The Common Good
September-October 2012

Beyond 'Superman'

by Nicole Baker Fulgham | September-October 2012

Four traits of successful public school reform.

I'VE BEEN INVOLVED in public education for more than 15 years—as an urban public school teacher, a researcher and policy analyst, a teacher trainer, a parent, and an advocate. I never dreamed I’d live to witness such raucous and juicy debates about how to improve our nation’s lowest-performing public schools. Throughout my career, public education garnered the occasional feel-good story about a phenomenal, mythical “inner city teacher” and, more often, the litany of stories about how urban and rural schools are in complete disarray.

But during the last few years—oh my! We’ve witnessed the onslaught of message-laden documentaries such as Waiting for “Superman” and The Lottery, which are celebrated by many and derided as teacher-bashing propaganda by others. The birth of the “education reform” movement has generated such groups as Democrats for Education Reform, Students for Education Reform, and Stand For Children. Again, lauded by many, these groups are vigorously criticized by others because of the way they push against policies, structures, and institutions in public education.

Regardless of what side of the education reform debate we may choose, most Americans agree on one thing: Public schools must improve. The academic achievement gap between wealthy white students and low-income students of color must be eliminated. It’s unconscionable that 50 percent of kids growing up in poverty drop out of high school. How do we allow a system to exist where poor children in the fourth grade are already performing three grade levels behind children in wealthier neighborhoods? What future do we anticipate poor and minority children will have with these academic outcomes?

As a Christian, like many other people of faith, I’m propelled by my religious convictions to work on behalf of the most disenfranchised children. My biblical beliefs about poverty and inequity cause me to try and fix systems that perpetuate the inequities we see in public education. People of faith should be prophetic voices to lift up examples of what’s possible in the face of seeming impossibility. Our Christian beliefs compel us to view all children as made in God’s image and likeness—and there’s no plausible way that God would give all of the academic skills and intellect to wealthy, white suburban children.

At first glance, this all seems like fairly benign stuff. The system isn’t ensuring that all children fulfill their God-given academic potential. So why is today’s public education reform so emotional and complex? What’s happening with public education reform in this country, and how can faith communities play a role in bringing about much-needed change? Do we even dare to step into the debate? Unequivocally—yes. We must get involved; standing on the sidelines is no longer an option.

I believe we need to focus on two concepts in order to develop a faithful vision for public education reform: The What and The How.

The What

The best way to identify what we need to reform in public education is to take lessons from highly successful teachers, schools, and school districts. Where is the achievement gap closing? Where do we see teachers, schools, and communities producing scholars who perform at incredibly high levels even when they’re growing up in poverty? Those examples have to be our nation’s blueprint for change because they’re achieving success in the face of enormous challenge.

Fortunately, when we look across the nation we can find a growing number of outstanding low-income public schools that defy the odds every day. And they share several key traits:

1. High Expectations. Expect more, get more. High-performing schools and teachers embody this idea. They set meaningful, ambitious student achievement goals, track their progress toward the goals, and give students the support systems to get there. Education reform can create the conditions to support high expectations by clearly describing what high-quality academic success looks like; providing methods to evaluate student progress and academic growth throughout the year; and creating opportunities to extend the school day and school year to ensure students have the extra time needed to catch up.

2. Shared Accountability. These schools and classrooms don’t play the blame game. Everyone is on the hook for ensuring student success. If a student is failing, teachers and schools don’t blame parents or society (or vice versa). They look within to determine what they can do differently. Part of the solution may be engaging the student’s parents more deeply or tackling a poverty-related issue such as hunger or access to health care. But they don’t automatically place blame. They take ownership to find solutions.

3. Highly Effective Teachers. This cannot be emphasized enough. An individual teacher has enormous agency to improve a student’s academic trajectory. Education reform must support the necessary conditions to recruit, train, hire, support, evaluate, and retain excellent teachers. Districts need the freedom to recruit and hire high-quality teachers from multiple avenues. Principals need the autonomy to hire teachers who are the best fit for their individual schools. Teachers need regular multifaceted evaluations (including a wide variety of variables, such as the extent to which they’ve increased student achievement) and feedback that blends directly into meaningful professional development. Teaching salaries in low-income public schools must be competitive to attract and retain talented educators instead of losing them to higher-paying suburban districts.

4. Visionary School Leaders. Just as excellent teaching matters, so does excellent school leadership. Visionary school leaders bring the innovation, courage, goal orientation, and strategic thinking necessary to turn around an entire school. We should give more flexibility and autonomy to school leaders who have demonstrated their effectiveness. Let’s give these leaders the freedom to have an even greater impact on student achievement!

Christians do not need to become policy wonks or education experts to advocate for public education reform. We simply need to educate ourselves about what’s going on in our local school district or at the state level. Where are the biggest disparities in student achievement in my local community? What’s on the agenda for trying to close those gaps? And what’s the most appropriate way to lend our voice as people of faith to ensure systemic education reform happens?

The How

I’ve become increasingly convinced that The How of education reform is as equally important as The What. As people of faith, we should particularly strive to bring a level of humanity and compassion to the debate.

But here’s the trick. Our compassion cannot be extended only to the millions of students whose public institutions have failed them. That’s a no-brainer. We must also extend compassion and understanding to the parents and families who struggle to raise children under the punishing weight of poverty and all the challenges it brings. We must also bring a sense of humanity and dignity to the public school teachers and administrators who wrestle with the intersection of academics, poverty, and race every day in their schools. Trying to “do reform” without genuinely engaging with the very people whose interests we support isn’t going to get us very far. And scapegoating one group, any group, as “the problem” limits our ability to foster transformational change.

As a resident of the Washington, D.C. area, I watched Michelle Rhee’s education reform agenda with a mixture of glee, fear, admiration, and shouts of “You go girl!”—depending on the moment. Appointed chancellor of D.C. public schools in 2007 by then-Mayor Adrian Fenty, Rhee was given Fenty’s full political support to enact sweeping reforms. There were much-needed improvements in school logistics and test scores (although D.C.’s State Superintendent of Education recently confirmed testing irregularities during her tenure). But Rhee was, to put it mildly, a polarizing figure, whose unpopularity among many in the African-American community is believed to be a major factor in Fenty’s loss in the 2010 elections. Rhee subsequently left the D.C. public schools.

Many of us in the public education reform community were confounded. My friends and colleagues lamented: “But everything Rhee was doing made schools better for children of the same parents who voted against the reforms!” I’ll admit I had those same initial reactions myself. As one who shares the urgency to bring transformational change to the millions of children stuck in failing schools, I strained to understand the negative reaction that Rhee seemed to spark with so many D.C. residents. After all, virtually all parents in low-income communities highly value education and want the best schools for their kids.

But as I’ve reflected on the education reform movement over the past two years, I’ve come to understand why we often struggle to get traction in the communities where the achievement gap is the widest. As an African-American woman and a Christian, I have undergone my own process to unpack the unique and often deeply held beliefs of communities that have been historically marginalized and disenfranchised within public discourse. I’ve come to believe that we have to find authentic ways to give all stakeholders a voice in the dialogue and decision-making. Otherwise we run the risk of well-intentioned school reforms being viewed with heavy doses of skepticism by those left out of the process.

From a Christian framework, we should seek to be as inclusive as possible—pulling in others who might have different perspectives than ours and genuinely seeking to listen and to understand. Christians and other people of faith can be that moral voice and bridge-builder to ensure that this step truly happens. That approach will begin to build true allies for education reform and capitalize on the common ground we already share.

Does this mean we should shy away from difficult and potentially controversial decisions? Should we cease to push for education reform with a sense of urgency? Absolutely not. Education reform requires visionary leaders with the courage to push for real change—and not everyone may be happy with pushing against the status quo. Tinkering around the edges will not solve our problems. We must seek transformational, multifaceted reforms. And we cannot wait five years to do it. Every year we fail millions of children and teenagers by not providing them with a high quality education.

But if we want education reform to last and truly take root, we need to engage multiple stakeholders. Although overused, the African proverb “It takes a village to raise a child” is incredibly apropos when laying out strategy for urban school reform. Teachers and schools cannot do this alone. Education reform must include advocates from every sector: community leaders, business leaders, and faith-based leaders and congregations.

Nicole Baker Fulgham is founder and president of The Expectations Project (www.theexpectationsproject.org), which mobilizes people of faith to help close the academic achievement gap in public schools.

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