First Person

Voices: Reformers vs. innovators

Author Angela Engel offers a way of understanding the two dominant perspectives in the debate over how to improve the nation’s public schools.

Improving education is dependent on understanding that the current attempt at school reform is not innovation.

Reformers tend to accept the traditional methodologies and underlying assumptions of education. They commonly assume that what can be measured has the most value. The leaders include George W. Bush Jr. and No Child Left Behind; Harold McGraw III, CEO of McGraw Hill, publishers of 26 state standardized tests, Michelle Rhee, CEO of Students First, Wendy Kopp, CEO of Teach for America and Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education with the Race to the Top initiative.

Students work together on math skills in Patrick McDonald's first-grade class at Polaris.
First grade class at Polaris at Ebert. <em>EdNews</em> file photo

The fixation on measurement, tracking, sorting and reporting is understood as a function of management and efficiency. Their means are dependent on factors of competition and comparison that have very little to do with learning and children. The best way to distinguish a reformer from an innovator is whether the solution is tied to a price tag, product, sales or service. In my opinion, reformers advocate for online for-profit schools, external school management companies, virtual learning,  consultants, data systems, high-stakes testing, national curriculum (Common Core) standards, and product lines that fall somewhere in the alignment equation.

I believe that innovators, on the other hand, tend to question the purposes and underlying assumptions of education that drive the current system.

They seek answers to promoting all levels of diversity including diversity of ideas. They work to address the inequities and create equality in opportunity; they champion educator autonomy, student empowerment, and parent engagement; they promote learner-driven education. The long history of innovation includes those well-known leaders such as Rudolf Steiner, founder of Waldorf Education, Maria Montessori, founder of Montessori Schools; Lyndon B. Johnson led the War on Poverty and the original Elementary Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965; Sir Ken Robinson, author and lecturer on creativity and innovation; Deborah Meier, who is known for her leadership in democratically run public urban schools, Howard Gardner, for his theory of multiple intelligences, and Daniel Goleman and his work on emotional intelligence .

Innovators view education not as a function of management and efficiency but as a function of culture and experience. Innovators share the philosophy that the public education system should emphasize not “what to think,” but instead nurture the innate human quality of “how we think.” Innovators respect human individuality and the differences in the way we learn and express life and learning. They define human success in terms of curiosity, creativity, initiative, collaboration and social contribution. They direct their attention to building trusting relationships, enriching experiences, shrinking inequalities, growing opportunity, personalizing practices, improving conditions, expanding resources, nurturing inspiration, prevention and intervention, factors often beyond the measurable, yet essential to learning and children.

The difference between reform and innovation

The back-to-school night at the Washington Park Early Learning Center best illustrates the difference between reform and innovation. Teacher Christina DeVarona broke parents into two groups for a pumpkin-creating activity. Group one was given prescribed instructions with common outcomes. The outline of the pumpkin was drawn and the shapes already cut. Group two was directed to a table with a variety of materials – construction paper, beads, paints, feathers, glitter, ribbons, etc.

At the end of the exercise, the pumpkins were lined up on the front wall. As she pointed to the elaborate and original pumpkins from group two, she emphasized how unique we are as individuals and how human capacity is unlimited.  She looked at the first group’s  pumpkins and pointed out the obvious – they had duplicated her pumpkin.

The parents of the preschool children learned more in that one pumpkin exercise than education reformers have learned in three decades of failed mandates – children and human beings cannot be mechanized, industrialized and standardized.

I believe that poor and minority students have been hurt most by school reform. Since the passage of No Child Left Behind, poverty in the U.S. has increased by 9 percent, according to Census figures. In the decade following the War on Poverty and the Original 1965 Elementary and Secondary Education Act poverty dropped by 6 percent.  The achievement gap between rich and poor has widened; college tuition rates have doubled, the need for remediation has grown dramatically; and many schools that have closed have been in low-income communities.

In the words of writer Jonathan Kozol, the prevailing reform paradigm has led to racial isolation and a narrowing of civic virtue. The majority of today’s high school graduates know learning in terms of what can be measured on a standardized test. Their experience of achievement is realized only in their comparisons with others and only in the context of prescribed academics. These young students are denied the opportunity to think critically, create solutions to the most challenging problems and build something worthwhile. Their education is being hijacked for purposes besides their own. Attempts from reformers to maintain and sustain power and control through all means necessary have dehumanized classrooms, fractured communities, trivialized the American education system, and corporatized the public trust.

We have two choices

In the most distilled sense, innovators stand for freedom – freedom of thought, feelings, faith, speech and freedom from fear, oppression, discrimination and exploitation. Innovators recognize that freedom is inextricably tied to equity. In Finland, where there are no private schools or colleges, the main driver of education policy has reflected the commitment to equity. Since 1980 when the Finnish addressed social inequity through their education system, Finland has emerged as a premier model in education.

Data-centered, profit-motivated reforms have done extreme damage to American education leaving traditional industrial school models near collapse. What has resulted is an opening for innovators to create learning communities truly reflective of a democratic society and invigorating examples of possibility.

Ultimately it is our money and these are our children and the future of education is still to be decided. We can continue with the current reforms of standardization and high-stakes testing, leaving students’ malleable and complacent enough to conform to the world around them. Or, we can revolutionize the education system; inviting students to question the systems and assert their rights as learners and future citizens in order to create a world we have yet to see.

First Person

I’ve been mistaken for the other black male leader at my charter network. Let’s talk about it.

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I was recently invited to a reunion for folks who had worked at the New York City Department of Education under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. It was a privilege for me to have been part of that work, and it was a privilege for me to be in that room reflecting on our legacy.

The counterweight is that only four people in the room were black males. Two were waiters, and I was one of the remaining two. There were definitely more than two black men who were part of the work that took place in New York City during that era, but it was still striking how few were present.

The event pushed me to reflect again on the jarring impact of the power dynamics that determine who gets to make decisions in so-called education reform. The privileged end up being relatively few, and even fewer look like the kids we serve.

I’m now the chief operating officer at YES Prep, a charter school network in Houston. When I arrived at YES four years ago, I had been warned that it was a good old boys club. Specifically, that it was a good old white boys club. It was something I assessed in taking the role: Would my voice be heard? Would I truly have a seat at the table? Would I have any influence?

As a man born into this world with a black father and white mother, I struggled at an early age with questions about identity and have been asking those questions ever since.

As I became an adult, I came to understand that being from the suburbs, going to good schools, and being a lighter-skinned black person affords me greater access to many settings in America. At the same time, I experience my life as a black man.

Jeremy Beard, head of schools at YES, started the same day I did. It was the first time YES had black men at the leadership table of the organization. The running joke was that people kept mistaking Jeremy and me for each other. We all laughed about it, but it revealed some deeper issues that had pervaded YES for some time.

“Remember when you led that tour in the Rio Grande Valley to see schools?” a board member asked me about three months into my tenure.“That wasn’t me,” I replied. I knew he meant Jeremy, who had worked at IDEA in the Valley. At that time, I had never been to the Valley and didn’t even know where it was on the map.

“Yes, it was,” he insisted.

“I’ve never been to the Valley. It wasn’t me. I think you mean Jeremy.”

“No, it was you, don’t you remember?” he continued, pleading with me to recall something that never happened.

“It wasn’t me.”

He stopped, thought about it, confused, and uttered, “Huh.”

It is difficult for me to assign intent here, and this dynamic is not consistent with all board members. That particular person may have truly been confused about my identity. And sure, two black men may have a similar skin tone, and we may both work at YES. But my life experience suggests something else was at play. It reminds me that while I have the privilege of sitting at the table with our board, they, as board members, have the privilege of not having to know who I am, or that Jeremy and I are different black dudes.

It would be easy to just chalk this all up to racial politics in America and accept it as status quo, but I believe we can change the conversation on privilege and race by having more conversations on privilege and race. We can change the dynamics of the game by continuing to build awareness of diversity, equity, and inclusion. We can also advocate to change who has seats at the table and whose voices will be heard.

I remain hopeful thanks to the changes I have witnessed during my time at YES. The board has been intentional in their efforts to address their own privilege, and is actively working to become more diverse and inclusive.

Personally, I have worked to ensure there are more people of color with seats at the table by mentoring future leaders of color at YES Prep and other black men in this work. Jeremy and I also created Brothers on Books, a book club for black men at YES to find mentorship and fellowship. Through this book club, we can create a safe space to have candid discussions based on literature we read and explore what it means to be black men at YES.

When I think about privilege, I am torn between the privilege that has been afforded to me and the jarring power dynamics that determine who gets to have conversations and make decisions in so-called education reform. White people are afforded more voices and seats at the table, making decisions that primarily impact children of color.

It is not lost on me that it is my own privilege that affords me access to a seat at the table. My hope is that by using my role, my voice and my privilege, I can open up dialogue, hearts, minds, opinions, and perceptions. I hope that readers are similarly encouraged to assess their own privileges and determine how they can create positive change.

Recy Benjamin Dunn is YES Prep’s chief operating officer, overseeing operations, district partnerships, and growth strategy for the charter school network. A version of this piece was first published on YES Prep’s blog.

First Person

I’m a Bronx teacher, and I see up close what we all lose when undocumented students live with uncertainty

The author at her school.

It was our high school’s first graduation ceremony. Students were laughing as they lined up in front of the auditorium, their families cheering them on as they entered. We were there to celebrate their accomplishments and their futures.

Next to each student’s name on the back of those 2013 graduation programs was the college the student planned to attend in the fall. Two names, however, had noticeable blanks next to them.

But I was especially proud of these two students, whom I’ll call Sofia and Isabella. These young women started high school as English learners and were diagnosed with learning disabilities. Despite these obstacles, I have never seen two students work so hard.

By the time they graduated, they had two of the highest grade point averages in their class. It would have made sense for them to be college-bound. But neither would go to college. Because of their undocumented status, they did not qualify for financial aid, and, without aid, they could not afford it.

During this year’s State of the Union, I listened to President Trump’s nativist rhetoric and I thought of my students and the thousands of others in New York City who are undocumented. President Trump falsely portrayed them as gang members and killers. The truth is, they came to this country before they even understood politics and borders. They grew up in the U.S. They worked hard in school. In this case, they graduated with honors. They want to be doctors and teachers. Why won’t we let them?

Instead, as Trump works to repeal President Obama’s broader efforts to enfranchise these young people, their futures are plagued by uncertainty and fear. A Supreme Court move just last week means that young people enrolled in the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program remain protected but in limbo.

While Trump and the Congress continue to struggle to find compromise on immigration, we have a unique opportunity here in New York State to help Dreamers. Recently, the Governor Cuomo proposed and the state Assembly passed New York’s DREAM Act, which would allow Sofia, Isabella, and their undocumented peers to access financial aid and pursue higher education on equal footing with their documented peers. Republicans in the New York State Senate, however, have refused to take up this bill, arguing that New York state has to prioritize the needs of American-born middle-class families.

This argument baffles me. In high school, Sofia worked hard to excel in math and science in order to become a radiologist. Isabella was so passionate about becoming a special education teacher that she spent her free periods volunteering with students with severe disabilities at the school co-located in our building.

These young people are Americans. True, they may not have been born here, but they have grown up here and seek to build their futures here. They are integral members of our communities.

By not passing the DREAM Act, it feels like lawmakers have decided that some of the young people that graduate from my school do not deserve the opportunity to achieve their dreams. I applaud the governor’s leadership, in partnership with the New York Assembly, to support Dreamers like Sofia and Isabella and I urge Senate Republicans to reconsider their opposition to the bill.

Today, Sofia and Isabella have been forced to find low-wage jobs, and our community and our state are the poorer for it.

Ilona Nanay is a 10th grade global history teacher and wellness coordinator at Mott Hall V in the Bronx. She is also a member of Educators for Excellence – New York.