First Person

Commentary: Too many cooks spoil the reform

This article was written by Michael J. Petrilli,  executive vice president at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. He spoke at the Feb. 10 “Hot Lunch” event in Denver.  A podcast of his talk will be posted Friday afternoon. Check back here to listen or download.

Education reform does not suffer from lack of energy or activity. Everywhere you look—Congress, state legislatures, local school boards, wherever—scores of eager-beavers are filing bills, proposing solutions, calling for change, and otherwise trying to “push the ball forward.” Yet for all the effort, for all the pain, we see little gain. What gives?

The conventional answer, in most reform circles, comes down to: “The opposition of special interests.” Teachers unions, school administrators, colleges of education, textbook publishers, and other defenders (and beneficiaries) of the status quo fight change at every step and guard their selfish prerogatives jealously.

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That may all be true, but our challenges are much more fundamental. It’s not that the wrong people are in charge. It’s that there are so many cooks in the education kitchen that nobody is really in charge. And that is a consequence of an antiquated governance structure that practically forces all those cooks to enter and remain in the kitchen.

We bow to the mantra of “local control” yet, in fact, nearly every major decision affecting the education of our children is shaped (and misshaped) by at least four separate levels of governance: Washington, the state capitol, the local district, and the individual school building itself.

Consider so seemingly straightforward a decision as which person will be employed to fill a seventh-grade teacher opening at the Lincoln School, located in, let us say, Metropolis, West Carolina. One might suppose that Lincoln’s principal, or perhaps the top instructional staff at that school, should decide which candidate is likeliest to succeed in that particular classroom.

But under the typical circumstance, the most the principal might be able to do is reject wholly unsuitable candidates. (And often not even that, considering seniority and “bumping rights” within the district, its collective-bargaining contract and, frequently, state law.)

The superintendent’s HR office does most of the vetting and placing, but it is shackled by the contract, by state licensure practices (which may be set by an “independent”— probably union and ed-school dominated—professional-standards board), by seniority rules that are probably enshrined in both contract and state law, and by uniform salary schedules that mean the new teacher (assuming similar “credentials”) will be paid the same fixed amount whether the subject most needed at Lincoln is math or phys ed.

Washington gets into the act, too, with “highly qualified teacher” requirements that constrain the school. By the end of the process, at least a dozen different governing units impede the principal’s authority to staff his school with the ablest (and best suited) teachers available.

Yet teacher selection is but one of many examples of the “too many cooks” problem. Much the same kitchen congestion afflicts special education, the budgeting and control of a school’s funds, and the handling of school discipline. (Not to mention a more literal “too many cooks” issue: What to serve for lunch in the school cafeteria?)

Reformers look at this mess and try to rationalize it, but never quite seem to succeed. In Colorado, for example, State Sen. Mike Johnston marshaled a very thoughtful teacher reform bill through the legislature. It untangled some of the worst problems of the old system but added new complexities and actors, too. It’s a case study of why the history of reform often looks like an archeological dig somewhere in Greece or Jordan: One layer of policy change on top of another.

Now some reformers want a “parent trigger” (in Colorado and elsewhere) so the system’s “consumers” can cut through all the red tape and intransigence of the local and state bureaucracy and force change to happen, now. The impulse is great (and in my view it’s a mechanism worth trying, along with “recovery districts” and the education equivalent of “enterprise zones,” all of them ways of snipping through the tape), but it adds yet another dimension to the educational tug of war.

So is there any way to clear out the kitchen so that everyone involved in education can just focus on teaching and learning? Utopia may not be achievable but surely we can do better than we do today. A good place to start is with the concept of subsidiary. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this as “the idea that a central authority should have a subsidiary function, performing only those tasks which cannot be performed effectively at a more immediate or local level.”

In education, that would mean:

  • Empowering building-level educators to make nearly all of the key decisions about how their schools operate (including which curriculum to use, how to hire, pay, and evaluate teachers, what to invest dollars in, etc.);
  • Giving parents the right to choose among schools in order to find a good match with their own preferences and values;
  • Raising the funds for our schools at a central level, then redistributing them in an equitable manner to individual schools—in return for acceptable academic results. 

This implies an “every school a charter school” system, or even a voucher approach (if private schools are to be included), combined with an accountability framework and weighted-student funding. Note that teachers unions, school districts, and top-down reforms (like a statewide teacher evaluation system) don’t have a place in this new model.

This wouldn’t solve all of our problems. Some schools would make good decisions, others would fail. But there would be fewer cooks. And the ones that remained would have greater control over their kitchens. Why not give it a try?

First Person

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk