Tuesday, September 07, 2010

Why I don't believe in "reform": from former TFAer, KIPP teacher and admin, and charter school administrator

Why I don’t believe in “reform”

Posted by Marc Waxman Sep 7th, 2010.
Marc Waxman has been an educator for 17 years, including 12 in New York City, and the last two in Denver.
I don’t believe.  I wish I could believe.  I am supposed to believe.  But, I don’t. I don’t believe in education “reform” in our country.
I don’t believe charter schools are a panacea, I don’t believe that linking student achievement to teacher evaluation will significantly impact education, and for that matter, I don’t believe student achievement” should be the ultimate goal of education in our country.
I am supposed to believe in all this, especially if you look at my resume and follow the major media discussion of education “reform.” Let me explain.
When I graduated from college in 1994 I joined Teach For America.  I taught two years in Paterson, NJ (made famous by Joe “Batman” Clark from Eastside High School – which was just across the street from the 1,000-student K-8 school where I taught.  After my two years of TFA service I became one of the first teachers and administrators at KIPP in the South Bronx.  After three years at KIPP, I spent the next nine years co-founding and co-directing a new school in Harlem which started as a school-within-a school, was part of a take-over of a failing school that was closed, became an official New York City public school, and then converted to become one of only five conversion charter schools in NYC.
Next, I came to Denver, where I worked for Denver Public Schools in the New Schools Office where I became its Executive Director and reshaped the office to become the Office of School Reform and Innovation.  And, now I am working on opening another charter school and a charter management organization (CMO) that will support a network of charter schools in the metro Denver area.
I have wanted to communicate about my beliefs, or “unbeliefs” for a long time.  Diane Ravitch’s book “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Educationemboldened me to write this blog.  It’s not that I agree with everything Ravitch says.  It’s just that I felt like it was a courageous act on her part to write it.  Frankly, it was inspiring and motivating.  And, so much of the book connected to my own experiences.  Above I explained my background with Teach For America, KIPP schools, and charter schools.  But, I also have other experiences directly relating to the book.
As I went through and identified the main focus of each chapter – standards, NYC school system’s business model, NYC’s District 2, choice, accountability, testing, NCLB, the power of philanthropists – I realized that I had a direct connection to every one of them.  Although I had never done anything like it before – write a blog, an op-ed, or a letter to an author – I realized that I wanted to reach out to Dr. Ravitch and engage her and others in a dialogue about the things that matter to me about education in our country. This is my way of reaching out.
I have a feeling – although I hope I am wrong – that to many reading this I will be viewed as a polemicist. And, to be frank, I am a little scared to write for this blog. I am going to openly disagree with and challenge many people I have worked for and with, people who have supported me professionally and personally and financially, and people I need to work with in the future.  Many of these people I have great respect for.  I am trusting that these people will welcome the dialogue.  But I am scared nonetheless.
I am passionate and committed to education and am eager to engage with anyone in any way to improve education in our country (especially for those who have historically been denied access to excellent education), but education is also my job.  It’s how I pay my bills and help support my family.  So, this has real stakes for me.  But, when I think about the type of students I want to help develop – students that believe they can make a difference in the world and then go out and do it – I can’t hypocritically and comfortably sit back and not engage.  Frankly too many people – it often seems like everybody– seem to be sitting back and not engaging. Ultimately, I am more scared NOT to speak up – if nobody does, we will continue in the wrong direction.
Ravitch writes:
“If we want to improve education, we must first of all have a vision of what good education is.  We should have goals that are worth striving for.  Everyone involved in educating children should ask themselves why we educate.  What is a well-educated person?  What knowledge is of most worth?  What do we hope for when we send our children to school? What do we want them to learn and accomplish by the time they graduate from school?”
If you believe the dominant narrative, these questions all boil down to a simple concept – what’s most important is student achievement, specifically achievement on a narrow set of tasks that make up our nation’s current standardized testing program.  While I understand, to a large extent from personal experience, how tempting it is simplify in this way, we must resist.  Education and student achievement are not the same.  It’s as if we, as a nation, have decided to forgo examining the purposes of education in lieu of the narrow goal of student achievement (as defined by test scores).
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how and when I started to challenge the student achievement mantra.  It may have been when I was working at KIPP, very focused on student achievement but also taking classes at Teachers College at Columbia University.  For a class on curriculum design we read John Dewey’s Experience and Education.  In it Dewey writes,
“What avail is it to win prescribed amounts of information… if in the process an individual loses his own soul: loses his appreciation of things worth while, of the values to which these things are relative; if he loses desire to apply what he has learned and, above all, loses the ability to extract meaning from his future experiences as they occur?”
This is one of the few quotes I have memorized.  At times I have printed it and hung it above my desk.
As a parent and as an educator I think about the question “What is education?” constantly.  My answers have changed over time and are still changing.  In future posts I will explore my answers.  My question for today is not what reforms we should or should not believe.  It is simply this – what’s your vision of a good education?  It’s time to have this conversation, however messy it may be.

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