Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Just Because They're Poor Doesn't Make Them Saps

On Alexander Russo's This Week in Education blog, I read a really interesting e-mail written by Whitney Tilson who is a founder or president or something or other of DFER. You should read it and then read the comments.

The two main points he makes can be encapsulated in the following quotes:
But nor can we be oblivious to the negative impact on our kids when they lack the minimal resources needed to prepare them to come to school.
Yes! Glad to see this. And I agree with Tilson that no one should wait for poverty to be fixed before endeavoring to improve education.

You are exactly on target with the issue of poverty. We cannot have people vote against all of the things poor families need – jobs, housing for low and moderate income families, health care, food programs, etc. – but then say, "But I support vouchers or charter schools." To help the students who need the help the most we need both things: parent choice and programs aimed at getting people out of poverty.

I don't necessarily agree that choice and vouchers are the right reforms, but I think Tilson's analysis of ambivalence and distrust about certain political allegiances in light of rigth-wing platforms and politics beyond education is right on. I've thought the same thing myself.

There are, however, a few things that seem to be totally absent from Tilson's revelations:

1) What Robert Pondiscio said in the comments: education and education reform should be presented as a way to improve communities and not as a way to get away from them.*

2) The very real possibility that at least some of the reforms themselves are not palatable and not what at least some of the people in the communities Tilson talks about engaging want.

It's as if Tilson saying that poor people and people of color only reject the current reforms because they're top-down, brought by rich white people, and will cost them jobs. This reminds me some of what I took such issue with Richard Whitmire several months ago for saying about education reform in DC.

First of all, yes, people want change, but if people like Tilson come in and don't listen to what community leaders say is needed in particular to reform schools (and not just to help bring housing, jobs, and healthcare) and do something entirely different. This line of Tilson's is very telling:
Many in our movement have figured this out and are taking important steps to, for example, engage poor/minority parents, bypassing conflicted and sometimes corrupt community “leaders”, but much more needs to be done. 
There's an assumption that "conflicted" community leaders must automatically be by-passed, that conflictedness, in other words skepticism, is not to be heeded.

Furthermore, what about the substance of the reforms (or lack of substance)? Is Tilson assuming that poor people and people of color don't know what good education is? What if at least some of them do know or have opinions about what good education is and don't have confidence that the policies that DFER et al promote have brought or will bring it? Have Tilson et al ever considered that at least some of their ideas might be bad ones? Don't they think it's time they did? Perhaps the unpopularity of Tilson's product is not just due to how the product is being sold and to who's doing the selling. Perhaps people aren't buying what Tilson et al are selling because they're selling a junky product. Perhaps people know better.

*UPDATE: I want to push back a little against what Robert says here in his comment 
Toward that end, it might help if reformers positioned their work as a way to improve the intellectual capital and economic prospects of the neighborhoods they served.
If reformers' "work" includes promoting (or as is often the case, forcing) knowledge-free content such as the likes of Balanced Literacy, Everyday Math, and little to no teaching of any other subject, I'm not confident much "intellectual capital" will be brought back to any neighborhood.

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