Public Schools Buck the ‘Crisis’ and Innovate

Fixation on testing tends to squelch innovation and true learning. Rural public schools are showing they can do better.

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The good exchange between Tim McClung and Caitlin Howley over West Virginia’s rural schools, posted in the Daily Yonder, reminds me of the
on-going dialogue between Deborah Meier and Diane Ravitch on Education
Week
. When Meier and Ravitch began their blog a couple of years ago,
they approached the issue of education reform from clear polar
positions: Meier from the progressive side, Ravitch from the
conservative. Meier held to her position of valuing kids, parents,
place, small schools, and authentic teaching and learning processes, a
position she’s championed for over 40 years; Ravitch reiterated her
position of establishing and elevating standards, shaking up the system
through innovative approaches such as charters and vouchers, and a
steadfast loyalty to the values of No Child Left Behind (NCLB).

After
countless blog exchanges, and widespread evidence from the field,
Ravitch has dramatically, and emphatically, changed her position.
She’s become a leading critic of the oppressive federal school
policies and the values that undergird those policies. She has also
come to agree with Meier’s notion that if we focus on children, on “the
power of their ideas,” and on the value of local places, schools and
communities can produce good results.  

Tim’s position in this Yonder
dialogue is reminiscent of Ravitch’s early blog position. Like
Ravitch, Tim sees educational innovation more likely to happen through
creating and investing in charter schools; he sees that as a worthy
approach to save the nation’s purportedly failing schools.  

Caitlin
sounds a bit like Meier when she focuses on context as a determining
factor for school achievement; issues of poverty, community, and
broader economies matter.  

What isn’t mentioned by either is
that many traditional public schools across the country are actually
leading the effort on innovation, exploration, and invention.

Greg
Smith’s book on place based education shows the numerous innovative
practices teachers and students in public schools across the country experience
on a daily basis.  

Schools in the Maine fishing communities of Jonesport-Beals HS and Poland HS integrate fishing and other local economy principles into the school curriculum as a way to engage students in real life lessons.  Students learn the range of academic skills as they explore local issues and solve local problems. 

Through the Llano Grande center, high schoolers in the Edcouch/Elsa (Texas) school district gain skills and knowledge by interviewing community elders.

Kids in south Texas engage in community based research practices as
they work to tell the history of their communities, and they learn the
range of state-mandated academic skills as they do so. Students in
rural Leeton, Missouri, run a school-based store out of an abandoned
building in the old downtown, gaining academic skills and spurring the local economy.

There are examples of
innovative work happening in public schools in every corner of this
country, and they’re happening with much greater frequency than in
charter schools–mostly because the traditional public schools are
rooted in community, whereas charters exist in a relative never-land,
as institutions without community roots.  

The innovation
occurring in public schools is even more noteworthy because it’s
happening in a school policy environment that discourages innovation.
NCLB certainly does, as it has clearly demonstrated itself to be a policy
anchored heavily on testing: testing is the antithesis of innovation. Traditional public schools and the charters, too, are
significantly hamstrung by the very draconian policies that NCLB and states have legislated as they hold schools and children to
accountability measures and standards that have little to do with sound
teaching and learning.

Boldly and compellingly, both Ravitch and Meier speak to this issue. NCLB and other extant education policies
have effectively crippled, in a large-scale way, creative and
imaginative teaching and learning practices,
particularly in economically distressed communities. 

Much of
this has led to what David Berliner calls “a manufactured crisis” in public
education. The claim that the public school edifice has fundamental
cracks is patently disingenuous and misleading. There’s a preponderance
of evidence showing that public schools really do work, especially for
many of our country’s most marginalized communities.

That fact
has not been advanced, however, or maybe just hasn’t gained any
traction. It’s not as sexy as the “save the poor children” perspective of Teach for America and its KIPP offspring — an emerging
narrative, which is handsomely funded by the federal
government (see how the I3 grant money flows) and by the largest
philanthropists. There’s clearly big money to be made off the poor,
big money to be made through the charters. Kohn, Neill, Valenzuela and
Meier argue that this crisis has been “manufactured” in order to make
the public schools look bad, so the privatization of education can then
take root. The charters are but an early wave of the privatizing
movement.

To be sure, there are significant issues in our public
schools that need addressing, but they are no more significant than
problems that riddle charter schools. This is where I believe
Caitlin Howley makes her most important contribution, in arguing that many of
our school problems are really  reflections of economic and community
development failures. Where we find deep pockets of poverty in this
country, we find schools that struggle. To pretend that we can fix
schools without seriously addressing local economies is irresponsible. Really, when we talk about education reform, we’re mostly talking
about poor kids, poor communities, and often communities of color. The
conversation on education reform is really not about
suburbs, or affluent communities; it’s all about the poor. 

Charters
are not the answer. Shanker, Nathan, Sizer, and others who first
imagined charter schools in the 1980s never intended charters
to supplant the traditional public schools. They saw charters as small
schools where small-scale innovation could take place, places where
children who resided on the margins of regular school life could find
refuge. Charters were not intended as scaled-up replacements of
the traditional public schools. Unfortunately, big money has gotten in
the way of this intention, particularly as Gates, Broad, and Walton have
ramrodded their way into what is now a very one-sided discourse on
education reform. It’s really become their way, and their way only.  A
way that Duncan and Obama have fully embraced.

The best way to
education reform is to ensure that parents can be gainfully employed.
If that happens, kids feels good about themselves, they’ll be better
fed, will sleep better at night, and will be more ready to learn. Good
jobs equal good education reform.  

Another answer is to
encourage the traditional public schools to tell good stories about the
good work they’re doing, especially in the face of such adverse policy
pressure. One thing the charters clearly have over the traditional
public schools is that they have heftier public relations budgets; the
traditional schools barely have resources to focus on school/community
relations issues, though they should. In some ways, the winners will
be determined by whoever tells the best story, happy or sad, or magical. Who can better convey the magic, or the absence of
magic, in the traditional public schools and the emerging charters? 

Francisco Guajardo, an associate professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at University of Texas – Pan American University, Edinburg, Texas, is executive director of the Llano Grande Center. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the Center for Rural Strategies, which publishes the Daily Yonder.

 

Topics: Education
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