What If Today’s Education Leaders Are Exactly The *Wrong* People To Transform School?

I have a piece in U.S. News today, I’m going to start contributing there more regularly.  The lede sums up the question:

The education reform world is increasingly obsessed with “diversity.” Organizations and individuals are struggling to ensure people with different racial, ethnic and socioeconomic backgrounds have a place in the conversation about how to improve our schools. Although these efforts range from serious and thoughtful to plainly exhibitionist, it’s an important conversation – especially because public schools have never worked particularly well for minority students. Yet for all the attention to diversity, one perspective remains almost absent from the conversation about American education: The viewpoint of those who weren’t good at school in the first place.

This might be a problem and a blind spot. Big Picture’s Elliot Washor says it’s like a horse race with everyone wearing blinkers. He may be right and I’m a sucker for horse race analogies in any event. Read the entire piece for more on this question and how I think it impacts the norms of the field.

Do you work in education and weren’t good at school? Please send me your story! You can send it to me in 140 characters @arotherham if it’s really short.

3 Replies to “What If Today’s Education Leaders Are Exactly The *Wrong* People To Transform School?”

  1. I was mediocre in high school. I went to Jr. college mostly to play water polo. played one year ’69 and the coach forced us to be on the swim team. Calif. Jr. Colleges were totally free at the time. It was before Prop. 13. I hated swim workouts so I quit. Took a few more classes and almost finished lower divisiton units with C’s and some B’s. I quit and then worked as a lifeguard for 20 years. As I approached 40 I thought I needed another vocation. Went back to school at CSUDH in ’89 majored in history minored in Econ. Got a 3.8 GPA for the last two years, word processing made school much easier.. Went right through to California Teaching credential and MA in curriculum. Taught 2nd, 5th 6th 7th and 8th grade in LAUSD. Relocated to NOLA in ’03 amd taught middle school. Flooded out and moved to Sacramento in ’06. Taught middle and high school. RIFed in ’12. Hired right away as a teacher at Folsom Prison.

  2. As a first generation college student who was a chronic truant in high school, who failed English, scraped by in junior college, but eventually got it together and now am a doctoral student in Ed, I agree that the “educational leaders” are at times the wrong people to transform education. For one, we’re too old. We have a difficult time imagining a future educational system that is more than merely a revamping of current systems. Secondly, we have a sense of empowerment regarding school mainly because our home communities valued the same things as the education community. I wonder if recruiting failed public school students like me into the world of higher education might be a place to start encouraging those voices to contribute to the conversation of school reform. Just the other day in my doctoral program, a classmate was lamenting the dearth of applicants of color for counseling positions in her high school district. Many classmates began to discuss recruiting for those positions from the local 4-year university’s psychology programs and supplementing their credential year in college. I scoffed, because underrepresented student groups do not typically make it to senior year of university in the first place, although more would if they only knew what a cushy job (and powerful and challenging and rewarding, too) high school counseling can be, compared to other jobs they might have held. No, recruitment of those student groups depends on high school and junior college program recruitment, including funding, and with internships in the field in the early stages to show those students what there is to work for. I made it to this point, and others like me, from poor homes with no higher education, who were terrible at school and never saw ourselves at home there, have as well. We have perspectives on school reform that are essential, but more importantly, we understand what being on the outside of something essential feels like. Recruit us. We have quite a bit to say but we rarely imagine anyone would listen.

  3. “For my part, I’ve learned more about what doesn’t work in school from talking with adult and teenage prisoners than I have from college students at the nation’s competitive four-year colleges. . . . But I am suggesting that everyone in the education debate consider the possibility that today’s education leaders of all political stripes and ideologies may be the wrong people to really understand how school must change to work for many more Americans than the institution does today.”

    Homeschooling parents who have withdrawn kids from schools that were not meeting their kids academic, social, and emotional needs will have some ideas on this as well. They know what wasn’t working, and most will have invested quite a bit of time in trying to make it work before deciding to make the commitment to educate their kids at home. The way homeschooling families overcome or respond to academic challenges does say something about what was not working in school for many of their children.

    I have often joked that many articles and even whole books on education talk about various constituencies around education, poking into what parents want, what teachers want, want employers want, what politicians want. Very few ever consider what children want. A “we-know-what’s-good-for-’em” approach destroys agency and personal drive, as does a “get-through-the-curriculum-at-all-costs” approach.

    What a concept: ask the kids.

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