Communities Fighting to Put Their Interests First
by UCLA IDEA
Week of Feb. 4-8, 2013
In the last few years, school “turnaround” reforms have, by definition, promised rapid improvement of opportunities for students who attend low-performing schools. Favored in many ways by the Obama administration, turnarounds have coalesced around four options: converting a school to a charter, removing the principal, replacing teachers, or shutting down the schools. But now, in Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and many more cities, parents, students, teachers, religious leaders, and local politicians are rallying to resist some turnaround models. The particular reasons and conditions vary, but the broad concerns are similar.
“Our concern is that these reforms have further destabilized our communities,” said Jitu Brown, a Chicago organizer who took a coalition’s complaints to Secretary of Education Arne Duncan (Los Angeles Daily News, Education Week). Instead of considering community input and investing in resources to improve learning, teaching, and conditions, “the response of the school district is to throw a grenade into our schools.”
The Journey for Justice forum brought together representatives from 18 cities—each fighting school closures and other turnaround models—to discuss with Education Department officials the civil rights impacts of these measures and call for a new model of transforming schools that includes community input (Education Week).
Often, these community activists are criticized for not being interested in reform, and they are accused of defending the status quo. For example, while promoting her memoir on The Daily Show, Michelle Rhee said she was surprised by the community reception to some of her changes as Washington, D.C.’s chancellor (i.e., closing low-performing schools, firing teachers). “I was a little shocked when people started saying, ‘She’s a lightning rod; she’s a radical.’ … If bringing common sense to a dysfunctional system makes me a radical, I’m OK being a radical and I think everyone should be one,” Rhee said (Washington Post).
It’s unfortunate to characterize community activists and organizers as intransigent defenders of business-as-usual. And it’s a remarkable reversal of rhetoric for elite, or at least powerful, individuals to suggest that genuine community reformers are members of an entrenched bureaucracy. In fact, these community people—parents, students, teachers—are most closely affected by “failing” schools, most knowledgeable about the problems and challenges, and most vocal about the need to improve conditions. Furthermore, they can best foresee the negative consequences to many communities, to their supposedly “turned-around” schools, and to neighboring schools and communities that are inadvertently affected by the schools that are targeted for change.
Schools must address their serious, vital challenges, like persistently low test scores, unsafe campuses, unqualified or incompetent teachers or administrators, and more. However, closures, conversions, or staff turnover can sever important relationships, disrupt learning and community ties, and end promising reforms that have not had sufficient time to take effect without making meaningful improvements—over time—for the affected students.
There is little trustworthy evidence for school turnarounds generally, let alone evidence of long-term benefits for turnarounds that are imposed upon reluctant communities and on schools that are striving to improve. There is, on the other hand, substantial research support for all sorts of interventions and resources that can bolster student learning and development, including teacher and administrator development, more counselors, longer school days and years, wrap-around mental and health services, and much more.
“Teachers are like [students’] surrogate parents,” said Christina Lewis, a teacher at Los Angeles’ Crenshaw High School, which will be transformed into three magnet schools starting next year. “I’m so afraid that teachers who have put their hearts and souls into their jobs won’t return next year. We just need stability and resources.” (Los Angeles Daily News, Our Weekly).