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Unrest in Our Schools

As protests rage and political powers are overthrown in the Middle East, we are seeing a similar battle ensuing at home. In Madison, New York City and Philadelphia, angry voices are taking sides over our schools.  While citizens in Egypt, Libya and Bahrain are rising up against institutions that won’t change, in the U.S., we see teachers, parents and students objecting to too much change. And while we Americans may all agree to take the side of democracy and human rights in Arab countries, we are still working on how our own democratic policies should be adapted to best serve the students in our public education system.  How can this utter breakdown in political dialogue be prevented?

The news from Madison has painted a grim picture of the future of collective bargaining rights for public employees, including teachers, nationally. The protests there have been going on for weeks, getting national and international attention; in California, where I work, sympathy protests are being staged (though presumably without the pizza deliveries). At the time of this post, Governor Scott Walker does not appear to be changing his position, the state’s Democratic lawmakers are still absent, and the suspension of government business is taking its toll on an already crippled state economy. This bitter freeze makes Lambeau Field look like a nice picnic spot.

 In New York City, the Department of Education (DOE) and City Hall did not exactly take to the streets, but it did publish a list of nearly 5,000 teachers who would be laid off in a “worst case scenario” of state budget cuts of $1.4Bn to the city’s education budget. The move was seen by the city’s teachers union as a “political maneuver to create panic” in a  NYTimes article, designed to alarm parents and ease passage of a bill that would allow the DOE to lay off teachers based on performance, rather than seniority. Call it an act of education policy terrorism.

And in Philadelphia, the district’s Renaissance Schools Initiative, which aims to turn around 18 of the city’s public schools, has incited communities and teachers to take action -- Students at West Philadelphia High School walked out of classes on a recent Friday afternoon, and a rally of parents, teachers and students demonstrated outside of District offices last week. Protesters “expressed frustration at the constant changes … and their perceived inability to speak out without facing negative consequences.” This "Renaissance" is perceived as throwing the baby out with the bath water.

In each example, the institution in power is aiming for dramatic change, and an un-empowered stakeholder group resists that change. We have forgotten those old saws of “stakeholder buy-in” and “collaboration” in the rush to “get it done.” This is not to say that consensus-building is the only way to achieve change, but in communities around the country, a greater sense of the collective impact that must be achieved would be helpful. Until that happens, it’s not surprising that fear is driving today’s education debate to a fevered pitch. Rather than letting that fear cripple progress, let’s hope that there are education leaders out there who are courageous enough to include these stakeholders in the change-making process. 

Where have you seen collective impact done well in education reform?

Ellen Martin

Former Associate Director of Partnerships, Shared Value Initiative