Sunday, August 10, 2014

Is this The Hunger Games? – a response to Neoliberal Wind-Up-Toy Reform in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

This month, the School District greeted us with its latest glossy initiative for school transformation – The School Redesign Initiative.  On the surface, it sounds well-enough-intentioned: have teams of educators and community partners apply to take over and redesign a school.  Oh yeah, and do it under the same budget restrictions that are devastating teaching and learning in our District.  You know, that Doomsday/Empty Shell budget that’s turning far too many of our schools into unstable, dysfunctional places where kids by and large are not having their social, emotional or academic needs fully met.

I haven’t read all of the very fine print, but I’ve understood enough to see this for what it is:

A distraction, at best.
And, at worst, a shift-the-blame game that gives the hatchet over to its employees.

Now, if you’ve ever met me, worked with me, or had a conversation with me about my teaching practice, you know that I am constantly trying to innovate and redesign my curriculum, my classroom community cultivation, and my personal energy/spirit/approach to the massive job that is teaching young people and helping them develop into their most actualized selves.  

And you would know that in every single school I’ve worked in (and I’ve worked in quite a few, I promise you), I’ve never been shy about providing suggestions and working with colleagues around internal school improvement.

So, why would I not see this as an opportunity to get in on some school transformation action?

Well, to give a little context, let’s just look at 2 examples from recent Philly history. 

1)   The Rise and Fall of Community-Student-Educator-led School Transformation at West Philadelphia HS.  It’s been written about here and here, among other places.  If you’re not familiar, you just need to know that a serious, principled, community-centered process for transforming the curriculum and culture at a neighborhood high school was essentially destroyed by the School District and its reform policies. 
2)   Teacher leaders in Philadelphia put together a proposal to incubate teacher-led school transformation in Philly public schools, in order to support groups of educators and community members in identifying and putting in action school-centered innovations (sound familiar?).  They presented it to officials from the School District, City Council, and, gasp, even Philadelphia School Partnership, but were not given support on the idea. 
I could write about school teams who were under attack for closure and quickly put together school redesign plans, just to be closed.  I could remind us of schools on closure lists where school staff put together redesign plans and were spared from the chopping block, only to endure massive staff cuts and find themselves unable to put their plans into place. 

So, even with only a cursory look back at the last decade in the SDP, it is not an overstatement to say that the District bringing this initiative to the table now, when the majority of public education stakeholders is focused on finding a taxation solution to our unsustainable annual budget crisis, is something to be highly skeptical, if not suspicious of.  The Caucus of Working Educators does a great job spelling out some of the specific questions that arise from the skeleton of this plan here.

What I’m stuck on is the neoliberal feel of this initiative, and other plans like it.  It smacks of the very kind of individualistic, everyone-for-themselves, get-at-the-spoils-before-someone-else-does mindset that plagues so much of what the corporate reform project offers up to those of us who want to innovate how we do teaching and learning in our schools.  Because it is framed around scarcity (only a few winners!) at a time of great crisis (thousands more staffing layoffs? shortened school year? not opening schools on time?), I think that it preys upon people’s anxiety about the future of our schools, city and public education.  In doing so, it heightens an attitude of cut-throatedness that runs completely counter to the actual collaborative spirit that educators need in order to teach well, let alone to work with parents and community members as partners in redirecting our focus back toward equity and democracy in our schools. 

In many ways, the logic of this type of reform is not dissimilar from other wings of schools-as-business reform strategies -- like evaluating teachers primarily through test scores (why help Ms. Stewart next door when our kids’ test outcomes are now in competition with each other?), shuttering and/or turning “failing” schools over to outside charters (we have to show our school is better than XYZ Elementary down the block, so they take their school, not ours), and eliminating tenure (if I throw Mr. Matthews under the bus to please my principal, then he’ll get removed instead of me!). 

It feels like the Hunger Games of education.
May the odds be ever in my favor.  Not yours. 

But that doesn’t work.
Not in a classroom, where we require the input and insight from all of our colleagues to make sure we’re meeting our students’ full needs.
Not in a District, where we must stand together to show that we can’t withstand any more cuts.
And not in a city, where we are going to have to put our collective energy into wrestling back control over our schools and forcing our so-called leaders to deliver the resources our schools and our children need and deserve.  Or vote them out. 

So, if this is the Hunger Games, then I am heartened by one of the final moments in the second book/film, Catching Fire.

Katniss, the protagonist, is in the middle of the battlefield, feeling massively under attack, scared, and confused about her allegiances, strategy, and vision. 

She sees another contender, Finnick, and is about to shoot him.  He looks at her and says, “Katniss! Remember who the real enemy is.” 

And she looks at him, startled back into seeing the big picture, and fires her arrow up into the dome, into the Capitol’s wiring, blowing up the Power Structure itself. 

It’s well time that we, in Philadelphia, remember who the real enemy is, so we don’t allow ourselves to succumb to accepting this unconscionable funding picture, and then fight like dogs over the crumbs.  We need to see the bigger picture for what it is – a political house of cards being built over deals and extortion, sabotaging the city of Philadelphia, our School District, and me, as a working educator, from meeting our shared responsibility for teaching our young in safe, stable, supportive, and, if I may go so far as to say, joyful schools.

If we want to move forward on real transformation of our schools, that's the real target we need to aim our collective arrow at.  


  1. This may be one of the most important discussion re the latest the School District of Philadelphia.

    Truly excellent education is built on sharing resources and solutions. Just like Duncan's "Race to the Top" this latest idea will bring nothing but disappointment and frustration.

  2. Excellent article, wonderful analysis.