Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Will Real School Reformers Stand Up?

This is a cross-post with Harry's Place.

A measured retort to the top-down, corporate-centered education reform is simmering in liberal opinion circles. With the likes of Michele Rhee finding fewer allies on the left now that she has spent the last few years working almost exclusively to vitiate teacher unions, even policy makers that once championed her celebrity have begun to question to insight offered by these “reformers.” It hasn’t helped Rhee and her ilk that more positive and cooperative visions of reform have taken root across the country and produced constructive outcomes as a result. 

David L. Kirp, in his new book “Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System,” focuses on New Jersey’s Union City and its attempt to revamp their schools. Union City suffers from many of the problems found in struggling schools across the country: poverty, single parent households, and a lack of opportunity and funding.  In an attempt to revitalize its schools, New Jersey increased the funding in a slew of districts. Many high-poverty schools near Union City embraced the “Great Leader” approach, where a strong-willed administrator is sent to dictate to the community and change the system from the top. Schools that adopted that approach continued to fail, while Union City produced surprisingly positive results. Rather than decree from on high, the school district found a more encouraging path

Writing for the Washington Monthly, Richard Kahlenberg states that “Union City, instead, pursued system-wide reform, with a number of key elements. The district adopted a consistent curriculum across classrooms, with a relentless focus on early reading and expanding the vocabulary of students. Tests are used as diagnostic tools, rather than to punish, and every new teacher gets a mentor.” The school worked to foster a sense of pride in its students, and build strong bonds between its teachers and the pupils they were responsible for. An early-childhood education program was adopted, giving students who lacked strong homes the ability to gain skills essential to succeeding in an academic environment.

Teacher unions remain strong in the city, and have worked in a collaborative effort with administrators to create an environment that benefited the community and its young people. While charter schools have on average produced similar results as public schools, they continue to be championed as the savior to our troubled schools, even as their link to corporate and self-interested donors become plainly apparent. By many in the Washington policy circles, teacher unions have been treated as the main hindrance to improving our schools. Union City’s success challenges this outlandish affirmation. 

Union City was also the beneficiary of other funding arrangements that contribute to an improved education system: increased public housing in affluent communities and a decoupling of school funds from local property taxes. This meant that rather than having schools receive funding solely based on the tax base near said school, money would be allocated based on need. California has recently adopted a similar funding scheme, looking to divert money from wealthier neighborhoods (that often have good schools) and allocate some of it to poor schools that desperately need the income. 

Reforming our schools is vital, but the type of reform we pursue is paramount. The rush to defund public education and degrade teachers has not produced the results the charter school movement continues to champion. Long lasting reform will require collaboration from all involved in the educating of our young, and school districts like Union City have provided an effective counter to the corporate education reformers of the last decade.