April 1, 2006

Students are the efficiency experts

I attended half of the S.C.O.P.E. (Student Committee on Public Engagement) Summit today and had a really good discussion. One of the best things to come out of it for me was this idea that undergraduates need to realize that the university wouldn't exist if it weren't for them. They are the university, and therefore they have power. And the administration needs to realize that the students are the experts on the issue of education. The parallel I thought of is with corporate efficiency. In other countries, at least, people are catching on that the people who do the actual work may be the best people to come up with ideas on how to make the work go more efficiently. I think the same holds true for students. They know every strength and flaw of the education system, but they have few channels to make changes or even convey the information.

March 12, 2006

More Thoughts on School Choice

(This builds on the Feb. 8th entry.) I've recently had the opporunity to hear some parents' opinions on school choice, not as policy, but on how they decide where to send their children to school. I think in some ways this issue could be as difficult to try to come to agreement on as the abortion issue. One of the essential qualities of being a parent is trying to secure the best for your child. Thus when it comes to choosing a school, although you might in principle want racially and economically desegregated schools, and realize that since in our current system the public money follows the kid to the school you choose, by selecting a "better" school for your child you are taking resources away from other kids in "worse" schools, it is just not a reasonable sacrifice to make, because it's your kid. It's at least conceivable to sacrifice one's earnings or possessions or time in the name of equality, but to sacrifice one's child's future is another thing entirely.

But is there another solution? Of course we could stop underfunding education, change the system of money following students, and work to truly give every kid a good education. But in the meantime, are parents' fears that a "bad" school will sacrifice their child's future well-founded? I have trouble believing that they are, but I think it might come down to an equal level of fear for kids in "bad" schools, but possibly a different perceived threat. I need to talk to more people before I can decide if this actually true, but I have the perception that often parents are afraid of not just the teaching quality, but the culture of the school in general, which is created by the other students there. This can raise complex questions as to what the "tipping point" of a school is... how many "bad" kids are enough to turn "good" kids bad? Or vice versa? One the one hand, I have seen this in action myself when I worked at LEAP. The school had enough driven, dedicated students to create a culture that could transform students who came in with a cynical attitude towards school into people with a true interest in learning just a year later. So the reverse should be true as well, shouldn't it?

Maybe not. One possible difference is that in the LEAP example, the "bad" kid was influenced by the culture of the school because people are naturally drawn towards a nuturing environmnet, and the school may have offered more opportunities than the home environment. In the reverse case, a "good" kid would have to be drawn away from a supportive home environment (assuming that parents who are worried about these issues generally offer a supportive environment for their kids) and choose a corrupting school environment over that. I think this is less likely to happen. I went to schools with where most of the kids had quite different philosophies from me, but I emerged pretty much the same person. I feel I was more scarred by the culture created by the teachers than by that created by students.

So does this suggest that parents who have a choice should be willing to send their kids to "bad" schools? No. Because teaching quality can be more damaging than peer quality. I just get a little on edge whenever I hear people (particularly teachers!) labeling kids as "bad" and fearing their influence on others. To label teachers as "bad" is fine, because it doesn't reflect the quality of the person, but of their methodology, which is often handed down to them with few choices for autonomy. The culture of students is less rigid, and therefore easier to "tip".


I am currently sitting at the Purple Onion rather than traipsing about the country because I decided that I would rather use this time (spring break) for reflection than vacating. I've always realized the importance of making time for reflection, but, once again, it has come up as part of the theory of organizing I'm studying, and that's great. There, they make a distinction between evaluation, which happens directly after an action and is focused on the practicalities of organizing, and reflection, which is a time set aside to consider the moral foundations and implications of action. I think the process of reflection is much underused in our culture today in general, and in education specifically. It's pretty clear that children aren't given the time to reflect in grade school, and that school in fact makes every attempt to quell their innate curiosity. But "higher" education is supposed to encourage critical thought. In most cases it doesn't. I never understood what I was doing in undergrad, why I was there, subject to the torture of using my mind the way others wanted me to use it. Whenever I tried to escape to some other life path than college, I was pushed back in. In grad school it's even worse. Some disciplines have competition among students that discourages them from working through problems together or questioning the process of their training. Others, like mine, are focused on preparation for professional life, and hence all extra time that could be used for reflection the second year is spent desperately job-hunting, so as to have some income before the student loan grace period ends. It's ironic that American culture doesn't give people time to reflect because they have to be in action all the time, yet when it comes to the few deep beliefs that we do have, we're to apathetic to act on them. Maybe not. Maybe we just don't have any deep beliefs because we haven't had the time to think about what we believe. In any case, community organizers are encouraged to follow the steps of research, action, reflection. Time for reflection needs to be set aside as part of the structure of the organization (or one's own life, or institution... what would this look like in schools?), or it won't happen.

February 8, 2006

Thoughts on School Choice

The following are some of my thoughts on school choice, after reading a 1986 Star Tribune article on former Minneapolis school superintendent Richard Green for one of my classes. Green made a contentious argument: That privileged parents should be willing to sacrifice a bit of the quality of their children’s education for the common good. They should leave their children in failing city schools and fight to improve these schools, rather than moving their kids out of these schools. At first I was undecided on this issue, but if the goal is a politically engaged community, I agree with him. Green was angered that privileged parents have the attitude, “We can do something else; what are you doing to keep us here?? It is only the privileged parents who have this option of “something else?. If they move their children out of failing schools, they will most likely cease to be advocates for their improvement. There will be families who are left behind: those who do not have the time to inform themselves on their options, apply for scholarships, etc… and most likely these will be the families who have the least time to give to advocate for their children’s schools, as well. The only argument that I can see for this “free market approach? to our school system is that the bureaucracy of schools makes it impossible to change the system from the inside, so this is the only way schools will ever improve… to let the “bad? ones die out. This of course sacrifices a large part of a generation of school children in the process.
While Green argues that people who “opt out? of the public school system and leave it to rot will be sorry when their grown children are walking “side-by-side down the Nicollet Mall? with the “abandoned? former public school children, I think he’s wrong… and this is one of the biggest problems of our culture today. Because of the lack of community and contact between different strata of society, most likely those grown privileged children will not have to walk side-by-side with those who were left behind… they will therefore not see a reason to become engaged in community, and the cycle will continue.

January 24, 2006

One origin of the desire for education

On the question of which comes first, education or organizing, it can be argued that if the process of organizing achieves its goal of showing people their power to effect change, this will create the desire for education. If people feel powerless, they have no need for knowledge or awareness of the larger world. Once they come to believe that they can affect the world, they start to feel responsibility for their actions, and that drives them towards education.

January 23, 2006

What's the difference between education and organizing?

This question came up in my Democracy and Education class last semester and is essential to where I choose to focus my energy in the future. I think I primarily agree with with Myles Horton in We Make the Road by Walking, that education is superior to organizing because organizing is goal-driven, and can therefore easily be hijacked and people manipulated to achieve the goal. Education, on the other hand, is focused on developing individual potential, with respect for the individual:

"I'd say if you were working with an organization and there's a choice between the goal of that organization, or the particular program they're working on, and educating people, developing people, helping them grow, helping them become able to analyze - if there's a choice, we'd sacrifice the goal of the organization for helping the people grow, because we think in the long run it's a bigger contribution." (Myles Horton)

It's tricky, though. In the first place, how do you ever expect to change the educational system without organizing? We can try to educate individuals within specialized institutions, but the mass culture of education is what really needs to be changed. And organizing can be educational if done right. There are probably many who would argue that the type of organizing which sacrifices individual development for a general goal is not true organizing. Public Achievement tries to be this "true" type of organizing... recognizing that the process is more important than the goal.