Education Reform Should Be Messy

Over on EdWeek, Sara Mead posted a thoughtful piece reflecting on a quote from Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals and how it may apply to education reform. She writes that we need to focus on targets we know we can shift.

The United States has a shamefully high child poverty rate, and poverty and associated ills certainly impact children’s educational outcomes and make educators’ jobs harder. But once we start to focus on poverty it’s easy to get tangled up in a web of interconnected and deeply challenging issues that are very hard to address–including some we don’t fully understand or know how to address, and others where political and fiscal realities put bold action out of reach. So people who want to improve outcomes for low-income American kids today need to heed Alinsky’s advice and pick targets where we have the power to start.

Public schools, their policies, and effectiveness are a more promising target than the family, deep rooted neighborhood dysfunction, or “poverty” writ large. [Bold added]

From a tactical standpoint, Mead’s point makes sense. But I also think this perspective highlights a fundamental issue with education reform at the moment. It’s this idea that we can somehow sit from outside of schools and tweak external mechanisms and change the culture inside of schools.

We require a fundamental shift in our philosophy and approach to public education reform from the mentality of a “black box,” hands-off, top down approach that manipulates short-term external mechanisms to that of a problem-solving, sustainable perspective grounded in the grit of everyday classroom practice. Teacher voice must be directly involved in the process of policy-making, curriculum design, resource allocations, and other systemic facets that tie directly into the reality of everyday classroom experience.

What I do agree with is that schools possess the capability to provide equity for the disadvantaged, and that there is great potential to improve the quality of our public schools. So in light of that, I would advise all those who are passionate about public education to get your hands dirty in the soil that lies at the root of education. Learn from TFA’s NY Executive Jeff Li, who recently stepped down from his position to return to the classroom. Step foot into the classrooms, step foot into the schools, step foot into the communities that are struggling with poverty.

Instead of picking neat and easy targets, we should get tangled up in the “web of interconnected and deeply challenging issues that are very hard to address.”

Working inside schools and communities is the real work of education reform.

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