Thursday, January 4, 2007

Community Organizing and Urban Education VI: Education is a Tough Nut to Crack

[To read the entire series, go here.]

"Although public education activism is hardly new in this country . . . , community organizing as a strategy for school improvement is barely a decade old."
--Kavitha Mediratta, NYU Institute for Education and Social Policy

“Organizing groups argue that education is more difficult to navigate than any other neighborhood issue because school systems are harder to penetrate and school leadership often is more insulated and unresponsive than the leadership of other public institutions.”
--Mediratta, et. al.

Since so much of the social action in the 1960s involved education, especially protests against segregation after Brown, it may seem like education is a common arena for social action. However, the fact is that community organizing groups around the United States in the last few decades have mostly stayed out of educational reform until quite recently. Why?

Organizing works best when groups’ demands are simple and clear. This is relatively easy to accomplish in areas like housing, or jobs, or health care, or wages, because one can define in fairly basic terms what it would mean to “win.” X number of houses, or X amount of loan $$ for a particular area, or a specific wage increase, or a new health center for a defined area. In education, the issues are often more complex.

Often in education, the problem is one of quality of instruction. But it is very difficult to define exactly what a “good” education looks like, and difficult (for specialists or everyday citizens) to monitor instruction from the outside. For example, even if you win something as seemingly simple as a “small schools” effort, how small is small enough? What counts as adequate support for these schools? Whose fault is it when some of them fail?

Monitoring is key for any organizing effort. Just because someone *says* they will do something doesn’t mean anything. Unless you can keep track of what they are doing over time, chances are they will find a way to weasel out of what they agreed to.

Questions about educational policy can get complicated and political very quickly. Think of the conflict around educational choice, for example. And, as noted in the quotes, above, public schools are especially difficult institutions to get access to.

Nonetheless, a range of organizing groups are increasingly engaging with the public schools. Often in collaboration with educational scholars (see Oakes & Rogers for an interesting example), they are developing tools like school “report cards” to help them keep schools accountable. They are developing strategies for collaborating with school staff, as in the Alliance Schools effort described by Dennis Shirley. And some groups, like ACORN, are even opening and/or supporting their own schools.

Other groups, like the one I work with in Milwaukee, are developing avenues for supporting school change that can be framed in relatively simple terms, as they always have, like class size, increasing the availability of school nurses, or guaranteeing nutritious school breakfasts.

I have only scraped the suface of the challenges specific to school reform organizing, here, and will return to these issues in later posts. A good source for information about these challenges is the Mediratta et. al. paper I quoted from above.

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