September 22, 2015

We're in the basement, learning to print

When the film Boys Don’t Cry was released in 1999, the film’s director said that the main character, Brandon Teena, was compelling because the way Teena navigated his transgender identity was, in the director’s view, the most complicated way possible to resolve a problem. This made the director feel compassion for Teena and reflect on how often it happens that we, especially when under duress, build up layers of complexity for ourselves on our way to solving a problem.

I thought about that yesterday when listening to an interview with Dale Russakoff, the author of the new book The Prize: Who’s In Charge of America’s Schools? Russakoff was a reporter for the Washington Post for decades; she chose the school reform movement as the subject and Newark, NJ as the site for this book. More specifically, she chose to really dig into the experiment that played out in Newark when Mark Zuckerberg granted the city $100 million to “do” school reform, an idea that was approved by Governor Chris Christie and was to be overseen by then-mayor Cory Booker and managed by then-Superintendent Cami Anderson.

The details are fascinating, and most of us already know how that story played out. The community of Newark parents, teachers, and education leaders was shut out of the process, consultants charging large fees were brought in, the Superintendent re-arranged students, closed schools, paved the way for charters in the name of choice, etc. And Zuckerberg’s ideal motivation – to upend teacher contracts and provide merit bonuses to the “good” teachers – ran smack into the reality of state tenure law in New Jersey (which protected seniority) and a strong teachers’ union.

This group of people working to solve a (perceived) problem chose the most complex path to do so, in part because, as Russakoff notes, they did not avail themselves of the knowledge and experience of people who had already navigated education in Newark for generations. Reading about the decisions and the thinking of those involved in this scheme is fascinating – much like reading about Mayor Kevin Johnson’s approach to school reform in Sacramento – and also actually really frightening. Because unlike the character of Brandon Teena, these people are not under duress, and are not in a fight for their lives and safety. The school reformers are, if anything, in an ideal position to be broadly informed, reflective, and even patient as they learn about public education.

But what stopped me short as I listened to the interview with Russakoff was her response when asked why she thought the new charter schools in Newark perform better than the traditional public schools in that city (and indeed, better than most charter schools nationally). Her answer was not at all complex and required no navigation.

She said charter schools in Newark get a lot more money into their classrooms and buildings than the traditional public schools do. There are more staff in charter schools, including learning specialists, tutors, and social workers. So students do better in those schools.

When she said that, I nearly drove off the road.

The “problem” to be solved in public education has always been about resources, no matter what words are put around it, no matter what layers of complexity are added. This has been clear since people argued about the use of tax monies to fund schools and teachers back in the 1820’s.

I am happy to think Russakoff’s work as a reporter led her to keep digging and keep exploring to get as complete a story as possible about Newark, school reformers, and the whims of a billionaire who looks on the Newark experiment as a personal learning opportunity for himself. But I am dismayed when I think of all the voices of all the education leaders, researchers, district workers, and experienced teachers who are just routinely ignored when these kinds of experiments in reform are undertaken. And I continue to be weirdly mesmerized by those who create complicated schemes to solve a problem, because, I suppose, they think complexity will lead to the most palatable (or marketable) resolution. But as Russakoff affirmed, schools can provide more for students when schools have more to give. It really can be that simple.

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