Nuance in Education – Dare We?

I’m sitting in a downtown Oakland coffee shop, thinking deep thoughts about Ann Coulter’s end game in coming to UC Berkeley – then not coming – and the helicopters that are still hovering above campus for security tonight. Deep thoughts about extremes as the only acceptable mindsets. Deep thoughts about the disappearance of nuance in political, public, and subsequently even private dialogue (Russell Westbrook can be both a ball-hog and incredibly talented at the same time).

Concurrently, Dead Prez asks me whether I’d rather have a Lexus or justice, a dream or some substance. Damn.

I’m right. You’re wrong. It’s about the kids?

Earlier this week, my Berkeley Graduate School of Education (GSoE) professor, historian Daniel Perlstein, came over to me at the class break and asked me if he was picking on me enough. We had just finished a frustrating conversation about the role of private money in education (we referred to them as foundations, then plutocrats, then settled on the relatively objective “billionaires” as we argued predominantly in absolutes). I was frustrated, but this is why I enrolled in his class. I know I am part of the neo-liberal “progressive” movement in education, and I know I come with my set of educational baggage. I welcomed his, and my GSoE classmates’, critiques of anything with the word “entrepreneur” in education, National foundations setting public education policy, and the hyper focus on data and tracking. I agreed that private money shouldn’t force a community’s hand – and even if the foundations weren’t technically forcing a school district to adopt a policy, who’s going to say no to millions of dollars of well-intentioned funding when you can’t afford to provide your teachers with Kleenex boxes? I agreed that we were defining student success too myopically by focusing on Math and Reading scores on flawed standardized tests. I agreed that unchecked school-choice – turning public education over to open market Capitalism – was irresponsible. And I agreed that committed and qualified Educators should be setting high (and research-backed) standards for all of our students.

And yet, I came out of that discussion with the sense that I was on “the other side.” Don’t get me wrong – my classmates don’t think I’m evil. I don’t want to misrepresent an already nuanced situation by casting my Education peers as closed-minded or me as the victim of some sort. However, I leave class feeling like the villain in the story of our children’s’ futures because I am open to the idea of good charter schools. I don’t want to feel like the villain. I don’t want to be the villain. Am I the villain? Is there a villain? (This is the beginning, often, of my bouts of “what-the-****-are-we-doing-ness,” something anyone working in social change can likely identify with).
I understand the argument, philosophically and in practice, against Charter Management Operators (CMO’s). Charter schools were originally supposed to serve a specific, small set of students in communities where those students needed/wanted a different kind of educational experienceShanker. Charters, according to Albert Shanker’s original vision, were supposed to be teacher led and be able to flex their classroom styles to serve kids with learning disabilities, or kids who needed more individualized attention – essentially serving a very specific need that placed them in collaboration, not competition, with District schools. They were supposed to share innovative methods with District schools that couldn’t afford to experiment. I understand the feeling of betrayal when CMO’s started expanding and taking large swaths of students away from those District schools – usually students who were either more motivated than their peers or who had parents and guardians who were able to navigate complex application timelines and processes. This undeniably places a higher financial burden on the remaining District schools – you’re suddenly faced with the same fixed costs (buildings leases, infrastructure, etc.) with lower revenue, as the per-pupil spending follows half of your kids over to the new Charter. And, you’re left with the students that are most disadvantaged who would, logically, need the most resources dedicated to helping them learn. I’m saying all of this point-blank. I offer no excuses or attempt to discredit this argument.
dr. evil.

Does that make Charter operators, and the people who work therein with their own thought-out point of view, evil?

Is there any room for unity?

Talk (and trust me, I’ve talked) to enough folks who work in District schools and enough folks at Charters and you’ll have almost the exact same conversation. We’re doing it for the kids. We want better educational opportunities for our children. We want to close the opportunity gap for underserved communities and kids. We believe that the current status-quo in some communities and schools is absolutely not OK. We have got to address systemic inequities beyond the confines of the classrooms to support our kids. My kids don’t have enough to eat, can’t afford medical treatment, haven’t been diagnosed with ADHD or ODD and therefore don’t have an IEP, have serious home safety issues, and came in years behind grade level. I love my kids. I love my kids. I love my kids and would do anything for them. Put an excellent Charter teacher and an excellent District teacher together and see if there is more that unites them or divides them.

Much more has been said about the District/Charter “divide.” Similarly, there are qualified historians and social commentators who have spoken eloquently from both sides about any of the contentious topics I’ve noted above. But good lord is there a lack of nuance in this hyper-political debate.

Disagree with me – really! 

Where does that leave me? Paralyzed, sometimes. Scared that anything I do will be be ineffective or somehow perpetuate systemic injustice. Sometimes, I have waves of perspective and remember to not let perfect get in the way of good. Sometimes, I have an urge to go all-in on a viewpoint and radically support it without acknowledging nuance because at least then I’d be acting decisively according to my point of view. And sometimes, I have the courage to say I don’t know.

Why don’t we have a coffee and discuss it?




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