School & District Management Opinion

Moving Beyond the Polarized Debate

By Pedro A. Noguera — November 27, 2012 4 min read
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Dear Deborah,

While the debate over the direction of education policy continues at national and local levels and the new administration begins to consider what, if any, new initiatives it might take to promote school reform, we know there are educators across the country who are thinking about what schools can do right now to meet the needs of the students they serve. I think it is important for us to weigh in on these matters for the sake of the educators who are on the front lines of school reform and their students.

This is clearly an area where your leadership in developing new ways of thinking about how schools might be organized and about how teaching and learning might be carried out has been so helpful to so many. The schools you have been instrumental in creating and leading—Central Park East in New York City and Mission Hill in Boston—have served as models of possibility for educators who have sought to create learning environments that are thoughtful, creative, and most importantly, humane. Education activist Sam Chaltain is using the experiences of Mission Hill to create a series of videos that will be aired nationally to encourage educators and the public in general to think about how we might educate children differently. This kind of work is essential because we can’t wait until we put the right policies in place or until our society becomes more just and equitable to figure out how to create schools that can succeed in educating all kinds of children.

Certainly, policy and politics matter. As we have seen and discussed, policy is shaping how assessment (i.e. high-stakes testing) is used, and increasingly, assessment is determining what children learn, how they learn it, and how schools and teachers are judged. Moreover, as we’ve pointed out before, the fact that education policy largely ignores the effects of poverty and inequality and the way they influence on child development and the performance of schools is yet another reminder that educators are working under major constraints.

These constraints—the political, the economic, and the social—are real and should never be discounted or minimized; otherwise, we end up sounding hopelessly naïve about possibilities for change. Yet, naming them is not good enough.

A big part of what is wrong with the current debate about reform is that it is dominated by what I think of as naïve optimists and radical pessimists. The naïve optimists are the ones promoting simplistic solutions like: “fire bad teachers,” “lengthen the school day,” “close failing schools,” or radically expand the number of charter schools without any real public accountability. What these so-called reformers have in common is that they seize upon a single idea or set of ideas to promote change and then assume that if we just follow this narrow prescription schools will improve. The record shows that they never do, especially not in the communities that suffer from the greatest economic and social challenges.

The radical pessimists largely offer critiques of policy. They remind us that the obstacles to school change on a mass scale lie in the structure of our society, in, for example, the way wealth is distributed, poverty is concentrated, and race continues to operate as a means to deny access to opportunity. They force us to acknowledge that hard-working teachers and visionary principals are insufficient if these are the only forces we rely upon to overcome the obstacles.

The problem with the radical pessimists is they typically have very little to offer in the way of advice to the hard-working teacher who seeks to use education to inspire and impart tangible skills to students. They are even less helpful to the school leaders who seek to transform struggling schools into safe and caring environments where children can be intellectually challenged and supported in their development.

This is one of the reasons why the radical pessimists are losing the reform debate and why the naïve optimists are winning. Ideas matter and if we can’t offer practical suggestions about what can be done to improve schools right now we make ourselves marginal to the debate over reform. Of course it helps to have private foundations and hedge fund managers behind you, and the so-called reformers are generally well financed, even when there is little evidence to support their change agenda. Clearly, the naïve optimists really aren’t that naïve. Some are quite clear that their goal is to dismantle teachers’ unions and privatize public education. If they win, you and I both know our entire society will be at risk.

That is why we need to weigh in on this debate. Not merely from the standpoint of making the case that new policies are needed, but also from the standpoint of practice. Let’s use some of our exchanges to assist the educators who are looking for help and guidance right now, as well as the parents and community organizers who know we can’t wait for the right policies to be enacted to create the schools our children deserve.

I look forward to hearing from you.


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