I Used to Think...And Now I Think

One of Richard Elmore's recent contributions to the ed reform debate has been a framework for reflection, asking participants to complete the phrases "I used to think... And now I think..." What started as a discussion prompt at workshops has now been published as a book. New Orleans has clearly been a challenging experience to process in some ways, so our group will try to rely on this framework for our reflections this week. As always, we welcome your comments!
I used to think community engagement was helpful to school reform, and now I think it is vital.
In some ways the efforts undertaken by the Recovery School District in New Orleans are nothing special. While the scale of charter growth is unparalleled, the reforms otherwise are pretty standard: school closures, increased autonomy, more accountability...
So, I had to keep asking myself, why does the environment feel so especially volatile here? To be sure, New Orleans is not New York City where I had my introduction to the heated emotions of school reform debates. There's a stronger undercurrent of race in the conversation here. On top of that, Hurricane Katrina remains an open wound for the city. The fact that the Recovery School District's efforts began in the aftermath of the disaster adds a layer of emotional complexity to the discussions about what's happening with the schools.
From our conversations with teachers in the Orleans Parish schools and community members who were highly critical of the RSD's reforms, it was clear that there are many people who feel angry, hurt and disenfranchised. An ed school classmate who also visited New Orleans recently said somewhat ominously, "They're going to have a revolt on their hands if they don't do something."
Closing schools, removing ineffective teachers and opening charter schools is invariably going to be contentious. That doesn't mean it's the wrong thing to do. But I do believe taking these actions without authentic efforts to include the community is wrong. In fact pursuing these actions without incorporating community ideas almost ensures they will rally around their schools and teachers, even if they've been failed by them. 
On our last day of school visits someone said to us, "People here would rather have failing schools and input then great schools and no input." I wasn't sure if this comment was meant to reflect respect or disdain for the idea of community engagement, but I can tell you it's an unfortunate presentation of the choices. There has to be the way to give people a voice AND great schools, right? To attempt otherwise is to imply the community has no legitimate views or role in improving their own schools.
This post and others cross-posted at Beyond Appian Way


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