Teaching Profession Opinion

A Call to Reclaim the Banner of Reform

By Pedro A. Noguera — October 02, 2012 6 min read
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My Dear Deb,

While I appreciate a good debate I can’t let you put me in the position of being regarded as anti-teacher or anti anti-teacher union. I have too long a history of defending teachers and their unions in print, in speech, and in action. I have also written about the role of teachers in school reform, and I have nothing but praise for the Chicago Teachers Union. I know that like the United Federation of Teachers in New York, they are the only groups that have been able to stop the dangerous push by so-called reformers to dismantle and privatize public education.

School closures, the increasingly preferred strategy of reform endorsed by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, has had a disastrous impact on low-income communities of color, depriving these communities access to schools that should serve as an anchor to community development. These reformers never ask why their reforms have failed to improve these schools or why these schools are failing in the first place. Many were designed to fail; forced to enroll a disproportionate number of “high-need” students (English-language learners, students with learning disabilities, behavior problems, etc.), staffed with inexperienced teachers, and denied vital resources to meet student needs.

I have written about this, too, (See “Closing Schools Won’t Fix Them,” so I am not new to this debate or this fight. I also know that were it not for the teachers’ union, and in New York the NAACP, Mayor Bloomberg would have shut down even more schools and replaced them with charter schools that do not even serve the same population of students. This is an unjust policy and a blatant disregard of the civil rights of the children and the communities they come from. The union is the only organization that has stood up against this relentless attack on public education and for that they should be applauded and supported.

However, if we take the position that this is good enough we will lose. If we also take the position that anyone who suggests that teachers’ unions are not doing enough to push for change in the way schools operate we will lose critical supporters, and not just me. There is widespread failure in urban schools (and many suburban and rural schools as well). Change is indeed necessary. We both know this; that’s why you have dedicated much of your career to creating new models of schools to show people that another way is possible.

There was a time when you, Ted Sizer, and others in the Coalition of Essential Schools were highly influential in the direction of reform. What happened? Well, to a large degree there was a shift in the direction of policy and the politics of education; away from the kinds of reforms that you championed and toward the narrow focus on standards and accountability that became No Child Left Behind. Why did we lose our influence? Well, I think it happened in part because the kinds of reforms you and others advocated didn’t improve the schools where poor children were concentrated. I can already hear you reacting and getting defensive, but hear me out and think about the schools in Providence, R.I., where many of the reforms were launched—Hope and Central High Schools, where I started my teaching career. I think about Oakland, Calif., where many of the CES reforms were launched and ask why didn’t these schools improve?

I would say that the vision was too limited. It didn’t include a strategy for addressing the effects of poverty. It didn’t include a strategy for engaging and organizing parents. It didn’t include a strategy for getting teachers to take responsibility for student learning. The so-called reformers are wrong about many things but they are right about this: Schools must be held accountable for student learning outcomes; otherwise, nothing will change. It is fundamentally wrong to judge teachers by student test scores, but that doesn’t mean teachers bear no responsibility for student learning.

In many of the schools where I work, and I work with urban schools throughout the country, I see teachers who have low expectations and who refuse to take any responsibility for how the instruction they deliver influences learning. They’re not thinking about engagement, motivation, intellectual stimulation, or any of the things that we know are essential for getting students to become invested as learners. Instead, they are blaming the kids, their parents, or someone else for school failure. Such schools will never improve because they’re focused on blame and not taking responsibility for doing what it takes to change.

To a large degree, we can blame the policies. NCLB has gotten educators fixated on test scores, and you and I both know we have been using assessment in an inappropriate and distorted manner. We should be focused on teaching and learning, on how to get our students excited about learning, on how to become critical thinkers, to become self-disciplined and self-motivated. So much is wrong with what we are doing now because it’s rooted in a failed paradigm that reinforces the role of schools in reproducing the very patterns of inequality that education should disrupt. There are schools right now that are doing things differently and getting better results. We should learn from such schools and use them as a model for change. I’ll talk more about them in future entries.

My challenge to you, the unions, Mike Klonsky, Diane Ravitch, and all the others who take issue with me when I say that the unions must be clearer about what needs to change is this: If we really want to change the direction of reform then we have to articulate a clear strategy on how it can be achieved. It can’t just be a new set of slogans or a manifesto like that adopted by the CTU (“The Schools Chicago’s Children Deserve”). This is a step in the right direction, and many of the ideas they’ve articulated begin to shift the focus of reform in a direction that’s needed, but I think we must go further. We must address accountability for teachers, students, parents, principals, superintendents, governors, members of the state legislature, and everyone else who is connected to the educational process. We must articulate a strategy for mitigating the effects of poverty as we have tried to do with the Broader, Bolder Approach because it’s not good enough to say that change is not possible until poverty is eliminated. And it must include a strategy for building the capacity of schools to meet the academic and social needs of children. We must do this if we want to reclaim the banner of reform. That is what educators and parents across the country who understand that reform is needed but who still believe in the fundamental importance of public education want and are yearning for.

Let me close with one more question: Why do you think that civil rights organizations like the NAACP, the United Negro College Fund, and the National Council of La Raza, still support NCLB and many of the reforms advocated by groups like Democrats for Education Reform? I’m sure you won’t simply dismiss them as ignorant and or claim that they are dupes being manipulated by the “elites.” I know you have more respect for these groups who should be our allies and you realize that the issues are complex.

Let’s engage the complexity and not fall into the trap of calling those who disagree with us our enemies. This is the kind of thinking that has left progressives marginalized in the school reform debate. I think once we figure out how to build a broad alliance for change that leads to a genuine renewal of public education, we might also be able to reclaim a position of leadership in the debate and direction of education reform.

With Much Respect,

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