and was struck by this section about Alinsky’s work with organizations that worked to de-segregate the Chicago Public Schools:
If we had been confronted with a politically sophisticated school superintendent he could have very well replied, "Look, when I came to Chicago the city school system was following, as it is now, a neighborhood school policy. Chicago's neighborhoods are segregated. There are white neighborhoods and black neighborhoods and therefore you have white and black schools. Why attack me? Why not attack the segregated neighborhoods and change them?" He would have had a valid point, of sorts; I still shiver when I think of this possibility; but the segregated neighborhoods would have passed the buck to someone else and so it would have gone into a do-chasing-his-tail pattern--and it would have been a 15-year job to try to break down the segregated racial pattern of Chicago. We did not have the power to start that kind of conflict. One of the criteria in picking your target is the target's vulnerability--where do you have the power to start? Furthermore, any target can always say, "Why do you center on me when there are others to blame as well?" When you "freeze the target," you disregard these arguments and, for the moment, all the others to blame.
I found this particularly powerful in light of the ongoing debate about education reform and poverty. The United States has a shamefully high child poverty rate, and poverty and associated ills certainly impact children’s educational outcomes and make educators’ jobs harder. But once we start to focus on poverty it’s easy to get tangled up in a web of interconnected and deeply challenging issues that are very hard to address--including some we don’t fully understand or know how to address, and others where political and fiscal realities put bold action out of reach. So people who want to improve outcomes for low-income American kids today need to heed Alinsky’s advice and pick targets where we have the power to start.
Public schools, their policies, and effectiveness are a more promising target than the family, deep rooted neighborhood dysfunction, or “poverty” writ large. We know there are inequities in how schools serve low-income kids, we know there are models that are producing better results than the average today, and we know that there are policy changes that can increase the odds that low-income kids get a good education. We also know that public schools alone can’t close the achievement gap or resolve deep inequities of income distribution and opportunity. But we pick the target we can change. And we remember that, as Alinsky writes, success on one target begets success on others. Rather than saying that we can’t improve schools until we cure poverty, the reality is that every policy change we make that shows our schools can be more effective in improving achievement for low-income kids, increases our ability to eventually make progress towards equity on other fronts.
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.