Peter Schrag has a piece on the California Progress Report on School Reform: Why it’s so hard? http://www.californiaprogressreport.com/... I have read Schrag for over 30 years. I once used an early book by him in a class I taught to future teachers. I usually agree with him- but this time I disagree. Here is my response. It is from the summary of Chapter 13 Democratic School Reform: How do we get from Here to There ? of my book, Choosing Democracy: a practical guide to multicultural education. ( 2010).
This is time for a change for our society and in our schools. This generation must renew our democratic society. As described in my book Choosing Democracy, we face marked crises in government, politics, families, communities and in the schools. Public schools have a particular responsibility to reverse these crises and to renew our democratic society. The first mission of pubic schooling is to equip all students for the responsibilities and privileges of citizenship – and many of the schools in low income areas are presently not fulfilling this mission. If we do not solve the problems of low performing schools our democracy suffers. For our democracy to survive we need to create schools that value all of our children and encourages each of their educational achievement.
All children need a good education to participate in our democracy and prepare for life in the rapidly changing economy. Making schooling valuable and useful is vital to prosperity for all. Lack of education is a ticket to economic hardship. The more years of school that a student completes, the more money they are likely to earn as adults and the better their chance to get and keep a good job. Unemployment is highest among school dropouts as is incarceration for crimes. When we fail to educate all of our children, the high costs of this failure come back to hurt us in unemployment, drugs, crime, incarceration, violence and social conflict.
We need to invest in urban schools, provide equal educational opportunities in these schools, and recruit a well prepared teaching force that begins to reflect the student populations in these schools. We must insist on equal opportunity to learn, without compromise. When we do these things, we will begin to protect the freedom to learn for our children and our grandchildren, and to build a more just and democratic society.
Teacher advocates consider schools as sites for the struggle for or against more democracy in our society. The struggle for education improvement and education equality will be a long one. Schools serving urban and impoverished populations need fundamental change. These schools do not open the doors to economic opportunity. They usually do not promote equality. Instead, they recycle inequality. The high school drop out rates alone demonstrate that urban schools prepare less than 50 percent of their students for entrance into the economy and society. A democratic agenda for school reform includes insisting on fair taxation and adequate funding for all children. Political leaders in most states have not yet decided to address the real issues of school reform. We cannot build a safe, just, and prosperous society while we leave so many young people behind.
The problem is to provide the resources, including well prepared teachers with adequate support, needed to make the current schools successful. The California legislature has failed a this consistently for the last several years. We face a choice between providing high-quality schools only for the middle and upper classes, and underfunded, understaffed schools for the poor. Or, we can also choose to work together to improve schools that are presently failing.
Why then in schools do we allow politicians, lobbyists, and other “experts” who are not teachers and have not worked in classrooms for over ten years, and who have not taught children, to make the basic decisions about schooling. As a starting point, clearly those establishing our policies do not understand testing and its limits. (See Bracey, 2009).
A major problem with our campaigns for a democratic approach to schooling is that most of the media has been sold a mindset or framework of accountability. Corporate sponsored networks and “ think tanks” such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, the Bradley Foundation, the Olin Foundation and their access to the media is not likely to change. The domination of the accountability frame within the media and political circles must be opposed. The appointment of Arne Duncan was symptomatic of the problems. He represents the kind of corporate/media approach to reform. Certainly in the current battle with Arne Duncan over the "Race to the Top Funds," he has ceased the high ground with a claim of accountability – it’s a false claim- but it works. Education and explaining will be a constant struggle.
There are many advocacy strategies. However, the most important is to share and magnify teacher voices. Politicians make bad decisions – such as the current budget cuts, or an over reliance on testing- because they are not listening to teachers voices. Instead they are listening to paid consultants, and “experts” from the corporate establishment.
Newspaper writers and other media writers make the same mistake. They call their favorite “source” which just happens to be a corporate promoter like Arne Duncan, Michele Rhee, or one of the “experts” at elite universities. Note: few professors in the elite universities work with teachers. They are several steps removed from the classroom. You can read more about this on the blog Choosing Democracy http://www.choosingdemocracy.blogspot.com. The most basic strategy is to insist on teacher participation in the development of policies. We need to get the politicians and the corporate shills out of the classroom. – they have failed our children.
See more at the Democracy and Education Institute – Sacramento.