Wednesday, September 30, 2009

From Behind the Fence

“Nothing About Us Without Us” shouted the students, parents, teachers, and community members outside McDaniel Elementary School yesterday as Arne Duncan’s Listening and Learning Tour launched its press-only conference behind closed doors. This event, and the government PR team who staged the whole thing, has shown itself to be a slick show – a spectacle of democracy and good intentions that slapped together a 3-ring circus of politicians (Education Secretary Arne Duncan, Newt Gingrich, and Rev Al Sharpton), complete with eye candy (actress LisaRaye McCoy) and the appearance of the local (SDP Superintendent Arlene Ackerman).

The tour Listened and Learned at Mastery Charter School yesterday morning, had an invite-only roundtable with city councilors and limited members of the District, and concluded at McDaniel Elementary eerily inside a classroom without any students or teachers. Strange to not go to a neighborhood high school, maybe one that is slated for “turnaround” as a Renaissance School under the Imagine 2014 plan. Strange to not check out a “consistently underperforming school” that would qualify for Duncan’s Race to the Top funds, which, it should be said, require that at least some of the schools that are “turned around” must have an outside provider come in and take over the running of the school.

“Who are you listening to?” several people asked from behind a heavy wrought-iron fence where we, the uninvited students, teachers, parents, community members, were forced to stand. In this question sits the crux of the issue: If they’re not listening and learning from those most affected by their policy decisions, then how will they ever know what needs to be done?

Inside, videotape shows, the rhetoric was what you would expect. Newt Gingrich gave his interpretation of the Constitution, which showed how god would want us to improve our schools. Al Sharpton talked about how the kids really deserve something good. And Arne Duncan talked about how we’re moving into the future, yadda yadda yadda, we have to transform things, blah blah blah, we have to take what works and replicate it all over.

Vague. Drifting. Something we could all find our own take on, but without any sense of how they really want to shape the next decades of public schooling in the U.S.

Consequently, where did these ideas – that they’re not telling us – get developed? Through a close partnership with business interests, owners of Education and/or Charter Management Organizations (EMOs and CMOs), stockholders in the testing industry who would make huge profits off of standardize testing our nation’s kids to death? Or through talking with students who know what they need to feel like full human beings and engaged learners in their schools; parents who have lived in the neighborhood for decades, who may have even gone to the very school where their child now doesn’t get the education she deserves, who recognize the school as the invaluable community institution it is; or teachers who are daily forced by the system of U.S. schooling to compromise their own professional competence and to lose the personal fire that brought them into education to begin with?

We know what’s happening in our schools. We live it everyday. And we hold the wisdom and the ideas to best determine the reform that needs to happen.

From behind the wrought-iron fence, it is clear who they are not listening to. So, it’s all of our responsibilities to force them to listen. The next months are critical, and all eyes will be on Philly. We’re going to have to keep building a movement from our side of this fence, and hopefully it will be enough to knock it down, cross this gaping divide, and have our power speak back to theirs. So, to students, teachers, parents, community members, and anyone else concerned about the dismantling of public education: Make them listen.