Friday, September 28, 2012

Won't Back Down

Last night I was invited up on the stage (along with three other educators and a moderator) after a screening in Irvine, where I live, of Won't Back Down, a new movie that opens today. The movie is billed as having been "inspired by actual events", some of which I have lived through, and I have been asked by several people, including a friend who conceived the Parent Trigger legislation that parallels, in some ways, the fictitious legislation that enables the two moms to take over the struggling elementary school in the film, what I thought of the movie; so I will here offer a brief review. Readers may be surprised to know that I worked for five years in the film industry before I went back, more permanently, to my other career, in education.

I am possibly the least objective person imaginable to comment on this film, having lived through or knowing friends who have directly experienced perhaps half of the events in this film. I do not resemble Viola Davis, who plays Nona Alberts, the teacher who, along with Jamie Fitzpatrick, played by Maggie Gyllenhaal, circulates petitions getting a majority of parents and teachers to take over the management of Adams Elementary School in Pittsburgh; in particular, I do not have children who are struggling students (mine have all been honor students), and sending kids to school in Irvine is altogether different from sending them to school in the Pittsburgh neighborhood depicted in the film, or in Watts, where I taught for seven years at Locke High School; but I have had experiences resembling those depicted in Won't Back Down, especially those of the retaliation Nona receives from management for her efforts on behalf of students and of her experience of damaged relationships with fellow faculty members during the uncomfortable interim periods of controversy prior to and despondency after the local school board's governance decision respecting the future of the school.

Instead, my motivation in dreaming up the idea of taking over, with my fellow teachers, the management of Locke High School was motivated by the distinct differences between, and the unequal opportunities in, the two neighborhoods I was living in in 2007. Irvine, where I would wake up and go to bed and spend my weekends and summers, has a park-like quality, peaceful and quiet, where I could watch my son play in the sandbox outside my bedroom window and swim in the (gated) pool just behind the sandbox or learn to read in the National Blue Ribbon-winning (fenceless) elementary school just behind the swimming pool; while Watts, which I would drive to in the morning and leave in the afternoon, has been accurately labelled by President Clinton, who had visited prison-fenced Locke hunkered down in Watts, as "a depressed urban community", a disgraceful eyesore long forgotten by Los Angeles's leadership, abandoned to the rule of the Crips and the Bloods and the Souflos.

In June 2007, after the Los Angeles Unified School District had fired our principal and thrown out our teachers' petitions for converting Locke into a charter school in partnership with Green Dot Public Schools, and after most of our campus's teachers had been intimidated and cowed into a worried silence, heads down, with fears for our future; after our cause had been largely written off, I didn't back down; I wrote an editorial, published in the Los Angeles Times on June 7, 2007, calling for the newly elected school board to give our petition a vote, just what Jamie calls for in Won't Back Down's climactic scene. The board agreed, to its credit, and the results of the subsequent takeover have been much documented elsewhere, although there is still more to tell about that story, with particular lessons for teacher-management relations, if anyone still cares. But the unique Locke effort, which likely will not be repeated because of the way the teachers were neglected after the LAUSD board's final vote on September 11, 2007, did lead, I believe, to the conception of the Parent Trigger; for California's charter school law allows for either half of the tenured faculty or half of a school's parents to circulate a petition to convert their school into a charter school (the fictitious"Fail-safe" law of Won't Back Down requires both); and with Green Dot leaders having exhausted the easier option of winning the support of half a school's teachers, they next began exploring the more exhausting option of winning the support of half a school's parents. And thus today's controversies regarding the proper role of parents with respect to their children's schools find their birth in a forlorn corner of Watts, where parent participation at school was once probably as oppressed as anywhere in America.

For me, watching this movie (I've seen it twice now) was like being jabbed with pins for two hours, or more likely an hour and a half, since the first half hour, while important to set up the subsequent school takeover effort, has little personal relevance to my life. But although Daniel Barnz, the film's director and one of its screenwriters, told me he had never heard of Locke High School, either the other writer has, or one or both of them imagined with great accuracy what it's like to be in the midst of a school takeover battle, particularly for teachers who would prefer to be simply teaching their students to the best of their abilities on a daily basis instead of being besieged by politics and controversy. The first time I saw it, my heart raced and pounded so hard that it lost its rhythm; and I worried that I might not survive last night's screening, sitting with my wife and son, whose welfare I have so badly damaged by getting involved with improving the outcomes for thousands of children whom they have never met and who might seem as foreign to them as the citizens of another country.

But now I am focused on improving outcomes for them, and especially the outcome for him, since I do not want him to follow in his brother's fortunes, his brother who became a National Merit finalist only to be possibly California's only National Merit finalist to be turned down by my two alma maters, U.C. Berkeley and UCLA, who preferred students who had avoided taking the rigorous AP English class I was offering at Locke but who were also of a more preferred ethnicity. I have contacted four separate school districts in California, trying to get some version of One World Secondary School accepted as a charter school, and have been frustrated by many of the dirty tactics portrayed in the film; but I still won't back down, and will open the school as an independent school if our current educational leadership can't see past the unsuccessful, narrow visions and stale debates that continue to leave millions of American students behind -- unless Ryan, my son, runs out of time, a fear the parents in the film have for their children, while I try to open our school and put our lives back together.

I think Won't Back Down very well acted, particularly by the three actresses (Maggie Gyllenhaal, Viola Davis, and Holly Hunter) who have been previously nominated for Academy Awards. I think this Walden Media production does a better job than its predecessor, Waiting for Superman, in making the case for traditional school union backers, although I think none of the characters making the case for the traditional position comes alive with the same zest and conviction as the fictional school's reformers. I have noticed that the filmmakers have been taken aback by the controversy surrounding the school's politics: I think they primarily want to start a conversation around these important public issues, and may have been unprepared for the virulent stridency with which these matters are already being debated. But if this film gets people into theaters and then gets them talking with their neighbors about how we can improve education in this country for all our children, not just those trapped in obvious ghetto hell holes but also those boxed in by the invisible walls of a too narrow, out-of-date educational culture in for-now still comfortable suburbs, it will have succeeded in a mission less glamorous but more lasting than the glitzy world of Hollywood.

Thursday, September 13, 2012

Teachers Arraigned Before the Accountability Gods

An utterly tiresome nostrum being circulated by education pundits, particularly those in the current mainstream reform camp, emphasizes the need for accountability. We might well ask, accountability for what, of whom, and to whom?

The putative virtues of accountability have been rehearsed so often, by minds that appear to be set on autopilot, that I will reprise them only briefly here. We are reminded, again and again, as if the repetition made the claims true, that virtually every business and profession entails accountability; that taxpayers advance funds for the education of our children, and have a right to see some results; that accountability is a normal part of adult responsibility; and so on. All true; I have no objections to any of these claims.

But why is it that everyone suddenly feels it necessary to sit in the Judgment Seat, as if their main contribution to children's educations, for which we should be eternally thankful, consisted in setting up accountability systems, banging on the table, and demanding results? Great, you want high test scores . . . so do we, and so have we, for many years. But what exactly is the contribution you accountability hawks are making, or have made, that gives you the right to bang the table and make demands? Is it that you cut a bunch of clever deals for yourselves, made buddies of the right people at the right cocktail parties and in the right backroom offices, snookered the voters with enough unfulfilled promises often enough to advance in your political careers and then sneaked away, on to another inside job, before the voters ever had the chance to catch up with you? Just who are you people, and what have you ever done for students who really needed help? Oh, perhaps you attended fundraisers, shook your heads in synchrony with other supposedly knowing one-percenters -- those you had met in the Ivy League colleges your fathers paid for, and that you now feel guilty about, realizing that your careers were made by the unequal access to resources that you now decry -- about those terrible, failing public schools; perhaps you even did some charity work, devoting one or two Saturdays to playground construction or some other unpaid manual labour at a school in a tough neighbourhood, and then felt good about yourselves as you drove back to your own far more comfortable neighbourhoods. Perhaps you even taught for two years, or even a little more, and then gathered your wisdom and set yourself up in some advocacy job, so that your main contributions to children's educations then consisted in "standing up for the poor", and telling everyone else what to do, without actually having the courage to stick around long enough to try implementing your own advice yourselves.

What gives you the right to sit in the Judgment Seat and try teachers?

And why are you so hyper-confident that your teacher appraisal formulas are just what our educational systems need, among the numerous other proposals, some of them based on the actual research that you don't have time to read, for school improvement that you could be supporting? And why are you threatening teachers' livelihoods, their careers, on the basis of statistical arguments that are in dispute, including by the expert who formerly ran statistical evaluation for the Educational Testing Service that writes our nation's most important tests?

Are you familiar with the sin of hubris, as you direct this ongoing tragedy?

It's time to back off, stop pushing educators into corners, and reconsider so that together we can move forward in a direction offering more hope.    

Saturday, September 1, 2012

Of Federalism in Education

The three best educational systems I know of -- those of Australia, Canada, and Switzerland -- are all federal in nature, the last two (which I think are the best of all) especially so. And please don't think that I derived this result as one I had been seeking in advance for ideological reasons -- in other words, that I decided in advance that I liked federalism, and went seeking after the fact for justifications and ratings that coincided with my ideological preferences. Quite the reverse happened; I decided on criteria by which I would rank educational systems, then saw how those systems ranked related to the various criteria, then published a summary of my findings, and only afterwards noticed that the top finishers all had federal systems.

These findings are salient in this political season, this being the weekend between our two national party conventions and with Margaret Spellings and others being interviewed on the sidelines by media like Education Week. I reflect on what Mr. Bush's administration attempted to do with respect to education, and on what President Obama's administration is currently doing, and detect some bad moves, mostly due to a morally justifiable desire to make a difference in the lives of our nation's underachieving poor, who lack the equal opportunities they should be entitled to according to our founding national ideology. But while I think these two administrations' educational efforts morally justified, I think they have been tactically ill-advised, and that they are stimulating a backlash that could set back the federal Department of Education for decades.

It may well be the case that, with regard to primary and secondary education, most matters are best addressed at more local levels, and that federal educational leaders should revise their visions of their jobs and their policy priorities accordingly. The problem may essentially be one of talent, and where a society's stock of human capital is most likely to allocate itself in large vs. small countries. In most international comparisons of education (for example, Marc Tucker's Surpassing Shanghai and Vivien Stewart's A World-Class Education), the most admired systems are those of small nations like Finland and Singapore, which would be best likened in our nation to a (sovereign) state and city school district, respectively. These countries do not have ambitions or visions of global dominance, as ours has; and therefore, while a lot of top government talent in the United States aims for positions in the state and defense departments, where they can vitally influence the affairs of the world, talented young Finns and Singaporeans, not having these outlets, will have a likelier attraction to a field like education, and will try to better the lives of their fellow citizens and future generations through this career. This of course is attractive to American educational commentators, who may long for a society that would make heroes out of educators, rather than consigning us to the also-ran obscurity in which many of us toil. But it is unrealistic to expect the United States of America to start acting as if we were Finland or Singapore.

Perhaps we should let our federal government take a more modest role towards directing educational destinies, and allow leadership to emerge at less exalted levels, which is where we already have educational institutions established for such purposes.