Sunday, August 17, 2008

Back to School

There's a big article in the NYT Magazine today about education reform in New Orleans. I'm a sucker for press on education; I used to pounce on the biannual Education Life section even before I found myself inexplicably working in the public schools. So after a quick perusal of the Olympics coverage (I'm addicted; hell, we're all addicted), the first thing I did was curl up with the Magazine and a cup of tea.

Education reform: ugh. Education is one of those behemoth issues, like health insurance or criminal justice, where everybody knows the goal but no one can decide how to get there. Education reform reminds me quite forcefully of that Monty Python sketch in which philosophers play soccer. Everyone takes the field, but once there, each person pursues his own agenda: Aristotle staggers around the goal area, Nietzsche argues with the ref, Archimedes kicks the ball, Hegel disputes the results. When the ball goes in, it's almost an accident.

The interesting thing about New Orleans is that, rather than try to unify their philosophers under the auspices of team leadership, Paul Pastorek, the state Education Superintendent, has decided it's every man for himself. Pastorek wants to transform the host of competing methods and agendas from a liability into an asset: under his model, most of the public schools will in fact be charter schools. The "command and control" top-down model will be transformed into a "portfolio" model in which the role of the central authority will be to manage the portfolio by supporting successful schools and weeding out failing ones.

A nice idea. But the signal strength of charter schools is one that cannot possibly be replicated on a district level: charter schools can control their composition by admitting only students -and parents- who agree to their terms (covenants, contracts, uniforms) and by dismissing students who fail to live up to their agreements. Public schools, by their very definition, must take everyone.

As it happens, I work in a scool district similar in demographic composition to the New Orleans schools. That is to say, made up almost entirely of poor minority children facing a host of non-school-related challenges. I know I am supposed to maintain faith in the power of education to effect positive change (trickier when the Superintendent insists via powerpoint that we will "affect positive change") but it's hard to keep the flame alive. I meet for 30 minutes a week with kids who face nearly insurmountable obstacles to learning (family issues, neighborhood issues, health issues, disabilities). I am overworked and underpaid; I often feel that I am little more than legal protection, a way for the district to cover its ass. Furthermore, I am unwilling to do as so many educators do and devote countless hours of unpaid work to the job. Though I feel guilty about it, I limit my idealism to the hours specified by my contract. Given all this, what hope is there?

Pastorek says: "So,now, can I solve all those problems tomorrow afternoon? Can I even get the attention of the people who have control over those thing? Right now, in New Orleans, after Katrina, the answer is no, I can't. But I can't take the position that I can't succeed unless I have those things. I have to take the position that we're going to do it in spite of that. Now, will it be hard? Will I be less successful? Probably, yes. But I have to take that approach, because I don't have really any other cards to play."

Time to put mine on the table.

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