I Don’t Think We Can Make Progress If We Don’t Listen

 I’m going to see a megastar tonight–as long as Matt Damon gets out of the way.  Look, I’m not knocking the guy.  He’s talented, super-hot and admirably willing to play marginally sympathetic, intellectual, uptight oddballs. Plus, I’m gonna be honest: I cried a little when I saw the viral video where he defended teachers because his mom has spent her professional life in the classroom.  His tireless advocacy of teachers is really inspiring to me.  That said, tonight I really hope he doesn’t block my view of Diane Ravitch.

Ravitch is a powerhouse.  Though not the only vocal opponent of the charter movement, she is by far the most well-known.  Her Op Ed today in the L.A. Times outlines her opposition to charters, explained at more length in her new book, Reign of Error, which she’ll be promoting at two events hosted by Damon and school board member Steve Zimmer.  I’ll be in the audience—not because I agree with everything she says, but because I want to listen and understand what she’s saying.

I worked at a charter for five years.  I did not always agree with aspects of our educational approach, but I’m honestly confused about why our existence harmed students in the neighborhood who didn’t attend. I’m not saying there weren’t kids who were unable to attend our school because they were in foster care or had parents who were incarcerated, addicted to drugs or otherwise unwilling to fill out their name and address so that they could have a lottery ticket for our school (and ultimately, we admitted almost everyone who ever got a ticket). I’m not saying everyone thrived at our school.  And I can see that the success of many of our students may have been, in Ravitch’s words, “a distraction” from the racism and poverty at the local public school.  I just don’t yet understand why those students who did not attend our school were harmed.

 But I have deep respect for Ravitch.  Her positive suggestions of smaller class size in low-income communities and more wraparound services for disadvantaged families make sense to me.  I want to listen and I want to understand why she thinks charter schools are part of a privatization movement that’s destructive to the school system.

Listening is the next step my anonymous friend Ben feels we need to take (see yesterday’s post for the first part of my conversation with him about the education policy wars). I talked to Ben because I have a hard time wrapping my head around Ravitch’s charge that Education Reform is a front for privatizing education.  The Ed Reform movement is closely tied to Teach For America—most of its most prominent advocates, including Wendy Kopp, Michelle Rhee, Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin started as Teach for America “corps members,” as they are somewhat creepily called.

TFA has come under fire for a variety of reasons.  Olivia Blanchard recently published a blistering narrative in the Atlantic explaining why she quit after a year.  This summer, Chicago teacher Katie Osgood posted a widely circulated letter urging new TFA members to quit because the presence of TFA recruits is destructive to public education.

I see their points.  I do want to offer the counter-narrative that many of the teachers I worked with came from TFA, including the principal at our school.  Without exception, they were dedicated, idealistic, selfless and profoundly caring. Though some have left teaching, many have since gone on to become underpaid, overworked administrators of charter schools in underserved communities, a move that I guarantee is not motivated by some bizarre secret desire to serve the interests of large corporations.

Ben doesn’t disagree.  He has TFA friends himself and believes they’re devoted to their students.  The problem isn’t their good intentions but the effect of these charter schools on the public school system.  The Ed Reform movement is unequivocally committed to the idea that the public school system is broken and that the solution is to create self-governing charter schools.  Charters are public in the sense that they get the same per-student public money as any other school, but can also take private donations from individuals or corporations.

Even though most are non-profit (a third are for-profit, which is a whole different kettle of fish), charter schools are problematic, says Ben. “Non-profit charters are still run like businesses,” he said.  “They have to persuade funders that they’re doing better than the neighborhood school.  Otherwise, they won’t survive.  How do you prove you’re doing better?  Raise test scores.”

He started looking into data.  What he saw didn’t make him happy.  “I talked to an administrator at a big charter,” he tells me.  “I told him there are a lot of bloggers saying you have a high dropout rate. When I look at the CST (California State Test) scores, I can see how many of your students take them every year and I see those numbers going down.  Are you really pushing kids out?  And the guy goes, ‘Ben, it’s a problem.  If kids fail classes, we don’t pass them.  They have to repeat a year.  Parents don’t like that, so they take their kids out.’”

Is that the same thing as actively pushing kids out?  No.  But if it has the same effect, is the system really working?  Whatever the intention, Ben has to wonder.  If struggling kids are leaving, aren’t charters still returning the most at-risk kids back to the local schools that have failed them in the first place, or to the streets?  If a reform system leaves at-risk kids in the dust, what exactly is being reformed?

What most obsesses Ben is the corporate connection.  “What you’re talking about here is persuading Americans to put a public good into private hands,” he says–a radical move in education. Gates and Broad, enormously influential donors to Ed Reform non-profits and to charters, are silent on the subject of privatization, but the Walton Family Foundation, which just gave Teach for America in Los Angeles $20 million, believes in voucher-based education.  There is no evidence that any foundation is openly pushing any agenda, but Ben is troubled by the association and concerned that it needs to be addressed openly by the Ed Reformers.

In his heart, he feels both sides can learn from each other.  The whole-child people need to learn from the some of the innovations of high-performing charters and from their willingness to risk bold solutions even if they fail.  The Ed Reformers need to be more transparent about the question of kids left behind by the charter movement, and more cautious about the implications of funding from private donors.

Ben believes that things are getting better.  As he commented on yesterday’s post, most people don’t fall neatly into either camp in this battle.  “I don’t think we can make progress if we don’t listen,” he tells me.

So that’s where I’m going tonight.  To listen.  To try to understand.  Am I in the middle of a battle or just a very, very impassioned conversation?  I’ll tell you more about it tomorrow.

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