Sun Tzu once wrote that attacking an enemy’s strategy is of “supreme importance” in any war. This is a lesson school reformers should be doing in their efforts to sustain their efforts – and it must include fully embracing parents as lead decision-makers in education.
This is something I have strongly reflected upon over the past two weeks, especially after watching charter school operators such as Achievement First fail miserably in their efforts to provide parents with opportunities to choose the best educational opportunities for children. I also thought about this last week after listening to RiShawn Biddle on the Dropout Nation Podcast on how reformers must expand their social networks, as well as reading the Storify put together by Chris Stewart of Education Post that challenged the belief gap among traditionalists.
What I have concluded is that reformers must do better. Because right now they are not doing nearly all that well right now.
I know this from last month, when I attended a New Haven school district meeting that focused on discussing Achievement First’s school proposal. The plan, called Elm Street Imagine, would have provided much-needed academic opportunity for children and parents in Connecticut’s third-largest district, and at the same time, offered an opportunity for districts and charters to partner together effectively in providing great schools to our most-marginalized populations.
But as you know from listening to last week’s Podcast, it didn’t happen that way.
What I encountered instead was a school board meeting where the majority of attendees were New Haven’s mostly-white teachers, most of whom don’t even live in the city, who fought the Achievement First plan. What I saw was the New Haven local of the American Federation of Teachers, whose rank-and-file membership is 77-percent white, fighting against helping the district’s black and Latino children get the education they need for college of a trade.
What I saw were people whose minds were plagued by the belief gap, the soft bigotry of low expectations, arguing against the needs of the people who live in this urban community. What happened was that the war between teachers’ unions and school reformers was rearing its ugly head – and would be the focus of the school board meeting instead of doing what was best for children and parents, most of whom are low-income and people of color.
What I didn’t see was Achievement First working with families in such a way that they could stand up for its plan, so that the parents can take ownership and make the case to New Haven’s school board and superintendent. Achievement First’s Dacia Toll deserves praise for standing up to the AFT and to those teachers. But she needed parents and the community to take the lead for her and her plan.
This was disappointing because charter schools and other innovations are part of the solution for addressing our country’s education crisis. If all was well within traditional school districts, parents wouldn’t be clamoring for charters. But selling innovation and choice isn’t enough. This is a lesson that school choice advocates and school reformers, in general, have not yet learned.
Since I began my work, I have seen school reformers use “moments in time” strategies featuring kids and parents in matching t-shirts marching on statehouses during legislative sessions. But the yellow t-shirt brigades are no substitute for sustained advocacy, especially in galvanizing marginalized communities for the hard and daily work that we need for children.
Most of the families I know sleep in the t-shirts after the rallies have ended, and enjoy the food and music they got at the events. But they go back to business as usual because they already know that the t-shirts don’t stand a chance against the teachers’ unions and other traditionalists who have the loudest voices.
The parents know that teacher’ unions and administrators have statutory access to children and parents through classrooms, open houses, and the rest of the activities that make up public education. The parents know that reformers will more often than not lose because they continue to underestimate the access that NEA and AFT locals have to families day to day.
The parents also know that administrators, teachers’ unions and many in their rank-and-file don’t care about building lasting relationships with parents and children. They know they don’t need to, either, because the unions and their members have majority access to our children and families. And they can win either through persuasion or intimidation against their children.
This matters because the belief gap among many teachers affects the self-esteem and academic performance of our children of color. Parents are ready to fight for their children against these low expectations and they are willing to fight for school choice as well as Parent Trigger laws. But we cannot fight this battle without the help of school reformers – and reformers can’t sustain their efforts without us.
Yet movement’s strategies are not effectively reaching marginalized communities — nor is the mindset of some reformers toward families and people of color all that helpful either. Without execution of powerful advocacy, our kids will continue to be trapped in classrooms where they are taught by teachers that don’t believe that our children can achieve greatness.
It is time for reformers to effectively partner with parents and communities, to go beyond the yellow t-shirts, and affect sustainable change. This means empowering families within their own communities alongside responsive public policy.