Thursday, January 04, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education VI: Education is a Tough Nut to Crack

[To read the entire series, go here.]

"Although public education activism is hardly new in this country . . . , community organizing as a strategy for school improvement is barely a decade old."
--Kavitha Mediratta, NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy

“Organizing groups argue that education is more difficult to navigate than any other neighborhood issue because school systems are harder to penetrate and school leadership often is more insulated and unresponsive than the leadership of other public institutions.”
--Mediratta, et. al.

Since so much of the social action in the 1960s involved education, especially protests against segregation after Brown, it may seem like education is a common arena for social action. However, the fact is that community organizing groups around the United States in the last few decades have mostly stayed out of educational reform until quite recently. Why?

Organizing works best when groups’ demands are simple and clear. This is relatively easy to accomplish in areas like housing, or jobs, or health care, or wages, because one can define in fairly basic terms what it would mean to “win.” X number of houses, or X amount of loan $$ for a particular area, or a specific wage increase, or a new health center for a defined area. In education, the issues are often more complex.

Often in education, the problem is one of quality of instruction. But it is very difficult to define exactly what a “good” education looks like, and difficult (for specialists or everyday citizens) to monitor instruction from the outside. For example, even if you win something as seemingly simple as a “small schools” effort, how small is small enough? What counts as adequate support for these schools? Whose fault is it when some of them fail?

Monitoring is key for any organizing effort. Just because someone *says* they will do something doesn’t mean anything. Unless you can keep track of what they are doing over time, chances are they will find a way to weasel out of what they agreed to.

Questions about educational policy can get complicated and political very quickly. Think of the conflict around educational choice, for example. And, as noted in the quotes, above, public schools are especially difficult institutions to get access to.

Nonetheless, a range of organizing groups are increasingly engaging with the public schools. Often in collaboration with educational scholars (see Oakes & Rogers for an interesting example), they are developing tools like school “report cards” to help them keep schools accountable. They are developing strategies for collaborating with school staff, as in the Alliance Schools effort described by Dennis Shirley. And some groups, like ACORN, are even opening and/or supporting their own schools.

Other groups, like the one I work with in Milwaukee, are developing avenues for supporting school change that can be framed in relatively simple terms, as they always have, like class size, increasing the availability of school nurses, or guaranteeing nutritious school breakfasts.

I have only scraped the suface of the challenges specific to school reform organizing, here, and will return to these issues in later posts. A good source for information about these challenges is the Mediratta et. al. paper I quoted from above.


Anonymous said...

"However, the fact is that community organizing groups around the United States in the last few decades have mostly stayed out of educational reform until quite recently. Why?"

I feel the status quo that controls education finally crack and the good old boy network is drying up.

Though NCLB has many flaws the principle goal to close the achievement gap has merit. Even with the strong organization like the National Coalition of Title 1 / Chapter 1 Parents, Title 1 started to fall apart.

In Delaware parents are not truly welcomed in real shared decision making involving policies. I am not an educator just a longtime advocate for Title 1 Parents and Students. Even with defined laws within Title 1 giving parents a seat at the table the system managed to turn many into blind puppets.

In Delaware the legislators passed many under-funded and unfunded educational mandates straining the school district to a point they call for local referendums. But yet out DOE and educators encourage parents to question NCLB because it is under-funded. Parents have become pawns between the teacher’s union and the school district.

I don’t think desegregation was responsible for the lack of community involvement to follow. I think the complete breakdown of the family and social morals that plague our society has somehow desensitized the community to be involved. In defense of good educators, the game now is to point the finger at the educators and hold them accountable for students whose parents aren’t being held accountable. We’re asking teacher to be mothers, social-workers and educators. Without the support of the parents and community, educators are pretty much setup to fail.

I’ve come to realize the line in the sand parents dare not to cross is more about protecting them from the truth that education is driven by power, ego, politics and money.

Aaron Schutz said...


Thanks for your comment.

It makes me almost as uncomfortable to blame teachers as it does to blame parents. There is little evidence that poor parents don't care about education, and lots of evidence that they try very hard, in ways that teachers may not recognize (or be trained to recognize) in support of schools, at least where they are able to do so.

Working-class and poor parents individually have little or no power to affect schools, and perhaps it should not be surprising that after a while they feel attacked, just like teachers. if we want parents and teachers to work together on any level of equality, we will need to find ways to collectively empower parents to meet schools on some level of equality. Otherwise, I think the evidence indicates that we can forget it. And this doesn't have to be antagonistic, as Dennis Shirley's work has shown among others.

And why shouldn't schools perform new functions if that's what the kids need? Of course, we can't ask teachers to do all of this. I'm working currently on getting school nurses and health services into schools, in part because kids and their parents have trouble making it to the doctor. If it's a reality, let's face up to it instead of complaining that we really don't want to deal with it.

Anonymous said...

Interesting post. Don't teachers blame students and their parents for failing?