Online arguments about school reform between the two predominant opposing factions repeat themselves over and over and over. One side argues that the entire existing urban school system needs to be scrapped and replaced. They want to see a model which implements at least some of the following: new employment strategies for teachers, more and more charter schools, and new systems for running school districts which are similar to those which have been developed by business. Un-chartered charter territory, so to speak.
Their opponents believe that the schools – and the teachers in them – have been exclusively and unfairly blamed for the low achievement, and resents that they are called “failures” by the other group. This side believes the teachers are under attack for the consequences of things for which they have no control, namely poverty. They would like to see increased levels of support to their students and their families including smaller class sizes, quality preschool, health clinics at school sites, and strong after school programs.
As far as I can tell, the bridges between these two groups are non-existent.
A few of weeks ago on Change.org, I expressed my resentment about the philosophy and supposed “help” from the venture philanthropists, like the Walton family, Bill Gates, and Eli Broad. This sparked an exchange with another reader named Stuart Buck, who I eventually investigated to discover is a Harvard-educated attorney working as a Research Associate at the
In the exchange, I had made a comment about how the "pro-charter forces have swooped into the communities with the weakest ability to fight (least educated, high illiteracy, non-English, immigrant, etc.)." It stimulated this response from Stuart Buck:
It's truly amazing to see this kind of demonization. And it's a catch-22. If rich people started schools for rich kids, well that would be segregative, elitist, etc. But let a few rich people finally say, "I'm going to do my best to help poor communities," then the knee-jerk status quo folks accuse them of somehow victimizing the poor communities.
I don't have a problem with rich people helping poor communities by trying to improve their public schools. But I do have a problem when they don't directly and closely consult with those communities first, but instead presume to know what is needed.
For years, one of my local philanthropists, Gary Rogers of Dreyer's Ice Cream fortune, has had a program called the Rocky Road Community Bus. Teachers apply for a day when this decorated, special bus picks up their class and takes them on a field trip to anywhere they want. The waiting list is perpetually very long, even hopelessly so.
Kids who grow up in poor communities don't have parents with minivans who drive them to museums, aquariums, parks, and other wonderful places. I recall a 7th grade teacher telling me that in one of his classes, half of the kids had already been to Europe, and that in another class half of the kids had never even been to San Francisco (16 miles away). At that time the school had "accelerated" and "non-accelerated" classes; guess which one was which.
Wouldn't it be marvelous for inner-city kids if there were many more buses like the Dreyer’s bus, and if the program even paid for entrance fees and provided a great lunch? What if non-working parents were invited to come along, too? Middle-class families get to do this all the time; the experiences open eyes, foster curiosity, and give inspiration.
Supporting school libraries is another thing philanthropists could do. My guess is that public schools in many cities are experiencing the same neglected situation that is going on in
. Most schools here have a physical library space and a collection of books from the old days, but they aren't staffed because schools haven’t been able to afford librarians for years. If staffing needs were met, the libraries would also need more reading materials and up-to-date library technology (bar codes, magnetic swiping, etc.). Why don't billionaires adopt all those dead school libraries and bring them back to life? With some support, they could be turned into thriving local centers of learning that could be open before and after school, maybe even a night or two so whole families could stop by. Isn't promoting literacy in this population one of the main goals? Oakland
Low income parents aren't as likely to attend school meetings, because they don't feel connected with the school and/or because sacrificing that time and effort is a true family hardship. They’d be a lot more likely to attend if good food and childcare was provided, if great things are raffled off, and if transportation assistance is given. Overwhelmed inner-city public school administrators don't have the funding and time to develop programs that would entice poor parents to attend their useful meetings. Why couldn't the rich people form a non-profit that would provide the schools with positive programs like this?
In the seven years I was working at my local school, it astounded me to watch computer after computer get purchased, but then languish in the corner because the district didn't have enough computer techs to set them up and keep them running. When things went wrong with a working computer, it could easily take months before a tech would respond from the district's IT department; there just isn't enough staff. Lucky schools here have parents or teachers who take on computer maintenance as a do-gooder side job. Also, it's not unusual to find that the internet doesn't functioning properly in older school buildings. The idea of having working wireless seems like light years away. Why doesn't computer mega-mogul Bill Gates narrow his focus and help the schools with that?
Parents who want to volunteer in schools in my district must now be willing to pay the $90 for fingerprinting every year. My local middle school used to have three school counselors, one for each grade; now it has only one. Why won't the edu-philanthropists sponsor those things? I KNOW it would help. On and on and on. There are so many things that would truly help the traditional neighborhood public schools and the kids in them, other than closing them down and replacing them with charters.
I wish the billionaires would stop their charter pushing and send teams into the public schools to assess what the grassroots needs are. The team could interview teachers, students, principals, parents, school security staff, secretaries, etc. and ask, "What things do you need to help you do a better job?" A lot of useful things could be learned by consulting directly with the common people. Then the immense resources could be used to improve the quality of life at the existing schools, to increase the schools’ ability to function, and to boost teacher morale. Extra targeted support would work wonders.
Of course, my entire response is on a presumption that the true intention of these people has been simply to "help," but I am not convinced that it is. At any rate, if they had done something as sensible as the things I am suggesting, the two of us wouldn't be engaged in this testy conversation now.
Stuart Buck responded:
Those all sound like great causes. That said, I'm still not sure why people who, from their perspective, are trying to help should have to be limited to the few things that you would personally approve.
Put it this way. There are people in the world who have a different perspective from you, and who don't necessarily agree with everything that you say.
From their perspective, the world of education is somewhat like Microsoft having a monopoly on computer systems, and they see themselves as wanting to start up a better alternative (such as Apple, or Linux, etc.).
Still viewing things from their perspective, these people see you and your ideological kin as making the following argument:
"I hate all these people who are trying to destroy Microsoft by targeting poor computer users for their propaganda about having a choice among computers. If these rich folks were really interested in helping computer users, they would spend all their time and money volunteering for Microsoft. For example, they could donate money for Microsoft to hire more personnel to answer the phones for technical support. Or they could donate more money for Microsoft to make more user-friendly versions of its products."
Again viewing things from their perspective, these people think that your argument is odd. Who says it's written in stone that all computer users must use Microsoft, and that the only way to improve the computer experience is to do it by specifically giving more money to Microsoft? Maybe Microsoft itself could figure out some ways to improve with a little more healthy competition. And maybe Apple isn't an evil conspiracy trying to "target" people; instead, it's just a company that's trying to grow specifically by helping people.
I could spell out the analogy to schools, but that would be rather tedious. You get the point, I'm sure.
So that’s their point of view. And because they have billions of dollars to make what they want to happen happen – from paying for propaganda to influencing politicians – that’s where the rest of us are being taken now.
Sorry kids. I tried making these people aware that you deserve nice things, too, but they aren't interested in listening. They have their own idea of what's best for you.