Monthly Archives: July 2013

Who are the Players in the Fight to Save Chicago Public Schools, and Why Do They Matter?

This post was inspired by Asean Johnson.

This week, we’ve seen some interesting developments in the fight to save the 49 schools that the CPS announced it will close for the upcoming school year. There has been tremendous outrage over the past few months, and I’m glad to see that the fight to save the schools does not stop just because the school year ended. In fact, the fight seems stronger than ever, with new players becoming involved every day. I’d like to take a minute to look at all of the different players in the CPS closure protest and how their involvement has affected the fight. 

Teachers: The teachers of Chicago schools–including those that are not being affected by the planned closures–have had the loudest voice in the protest since the very beginning. Particularly those active within the Chicago Teachers’ Unions have been out on the streets rallying, tweeting non-stop about their engagement with the fight, and posting articles on the CTU website frequently to keep up with the heap of events and developments concerning the fight to save the schools. CTU President Karen Lewis has been in the public eye since the CPS announced the school closures back in March, making sure to voice her support for the union’s teachers in rallies, city hall meetings, interviews, and social media.

The CPS announced this week that they were laying off an additional 2,000+ school staff, including 1,036 teachers. News of particularly outrageous layoffs have been circulating the internet; most noticeably, stories about Xian Barrett. Firstly, Barrett found out that he was being laid off only because the CPS called his mother to give her the news. Talk about adding insult to injury! Secondly, Xian Barrett is an outstanding case because he was chosen as a Classroom Teaching Ambassador Fellow by the U.S. Department of Education in 2009. Barrett is an outstanding teacher who has actively worked with students outside the classroom to help them learn about issues of social justice while serving the community. Laying off Barrett comes to many a sign that the CPS is taking teachers’ jobs and destroying their lives without so much as a glance at who it is that they’re laying off. After all, they need only look on the U.S. Department of Education website to see a profile of Xian Barrett, a talented teacher that the country claims to be proud of having.

Barrett believes that the CPS laying him off sends another message as well. He said in an interview:

[The administrators] are certainly not happy about union activity, but when I look at who has been laid off again and again in these types of situations, it seems like they target the allies for students even more aggressively than they target the union […]We live in a time where being cruel to public workers is acceptable in some ways, especially [those who are] people of color. But with students you’re not allowed to be quite as overt about it. So when young people go to board meetings and oppose them again and again, [the administrators] feel like they have to do something, they can’t just ignore it.

This brings us to the next category…

Students: Students have long been involved in the fight to save their own school communities, but only this week does it seem that they are starting to gain some real power in the movement. At a Board of Ed meeting held in Chicago on July 24th, students were allowed 2 minutes to voice their opinions about the school closings. This is, of course, time that the Board of Ed will never actually spend listening to the children, and allowing them to speak is simply an action taken in the name of placation. However, this is something that the students know, and they are not willing to just let it go. “One thing I don’t get about this board is that you only give us two minutes to speak and you give these corporate businesses, what, an hour to speak?” These were words spoken at the BOE meeting by 9 year-old Asean Johnson, a 3rd grader in Chicago who is quickly becoming the face of students in the Chicago school closings struggle. Asean started gaining recognition a few months ago, when he brought the crowd to its feet at a CTU rally. He is passionate, articulate, and–although the CPS doesn’t want to admit it–he knows what he’s talking about. I cannot emphasize enough how much I recommend watching these videos of him speaking his mind.

Some people are saying that the students are being used unfairly as political props. It’s a valid argument, and one that I have mixed feelings about. The truth is that children have always been used as pawns in politics. Rarely do they have any real power except as a symbol of cuteness and vulnerability that people can twist and manipulate to fit their arguments. It is true that some of the words that Johnson spoke at the BOE meeting were clearly not his own; words such as “nepotism” were very likely fed to him by the CTU. Having said all this, I still believe that students should continue to force their voices into the conversation. This is, after all, about their education, and they understand more than the CPS wants to admit. Furthermore, fighting for their schools is a sure way to spark a passion in public service and social justice, and I have no doubt that some of these kids may be inspired to continue the fight as adults.

Even though the CPS can dismiss children such as Asean as ignorant, there have been teenagers joining the fight who are clearly more informed, organized, and harder to ignore. The group Chicago Students Organized to Save Our Schools (CSOSOS) has really grown a lot in the past few months. They organized a protest outside the BOE meeting on July 24th that had a lot of participants. In addition, they organized a protest inside the meeting, ultimately linking arms and chanting before being physically escorted from the meeting by security shouting: “Whose schools?” to the response, “OUR SCHOOLS!”

Parents: There have been some strong parent voices that have become popular and well-known, particularly on Twitter and other social media. Some great charts and tweets were released this week by @foolforcps, including a list of the top 5 and bottom 5 schools receiving money from the CPS, of which the top 5 are charter schools. Chicago Public Fools also released a list of the top 9 expenses that CPS finds worthy, a piece called ‘Top 9 things CPS is spending money on like it’s not broke,’ written by a contributor called South Side CPS Mom. Overall, I’ve been impressed by the speed at which parents are spreading information online.

In addition, parents joined forces with lawyers last week to bring the school closures fight to federal court. Parents filed two lawsuits against the CPS: one claimed that school closures disproportionately affect African-American and minority students, while the second claimed that “welcoming schools” could not have time to properly prepare for incoming students with disabilities, and thus that the district is violating the Americans with Disabilities Act. The hearing went on for 4 days, with parents contributing testimony along with teachers and CPS officials. The lawsuit was filed on behalf of parents and supported by the CTU. The judge will announce a decision on the potential injunction in August.

Human Rights Activists: This is a new player in the fight, and one that I am particularly intrigued by. Human rights activists have sent the issue of school closures to the United Nations’ Office of the High Commissioner on Human Rights in Geneva, Switzerland. The letter of allegation is entitled “Letter of Allegation Regarding the Closing of 49 Public Elementary Schools in Chicago, Illinois, United States of America” and was sent on behalf of the Midwest Coalition for Human Rights. The issues covered in the allegation include the dangers posed to minority and disabled students that have been covered by the lawsuit. In addition, the letter of allegation also claims that the closures violate international human rights law concerning:

  • The right to equality and non-discrimination in education
  • The right to be free from violence and the right to life
  • The right to quality of education
  • The right and opportunity to take part in the conduct of public affairs
  • Justification of lack of financial resources

Whether the claim that CPS closures violate international human rights law has enough merit to make the CPS the center of a UN investigation–or even any merit at all–has yet to be seen. Regardless, I am very excited by the interest that human rights advocates have shown in the fight to save the Chicago public schools. All of the players listed above have made a tremendous effort to show that democratic and active citizenship is a spirit that is still alive in America, but the human rights advocates have made a point to highlight a deeper truth: we must remember that we are accountable to something greater than our own nation, greater than even our own democracy. CPS must be held accountable to the fundamental value that exists in educating and protecting children.

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Paul Vallas in Bridgeport, Democracy Gone Bad

Let’s talk about one Mr. Paul Vallas.

The New York Times published a story on July 21st called ‘Change Agent in Education Collects Critics in Connecticut Town.’ To be honest, I don’t know why this story wasn’t published weeks ago. Additionally, I find fault with the title of the story: firstly, Vallas is not a “change agent,” and secondly, Vallas is not collecting critics in Connecticut. Mr. Vallas now has vehemently upset critics all over the country, because this is not a story of a Connecticut school reformer gone bad. This is the story of American school reform gone bad.

I do believe that Vallas, like many, started off as a ‘good guy.’ I want to believe that he was simply someone who saw problems with the school system and wanted to help change that system. I want to believe that Vallas had good intentions. But it’s hard to believe that when it is quite apparent that Vallas has never once engaged in self-reflective behavior, an attitude that is becoming all too common among so-called school reformers.

The importance of self-reflection is something I find I cannot emphasize enough. Vallas first became CEO of the Chicago Public Schools in 1995. He was made CEO of the CPS by the first Mayor Daley, after Daley convinced Illinois to put the large urban school system under mayoral control. As Diane Ravitch puts it, “Paul Vallas was the first of non-educators to get the top job of reforming public education.” The position of CEO of the CPS is still seen as Vallas’ first major position as an education reformer, and according to him, a successful one. But this could not be further from the truth. If anything, Vallas focused on storytelling during his reign as CEO of the CPS, and conveniently neglected to investigate the data, all of which showed the falsity of his storytelling. He claimed that dropout rates had decreased by a whopping 50%, even though this was only possibly true when the definition of dropout from CPS was changed to leave out all students who left the public schools and eventually received training at night school. Not only is this egotistical and non-reflective self-evaluation, but a clear example of complete dismissal of data and logic.

After Chicago, Vallas went on to “reform” schools all over the country. By “reform,” I am, of course, referring to the self-serving act of traveling around the country posing for photographs with minority students while disregarding their needs in order to achieve political power and fame. From Chicago, Vallas went on to work in school districts in places such as New Orleans, Philadelphia, and even Haiti. Vallas became known for his work in urban school districts that were poverty-stricken and overwhelmingly minority. In reality, the policies he enacted had a largely negative impact on minority and lower-class students. Unfortunately, the truth received much less recognition than the artificial political legacy that Vallas was busy crafting for himself.

Substance News, a newspaper focused on news concerning public education, published a story called The Paul Vallas I Knew, a piece which outlined the outwardly racist attitude that Vallas encouraged with many of his education policies in Chicago. Substance News republished the piece last week, in a response to the current national outcry against Vallas. The decision to republish this piece should not be seen as a “we told you so” moment. Instead, it should serve as a reminder that it is our duty as members of our political system to read the news when it is available to us and express our outrage as soon as it is deserved, not 11 years later when the problem has gotten so out of control that millions of school communities have already been killed by the policies that have been in the works for over a decade.

The current controversy concerning Vallas, the controversy that has finally had enough traction to gain the attention of the American people, concerns the Bridgeport, CT school system. Vallas was made superintendent of the Bridgeport schools earlier this year, signing a 3-year contract with the Bridgeport school board in March. Carmen Lopez filed a lawsuit against him and the school board, claiming that Vallas never completed a state-mandated leadership program and was therefore not qualified or legally able to have the job. On June 28th, a Superior Court judge in Connecticut ruled that Lopez was correct, and ordered that Vallas be removed from his position as superintendent.

What I find incredible is that the city, the school board, and Vallas still do not comprehend the ruling (which they are, by the way, appealing). Instead of Vallas completing the mandated 13 months of training, Vallas received a waiver that allowed him to complete his certification in fewer than ten days. “There is no doubt,” the judge wrote in her decision, “that Vallas received preferential treatment.” How Vallas could argue otherwise is a mystery to me. Arne Duncan continues to play dumb along with him, saying that the whole situation is “beyond ludicrous.” Arne Duncan is claiming that it is “beyond ludicrous” that people with the fame and prestige of school reform politicians should have to follow the law. To be fair, there are others who continue to defend Vallas who may not be as power-hungry and egomaniacal as Duncan (for instance, see ‘In Defense of Paul Vallas‘).

It is my sincere (albeit dim) hope that the case of Vallas and Bridgeport may come to some good. This is an opportunity to change the way the American public sees “education reformers.” These people are not gods; they are power-mongering businessmen-turned-politicians who, in rare cases, are also convicted of using their power to betray the public and pursue illegal means to achieve power. But this is also an opportunity to rethink the way we see politics, the way we read our news and force our voices into the public sphere. Vallas famously called blogging “electronic graffiti,” but I say let this ruling against him offer encouragement to the bloggers, tweeters, and other 21st century citizens of this nation. Let’s raise our voices and make sure politicians know that we will not allow Vallas or anyone else to say their privilege puts them above the law. As I said at the beginning of this post, this is a story of American school reform gone bad. But even more so, I realize now, this is a story of democracy gone bad. The ruling against Vallas’ special privilege is a step in the right direction, it’s now up to the American public to continue the fight.

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TFA Dissent: The Implications of a Potential Civil War

The Free Minds, Free People education conference took place this past weekend in Chicago. One of the most talked about events of the conference was a summit held Sunday, organized by Teach for America alumni and other activists and community members in order to discuss their active opposition to TFA. The dissent within TFA has been rising for some time now, and since The American Prospect published a story about TFA’s internal feuding last week, people have begun to refer to the matter as a ‘TFA Civil War.’ It’s catchy, sure, and has a nice ring to it that may attract media and bolster people’s energy, but is it really a good idea to refer to internal TFA opposition as a civil war?

If this opposition truly is a civil war, then it is important to look at the platforms of both armies. TFA is a program that sends mostly recent college graduates into inner city schools to teach for two years. The TFA Institute is a 5-week program that is supposed to train these young people to teach and handle the difficulties that they will encounter in underprivileged school communities. The idea is to put fresh, young talent into underprivileged classrooms in order to help students learn and introduce teachers to the realities of the classroom.

Most opposition to TFA is based on the assertion that there is very little emphasis on the ‘to help students learn’ part of that sentence. Challengers of TFA claim that the TFA program is fundamentally flawed in this respect. Firstly, many people guffaw at the claim that a 5-week Institute can prepare inexperienced college graduates for how to teach children, and underprivileged ones at that. Secondly, the program is designed to force members to teach at these underprivileged schools for two years, after which they are exhausted and more than happy to find new jobs teaching in schools with more resources and less poverty. This causes instability in poverty-stricken schools, and more importantly, infuses the lives of children with even more instability than already exists. With teachers coming in and out of schools every two years, it is difficult to create a stable school community that can help stabilize students who have no stable environment outside of the school setting.

Until now, most of the opposition to TFA has been publicized through the use of sarcasm and bitter humor. The well-known humor newspaper The Onion recently published a point/counterpoint piece that was clearly aimed at programs like TFA; although it did not name anyone or any program in particular, it does reference the insufficiency of a “five-week training program,” a statement obviously directed at TFA. The point piece is entitled ‘My Year Volunteering As A Teacher Helped Educate A New Generation of Underprivileged Kids,’ which comes from the perspective of a fictional volunteer teacher who saccharinely and proudly asserts that after just one year, she was able to “connect with them and fully understand their backgrounds and help them become the leaders of tomorrow.” The counterpoint, entitled ‘Can We Please, Just Once, Have A Real Teacher?’ is written by a fictional fourth-grader who makes several compelling arguments, notably much more sincere and provocative than the teacher. He says:

Just once, it would be nice to walk into a classroom and see a teacher who has a real, honest-to-God degree in education and not a twenty-something English graduate trying to bolster a middling GPA and a sparse law school application. I don’t think it’s too much to ask for a qualified educator who has experience standing up in front of a classroom and isn’t desperately trying to prove to herself that she’s a good person.

This piece is now being joined by another phenomenon, @ChadForAmerica, a Twitter personality who publishes satirical tweets based on the inspiration that TFA claims to offer, such as his tweet:

Screen Shot 2013-07-16 at 12.28.34 PM

This tweet comes from a blog post written by Gary Rubinstein, ‘Hanging Chad,’ in which Rubinstein (who happens to be a TFA alumnus who questions the program’s effectiveness) writes that Chad’s tweets are examples of unacceptable behavior that TFA is encouraging in its trainees. To be fair, it seems questionable whether or not Rubinstein understands the satirical nature of @ChadForAmerica.

The fact that so much of the opposition to TFA up to this point has taken the form of satire is an interesting phenomenon. Sadly, it is frequently humor more than anything that gets people to focus their attention on the ridiculousness and simultaneous realness of current events (Tina Fey’s word-for-word imitation of Sarah Palin’s interview with Katie Couric, anyone?). Satire, however politicized and pointedly challenging, is not a sign of civil war. Satire takes place when people are in disbelief, unready to do the hard work required to establish change but, nevertheless, unwilling to let their voices go unheard. It is my belief that satire marks the approaching end of the calm before the storm.

The summit at the Free Minds, Free People conference is far from satire. This is arguably the first serious and wide-scale action that TFA opponents have organized. For those who believe the TFA is, in fact, having a civil war, then this summit may prove to be preparation for the first battle. If their plan is to make this a civil war within TFA, then alumni will prove to be a separate entity from TFA. They will need to distance themselves from the corps while still managing to use their experiences in TFA to advance their arguments.

But is distancing themselves from TFA the best method of effective action? Civil war requires this distance, but civil war does not allow open and potentially productive communication between the organization and its opposition. As we have seen so much this year, with students around the country deaffiiliating from Students for Education Reform, with grassroots ‘traditionalists’ increasingly differentiating themselves from corporate ‘reformers,’ more and more education activists are disassociating themselves from their large-scale, corporate counterparts, thereby destroying the opportunity to work with these organizations and try to affect change within them. I do recognize n many cases, it has proven impossible to change the organization from within, and the underdog has no option but to break free of its leash (I know this from my experience with the UChicago’s SFER deaffiliation).

So, the question remains: will TFA opponents follow suit and commence a full-fledged civil war? I don’t think they have yet, but they may soon. In doing so, they will either force TFA to change its ways or completely alienate themselves from the people with the power and wealth to change the status quo. At this point, I think it’s a 50-50 chance it would go either way. Before declaring full-on civil war, I would suggest that TFA opponents take a moment to consider a wise adage:

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.

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You Should Go Read Something by Edmund Morgan Instead of This Uninspired Blog Post

I’m not going to lie; today there is nothing too exciting to write about in the world of education and/or education politics.

Short overview of today’s education news:

  • There is going to be a new party called the Education First party entering the NYC mayoral race, but it doesn’t have a fighting chance in our bipartisan democracy, so really, who cares? Besides, the race will continue on as it is for another couple of months before zooming in on any actual policy platforms, and by then it may be too late to change many voters’ minds.
  • The Chicago teachers are continuing to spend their much-needed summer vacation protesting their bureaucratic government and fighting for their students, which is inspirational and equally depressing. I swear, they should be getting paid overtime for this.
  • Oregon is trying to make college more affordable by increasing flexible state-run loan programs, but it’s pretty doubtful that they can successfully do this, and even if they do, Oregon government is unique in its ability to manage its budget well, partially I think because they are so laid-back that they don’t have the willingness to fight about the stupid BS that most other state governments spend their time and money focusing on.

So, instead of talking about one of these mundane news stories that I sadly believe will have absolutely no impact on anything, I dedicate today’s post to Edmund Morgan, who died yesterday at age 97. Morgan was a great historian and author, respected by academia and taught to undergrads for decades. Morgan started as a professor in 1945 (shout-out to UChicago, although it’s pretty pathetic that they lost him to Brown after only one year). This was right after he’d earned his PhD at Harvard and had participated in World War II as a machinist who helped produce radiation technology. Instead of reading this very uninspired blog post, I highly recommend that everyone go out and read something written by Edmund Morgan.

Instead of continuing to bring gloom and depression into your day, I am going to go read a biography of Steve Jobs that I’ve had my eye on for a few days. Hopefully reading about him will inspire me to talk more about some of the greater successes of American education and innovation. Oh wait, Jobs was a horrible student throughout childhood and adolescence and then later dropped out of college…well, it’s worth a shot anyway.

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The Rubinstein-Barnum discussion and the language of ‘reform’

Today I’d like to take a look at the 6th and final installment of Gary Rubinstein’s discussion with Matt Barnum. For those who don’t know, Gary is an education ‘reform’ blogger (on a side-note, I highly recommend his post ‘Why I am sending my daughter to P.S. 163,’ both for those who know nothing about the NYC public schools admissions process and for those who know it all too well and care to read a piece by a fellow sufferer). Matt is also active in the education ‘reform’ dialogue; while Gary is a parent on the non-corporate side of the reform movement, Matt is in many ways a polar opposite, as someone who has been known to criticize leaders of the non-corporate reform movement.

The conversation between these two men, which some have begun referring to as the Rubinstein-Barnum discussion, is a rich dialogue that offers a rare glimpse into what it would be like if members of the two education reform movements actually talked to each other, not simply about each other. I highly recommend reading the entire conversation, which consists of six installments that were written and published on Gary’s blog from April to July. There is certainly a fair share of name-calling and accusatory language presented by both sides, but this is (unfortunately) not unusual in the conversation about national education policy. What is unusual, however, is the opportunity to hear figures from the two drastically opposed and polarized reform communities respond to each other directly, publicly and frankly. Additionally, the conversation has some really fascinating input from other well-known education critics in the comments section of the letters. It really makes you think: what would happen if the Michelle Rhees and Diane Ravitches of the world were to actually talk to each other?

Each installment of the Rubinstein-Barnum back-and-forth covers a variety of issues facing education ‘reformers.’ In this post, I will focus on the 6th installment (for a discussion of the issues covered by the 1st half of the conversation, I recommend ‘What the Gary Rubinstein and Matt Barnum dialogue is really about’). This final installment of the conversation begins with a letter from Gary to Matt, and Matt’s response letter, followed by a series of substantive comments by them and others. Instead of going through each letter piece by piece, I’d like to talk about an extremely important theme of the letters and comments: “reform.”

As you’ve noticed, I’ve sometimes felt compelled to put the terms “reform,” “reformers,” etc. in quotes. This is because one of the biggest issues facing the education reform community is the word ‘reform’ itself. In the first letter of the 6th installment, Matt refers to the education debate as existing between ‘reformers’ and ‘traditionalists,’ where the term ‘reformers’ refers to the corporate, large-scale reformers (Matt names figures such as Michelle Rhee, Arne Duncan, Joel Klein, and Jeb Bush) and the term ‘traditionalists’ refers to the anti-corporation, grassroots supporters of education (Gary names figures such as Diane Ravitch, Anthony Cody, Jersey Jazzman, EduSchyster, Katie Osgood, and, of course, himself). Matt argues that the ‘traditionalists’ are much more known for negative campaigning than the ‘reformers,’ claiming that the leaders of the reform movement, unlike those of the traditionalist movement, do not attack individuals on a personal level. To this Gary responds that ‘reformers’ are only able to avoid calling out individuals because of their position of power (and, I think in many cases, authority). He says that while the corporate reformers have access to all the power and money, the so-called ‘traditionalists’ have only their words. They have a long, uphill battle to pull themselves up to the dialogue into which the ‘reformers’ are thrust purely by their possession of power and wealth.

My reaction to this aspect of the conversation is mixed. One commenter critiques Matt’s usage of ‘traditionalist,’ but another commenter responds by saying that this is common terminology and that Matt should not be too harshly criticized for trying to use a well-known term to clarify differentiation. I would agree with the second commenter that the term should not be too harshly critiqued, especially since Matt did not randomly generate it on his own. But more importantly, I strongly believe that the entire battle of education reform terminology is one which should be thrown out of the education war as soon as possible. Yes, this is naive by many standards, but I stand by it nonetheless. While I believe that language is extremely important and valuable to the progression of any social change, I believe that it is more important that words remain a free commodity. We cannot allow corporate reformers to use their power and wealth as a currency with which to buy singular rights to the word ‘reform.’ If we allow this to go on, it is not long before they also take up the word ‘education’ as their own property.

To further my point, though to do so perhaps a bit nerdily, I refer to Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morality, in which Nietzsche offers an historical explanation for the development of the priestly class. Nietzsche’s theory essentially states that the language of “goodness” can be traced back to the original nobility who, by simply possessing the wealth and power of society, were able to define their own characteristics as the first values of society. The lower classes, upset by their inability to attain the power and wealth that the nobility claimed was virtuous, decided to create a new system of valuation by which the original good was “evil” and their own qualities would be known as the new, truer “good.” Hence the development of religion in which the poor, hungry, powerless believers will be rewarded in heaven, and the greedy are punished in hell.

In relating this to the education debate, the corporate reformers are the original nobility while the so-called ‘traditionalists’ are the original lower classes. By claiming that their own educational values and methods are ‘reform,’ the ‘reformers’ have taken possession of the term ‘reform,’ which really just means change. They have defined corporate-reform as the original ‘reform,’ even as the original “good” in the education reform movement. The grassroots reformers, lacking the power and wealth required to advertise possession of ‘reform’ terminology, have been forced to form their own sort of priestly class (in fact, to further substantiate this analogy, Matt claims that non-corporate reformers have “demonized” corporate reformers, and Gary goes so far as to call Diane Ravitch a “saint,” but I digress) in which ‘reform’ is “evil” and the new “good” is defined by the qualities and values of the poorer, non-corporate reformers. As of now, there is not a word that the “priestly class” of the education debate has claimed as their own “good.” Matt and Gary refer to them as ‘traditionalists,’ the Network for Public Education has been known to call themselves advocates of the “genuine reform movement,” and countless other terms have been tossed around. No figure or group has yet achieved the power to buy a term such as the corporate reformers have bought the term ‘reform.’ They may do so yet, though probably not soon.

Providing a linguistic differentiation between the two sides of the education debate clarifies their differences and may allow the public to engage more easily with the education dialogue. However, at what cost? My fear is that we are too easily distracted by the struggle to define and redefine “reform” that we forget the first word of the phrase: education. The fact is that neither group has tried to take ownership of the word “education” yet, and I can only hope that it stays that way. The only reason that the Rubinstein-Barnum discussion was able to take place is because the two men still share at least some vocabulary. In order to have more open dialogues like this one (and I strongly believe that we must have more open dialogues like this one) we must remember the importance of language as a method of political communication, not as a political commodity. In the end of the installment, Gary says that he hopes Matt may be “a leader in a new brand of ‘reformers’ who are a bit more thoughtful and self-reflective.” In saying that Matt may belong to yet another “brand” of ‘reformer,’ Gary points to what has become one of the most overwhelming problems of the education debate, namely, the language of reform.

The fact that Gary and Matt were able to act civilly enough towards one another to publish a series of letters to one another over the course of months shows a level of civility that has become too rare in the education debate. But the fact that so much of the discussion focuses on who is and is not a ‘reformer’ and who “demonized” whom only emphasizes the fact that we have much to do before we can have a conversation about education policy that is both civil and focused on substance. If anything, the Rubinstein-Barnum discussion should point to how tangled and practically incomprehensible the language of the education conversation has become. In all this talk about ‘reform’ and how to define, redefine, claim and reclaim the terminology of reform, we come closer and closer to forgetting altogether what we were trying to reform in the first place.


*CORRECTION: An earlier version of this piece stated that Matt Barnum is a researcher for McGraw-Hill. This is in fact not the case, and Barnum has never been affiliated with McGraw-Hill.

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The Sociology of Summer Learning

It’s the first day of July, what feels to me like the ‘real’ beginning of summer. But education doesn’t suddenly stop mattering in the summertime. Teachers are being trained, budgets and curricula are being fought over, and last but certainly not least: summer school is in session.

An article printed in the New York Times today discusses new efforts to redefine summer school. Summer school may be on its way from being known as just a place where failing students go to play catch up. In school districts around the country, more voluntary summer school spots are being offered. These spots are aimed at less affluent students in particular, as these are the students who most often lack the resources or opportunities to stay active and intellectually engaged during the summer vacation. For these students, summer schools are aiming to make learning more appealing and creative in the hopes that this will help close the socioeconomic gap in the classroom come autumn.

The article cites a study produced by Rand in which the authors focus their attention on four research questions:

1) What is the nature of summer learning loss?

2) Are summer learning programs effective in improving student achievement? What are the elements of effective summer programs?

3) How much do summer learning programs cost?

4) What are the facilitators and challenges to implementing summer programs?

From the very first question presented in the study, it is clear that this is more an issue of socioeconomic differences than anything else. Yes, there is certainly a “learning loss” that the long summer months allow to occur. However, I imagine that summer learning loss affects students of different socioeconomic classes very differently. Students who have access to stimulating programs and resources over the summer are sure to be less affected by summer learning loss than students who do not. Simple activities–going to the library,  reading, or playing educational games with a parent at home–can help prevent summer learning loss. By being less structured, such activities may even foster love and appreciation for learning more than the school year for many students.

But the students who most frequently do these activities are students whose parents can afford time off from work during the summer, who can afford to spend time reading with their children and encouraging them to further their education creatively. In fact, the Rand study concludes that “summer learning loss disproportionally affects low-income students” (17). Furthermore, the study finds that the summer learning loss is cumulative, meaning that it contributes significantly to the achievement gap widening over time.

One piece of data in the study that I find particularly interesting claims that while low-income students lose “substantial ground” in reading during the summer, higher-income students frequently gain reading skills over the summer (17). The emphasis here is placed on how much the lower-income students lose, but wouldn’t it be just as appropriate to determine why and how much higher-income students gain?

My belief is that higher-income students are afforded opportunities for more creative and real-world-based learning than during the school year. They have the resources to read books, visit museums, and become intellectually stimulated in a more real-world manner than during the school year. This teaches vocabulary, language, and history in the summer, but more importantly, it fosters a love of learning in the long-run. By looking at exactly what higher-income students learn the most from during the summer, we could change school-year curricula to emphasize the creativity that summer learning offers and encourage lower-income students to learn the type of real-world intellectual stimulation that their higher-income peers learn to appreciate during summer vacation.

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