Sunday, October 28, 2007

4 Million Dollars and 24 New School Nurses: Beyond Pedagogy to Collective Power (Community Organizing and Urban Education)

To read the entire series, go here.


Last week, in the just-passed Wisconsin State budget, a couple of lines give four million dollars (in new state and federal money) to the Milwaukee Public Schools for 24 school nurses.

Sometimes it’s hard to trace the influences behind policy changes. But in this case, I know for certain that these lines in the budget are a direct result of the work done by myself and a small number of leaders in Milwaukee’s MOVE congregational organizing group. It is because of MOVE and our work that thousands of the poorest students in Milwaukee will have health services that they did not have before.


Most of us spend a lot of time working with teachers, or writing articles. Few of us spend any time working to generate power to contest the forces that prevent our ideas and pedagogical advice from leading to significant change.

Some have misread or misheard me as arguing that everyone should do what “I” do, and that anything else is worthless. This isn’t my argument at all. Many of us do very important work, and I’m working, myself, on a book about Dewey and democratic theory. So I’d be a hypocrite if I said everyone should put their pens down and get out of schools and join organizing groups.

The problem is not that everyone needs to change. People have different skills and gifts. Teachers need to learn to teach, and we still need to think about how to teach better.


The problem is that work on schools is almost ALL we do, and it is NOT ENOUGH. Our focus has remained so narrowly on teacher education that we constantly ignore the fact that pedagogical and administrative skills aren’t really the core problems facing inner-city children.

What have we really done to change the reality of inner-city public schools and, more importantly, the success of students coming out of these schools in the last four decades or so? Maybe we’ve kept things from getting worse. Have we made things better on any broad scale? The honest answer would have to be: NO.

For the vast majority of children in inner-city schools, WE HAVE FAILED. I’m not sure how anyone could honestly argue anything else.

Furthermore, in an article I published a couple of years ago, I showed that the field has developed NO effective models for bringing inner-city schools into any significant authentic interaction with impoverished communities. Except in relatively rare (and always tenuous) circumstances, the institution of schooling in America lacks any significant capacity for healthy community engagement. In other words, a focus on schooling as our only task inherently rules out any real collaboration with communities.

Baldly stated, however, without empowered communities, we will not be able to change schools.

Einstein famously defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.


Community organizing is one of a number of different strategies for generating community power and consensus in impoverished areas that are increasingly oppressed in America. Elsewhere I have discussed some of these other approaches, but organizing is the one I am most familiar with. So when I talk incessantly about organizing it’s not because it’s the only answer, but because it’s an effective answer that I know something about.

Community organizing is not about winning on individual issues. It is about generating durable POWER for communities that currently lack power.

Winning these 24 new school nurses for MPS schools represents the most significant effect my work has ever had on actual students in schools. Yet this specific win, by itself, is not the goal. The point is that we were able to get the State and the district to pay attention to MOVE. Success in one arena, in the ideal, builds a reputation for effectiveness that can support other efforts in the future. For example, we are moving forward to look at dental services in impoverished urban schools in Wisconsin. I am able to sit at tables with other stakeholders and work together on a campaign to improve dental services not because I am a professor or because I know much about teeth (I don’t) but because I am a representative of MOVE.


Schools of education as institutions should start making community empowerment a part of their core charge, institutionally. It’s not enough for a few individual professors to do this on their own time.

There are all kinds of worries about what can happen when academics get involved in community activities. But the fact is that there is desperate need for more resources of all kinds in impoverished communities if they are going to gain any significant power at all to resist and act. At the least, scholars bring with them the capacity to read scholarship. As Oakes and Rogers and others have shown, this can be an extremely important contribution to community efforts. And there are other ways to participate.

But in the long term, to be helpful without being harmful, we need to bring real expertise about community engagement and action into our faculties—either by gaining that experience ourselves, or hiring people who have it.

And we need to get beyond our focus—our obsession—with teacher and administrator education as sufficient, in itself, as a path towards long-term improvement in the future life success of inner-city kids.

To be honest, I don’t think any of this will really happen on any significant scale.

It is possible, however, that the field of foundations—because of its interdisciplinary nature, its amorphous focus, and its concern with equity more broadly—may be one of the most promising places for change. In fact, as Dan Butin and I argued at AESA, community engagement as a scholarly arena and as a source of enrollment might actually provide one avenue for saving foundations in American education. But that’s for another post.

[P.S.: If we don’t learn more about how POWER works, and about how to influence the powerful, we can’t hope for much impact in the policy arena (NCLB?) either.]


philip said...

Thoughts on this?

From the website:

What is IE?

Intellectual Entrepreneurship is a philosophy and vision of education viewing academics as "innovators" and "agents of change." It focuses on creating cross-disciplinary and multi-institutional collaborations designed to produce intellectual advancements with a capacity to provide real solutions to society's problems and needs. Intellectual Entrepreneurship is academic engagement for the purpose of changing lives.

Intellectual Entrepreneurship moves the mission of institutions of higher learning from "advancing the frontiers of knowledge" and "preparing tomorrow's leaders" to also "serving as engines of economic and social development." In the process, the role of faculty member and student evolves from that of "intellectual provocateur" to becoming what might be called an "intellectual entrepreneur." Intellectual Entrepreneurship includes a readiness to seek out opportunities, undertake the responsibility associated with each and tolerate the uncertainty that comes with initiating genuine innovation. Intellectual Entrepreneurship changes the model and metaphor of higher education from one of "apprenticeship-certification-entitlement" to one of"discovery-ownership-accountability."

Darlene Cox said...

You may like to consider the public health sector for models on how to achieve this.
In Australia the level of community engagement and involvement in decision making in health care is signifiantly ahead of the eduation sector. There is capacity within communities to train and support consumer representatives to sit on a range of committees and working groups. The role of this person is to put forwrad the consumer perspective. Have a look at our blog for more details. In Canberra there is an association that operates on funding from the local helath department. There are similar organisations around the country. The Consumers Health Forum is the national body that advocates for consumer participation as well as from the consumer perspective on a range of policy areas.