“Our community finally feels like we can celebrate the last few weeks of school and enjoy the space as community once again. Dirk you helped me a lot. I’m very thankful truly. I’m hopeful. Parents voice is so powerful. I’m understanding that.”-Oakland Public School Parent after a “win”
If you build it they will come. That was the mantra of school reform for the last couple of decades. Nowhere is that more evident than Oakland, where we have way too many schools and not nearly enough great ones.
Largely ignored have been the needs of the actual families the reforms are supposed to be for.
The idea was something like, if we supply more new schools, the system will magically improve as will outcomes for kids. Poor performing schools will have to improve or close as parents will vote with their feet for these new choices. There was a lot of talk about market share and tipping points, and most of the money went to school developers and new schools or turnarounds, the supply of schools, whether in the charter sector, district small schools, or innovation zones.
Twenty years of creating new schools in Oakland has created a district on the brink, and an unsustainable number of charter schools. There are a few stars, lots of mediocrity and far too many schools that are not delivering for students. And the families that need the best schools have almost no chance of accessing them. This is what reform has wrought.
The Missing Piece in School Improvement; Focusing on Family Wins
Instead of focusing on schools we need to focus on the parents and families dependent on the public schools and their self-expressed needs, and the practical aspects of benefitting from the best public schools; the demand side. And it matters for a few substantial reasons.
First, the emphasis on funding new schools and new school models often feels like reform is being done to communities rather than with or for them. And let’s be honest, there have been some educational failures and even more fumbled community interactions. And as someone who has been in the room for these discussions—it often does sound like reform is being done to the community, with some magical underlying theories that have never been proven, and an experiment happening in an urban center hear you.
And it’s not some evil cabal. It’s largely well intentioned folks, who don’t work on the ground with schools, really just operating under mistaken premises. Mostly.
The Wrong Funding Strategy
Years ago, I did some consulting for a foundation that had an idea about “tipping points” that if you encouraged geographic concentration of charters in specific communities, at some magical point the district schools would improve. I wrote a memo about how that didn’t make sense to me—that I am sure ended up in a circular file (the garbage can).
And more than not making sense, it was actually harmful in some ways. While many families were happy with new options, many didn’t exercise them, many more couldn’t get into the best ones, and the concentration often created community resentment and resistance by some in the community.
While there was educational need—the schools chose the community rather than the community choosing the schools in many cases. The grant money drew folks from outside the community. While the foundation supported some great community schools , not all new schools were community or great.
Schools fail, and at least for charters, they close, while communities are still there. Investing in schools is somewhat ethereal, while investing in communities is bedrock.
The Lost Demand Side
There are a lot of things wrong with all those supply and demand market argument when it comes to public schools. But as a big picture, there is some logic, and when you look at private schools and wealthy folks you can see that it can work pretty well. You have a lot of practically accessible choices who offer a range of programs and are usually somewhat responsive to your needs.
On the public side, for families with limited means, information, and transportation…not so much. And there aren’t many other industries outside of the Soviet era where we start with supply and pay such little attention to what consumers want or being responsive to their needs. You have schools with 5 applicants for every spot and others that are half full in Oakland. That don’t make no sense to most people.
In a system we say is about equalizing opportunity, the reality when you look at neighborhood enrollment preferences, availability of transportation, awareness and complexity of enrollment systems, and who enrolls early you, gotta say the system is rigged.
So we should work to empower those who have the biggest stake and help them bend the system to their will and needs, those families dependent on the public schools.
Let’s be clear, working with the range of families and community is messier than some kid from Harvard with a new school idea. And again, being in some of those rooms, many folks do not want real parent empowerment—they want parent organizing for their goals, they want props, but they don’t want empowered parents. Empowered parents might try to hold the schools themselves accountable for some of their “no excuses” BS, or other ways they are failing families.
And many reformers aren’t ready for that accounting.
Getting Back to Roots and Building a Strong Foundation
If philanthropists want to really improve schools, it starts with the community. It is investing in grassroots efforts to support families in getting what they need and in supporting their development. Many parents do well by the system, be it charter or district, they know the deadlines, have the means, or fight to get into schools of choice, they get their kids in the right classes and the right academies, and when something is not working they know how to get the school to respond or can change schools.
For many other families it is not that way. And when they try to make things better—the schools are unresponsive or sometimes retaliatory. But what if more, or all families, were organized, empowered, and able to fight both for better schools and a better system?
There are many individual times families organize, but it’s not systemic, and it takes time and resources. And for many of our families success in these matters is the exception—not the rule.
A Recent “Win”
There was a recent mom, who I helped out with an issue (really she and the school community did 99% of it and the NAACP lent a substantial hand), but she wrote about their “WIN” and the community meeting.
Some of us shared our stories however I was most impressed by the (omitted for confidentiality)…. She was very brave to stand in front of her peers and be so honest. It was a great night. Tonight I’m probably going to be able to sleep better… it was real.
The teachers are relieved. The teachers are over joyed. Our community finally feels like we can celebrate the last few weeks of school and enjoy the space as community once again.
Dirk you helped me a lot. I’m very thankful truly. I’m hopeful. Parents voice is so powerful. I’m understanding that.
I wish that the funders would come to the same conclusion.