Sunday, August 24, 2008

RTIII's Education Panel Misfires

Well, well ... there is an emerging division among the NOLAbloggers about the Education Panel at the conference. And I'd say the balance is tilting somewhat against the panel. I have to say that I fall out with the critics of the panel. Not in terms of the issues discussed, not in terms of the ideological leanings of the panelists, but rather in terms of what I would call the relatively unimaginative and uncritical groupthink of the panel -- something I always find so odd among those claiming to be in the critical thinking profession.

The only nuanced thinker on the state of education in New Orleans on the whole panel I thought was Clifton Harris. He seemed to have clear personal opinions, but he also seemed to be tuned into the bigger picture that incorporated parental frustrations and hopes, student reactions, institutional history, honest considerations of performance, and educational quality. The rest of the panel seemed to me to be overly concerned with the more narrow bureaucratic interests of very specific groups as well as the nature of political power over the control of the structures and organizations of schools. There was almost no specific mention of educational quality.

The first blogger to raise the red flag regarding this panel was em of Dorophoria, who has a series of postings that show an anguished effort to try to understand and digest what just didn't sit well with this panel. Then Michael Tisserand was invited by Clancy DuBos to share his thoughts on the Education panel; and Tisserand's final word seemed to be that the panel might have been unduly harsh on public charter schools. And finally Pistolette came out with guns blaring. All of these blog reactions to the Education panel resonated in some ways with my reaction to the panel. [UPDATE: Correction -- the first blogger to raise the red flag was actually Maitri, who live-blogged the panel. Sorry I missed this, but I always tend not to count live-blogging in that it's generally more descriptive than reflective. But Maitri's live-blogging of this particular panel deviates from that norm and thus merits the recognition.]

My gripes with the panel, beyond its apparent lack of imagination in pondering the fuller dimensions of the subject and the seeming groupthink rigidity of the panel's content thrust, centered around the panel's dismissiveness of the importance of parents and students in the educational process. I was also particularly put out by Leigh Dingerson's inability to conceptualize notions such as community ownership of education or the importance of pubic schools to community revitalization beyond the political concepts of district segregation and school board authority. And by "district segregation" I don't mean by race, but rather the geographic lines of school districts as defining a school's community purpose.

Before I go any further, though, I should note that I am a parent to two public charter school students. My oldest, who is in the 5th grade now, started out at the International School of Louisiana and was there for two full years before the devastation of Hurricane Katrina threw the school's future into that realm of uncertainty. In the midst of this uncertainty, and after spending that Katrina fall semester at an elementary school in Virginia, where my family was exiled, we managed to get a spot for my oldest at Lusher elementary. That's where my youngest is also currently enrolled as a first grader. And both schools, the ISL and Lusher, as charter schools, have been wonderful experiences for my children. And I should also mention that my job brings me into contact with the Esperanza Charter School, Sophie B. Wright, and Green Elementary. So, that's where I'm coming from here, for better or for worse.

But what my experience with the post-Katrina public school system in New Orleans has brought to my attention is that the charter school movement, instead of being some kind of rightwing push towards privatizing education, has actually been, on balance, quite positive in achieving the goals of improved parental involvement in schools and thus in community ownership of schools. The ISL and Lusher, who as charters aren't as bound by district enrollment requirements to the same degree as perhaps some other schools are, are examples of schools where parents and students from all over the greater New Orleans area come together. The community that is being rebuilt in these schools is not restricted to neighborhoods defined by school district boundaries, but by commonalities as members of a citywide community. My children have friends from the 9th ward, from New Orleans east, from the Westbank, from Central City, from Uptown, from Lakeview. We bring them to their friends' birthday parties all over the city, in neighborhoods we would otherwise have very little reason to visit. This little fact has got to be good for building community solidarity. And my experience dictates that charter schools could not survive without community ownership of the educational experience. Sure, the administration of such schools may have their own less-than-transparent policies and procedures; sure these schools may cater to particular methodologies and pedagogies that are experimental and unique; and sure there are going to be problems that come with decentralized oversight. But by and large, parents and students are owning these schools. As Cliff noted in some of his comments on the panel, the hopes and aspirations of parents that accompany a perception of change from the failed system of the past entices and encourages parental involvement and community ownership of the schools. Yes, there are displacements of teachers. Yes, there are problems with the provisions and guarantees of retirement and health benefits for teachers. Yes, there are weaker teacher unions and thus a diminished capacity for teachers to seek redress of particular injustices. I, too, worry about these things.

But I want for my children and my family a public school where the principal cares enough to visit me in my home. I want for my children and my family a school where the educational quality is such that my kids will not just pass the LEAP tests, but where they will really learn something. I want for my children and my family a school where we, parents, have some direct ownership and power at the school, and not some indirect ownership through an historically unresponsive and corrupt school board.

It seemed to me (and I could be missing it completely) that the folks on the education panel were thinking about education in New Orleans on a completely different wavelength than I and my wife are. Unless these folks can somehow connect better with my concerns and hopes as a parent to a public school student, they're going to seem to me like nothing more than the very problem they themselves are trying to convince me is facing the public education system in the city.

[UPDATE: Monday, August 25, 2008, 5:40PM: Cousin Pat, who moderated the Education Panel and who blogs at Hurricane Radio, has a measured and thoughtful response to the criticism. It's very much worth a read for those of us who criticized the panel.]

1 comment:

Frolic said...

It's a shame that education got politicized, but I blame the Democrats. They turned a blind eye to failure and instead supported unions that weren't interested in reform. The right wing was handed an opportunity and they took it. It would be great if those on the left could step back from this partisan fight and reconsider the needs of kids.

I've had the opportunity to meet and interview some educators involved with charters. They don't seem to give a damn about politics. My guess is that most didn't vote for Bush. What's happening on the ground level with charters seems utterly removed from the lofty, political debate.