Community Vision for Education of Children
By | Andrew Lefkowits
The promise of public education – to create the engaged, informed citizens of tomorrow, to level the playing field and give an opportunity to anyone willing to take it – has been broken, and the stories told in this journal confirm it. However, that promise isn’t broken in the same way for all people.
While our educational system could better prepare all of our children for the future, we can’t ignore the fact that the stakes are different for white kids – for my kids. My children have a cushion of privilege that protects them from the worst of our educational system. They are expected to succeed. They are held to high standards. Their behavior is viewed in the context of their age, not as dangerous or even criminal. They see themselves reflected in their teachers, their administrators, the books they read, the history they are taught. The system is designed to cater to my needs, my desires, my goals, it is responsive to me.
I believe that the only way we move toward educating ALL children, and doing it well, will require channels of power that flow from the bottom up.
Meaningful avenues for ALL parents, who know their students best and want the best for them, to hold the schools accountable for living up to the promise of public education.
In hearing the stories in this journal, a couple of things become clear. First of all, parents and community members have incredible insight into what is and, more importantly, what isn’t working in the schools. Second, there is a sense of hopelessness, of futility in trying to change the system to make it more responsive. The system is based on expertise hierarchies that seem to create barriers to parents feeling empowered to force change. The teachers, school leaders and district staff are the ones with all of the “expertise”, leaving parents feeling ill-equipped to suggest changes. When the power structures feel immovable and unresponsive, and we can see the ways a particular school is failing to serve our kids, the only reasonable option is to leave and hope to find something better at another school. In fact, the system is designed to encourage this behavior.
We have created a market based system that hopes that the ability of families to vote with their feet and take their student based budget dollars with them will force schools to be responsive to the needs of the community. And yet, in a system in which the mechanisms of school choice disproportionately favor white people and wealthy people, we get a system that is responsive to those people, at the expense of the rest of our students and families. We see this in big, structural ways, like immovable school boundaries, untouchable for fear of angering white and/or wealthy people, or magnet programs, once a tool for desegregation, but now often used to prevent “white flight” by concentrating privilege in a handful of schools. But we also see it in thousands of smaller, everyday decisions, made by teachers, school leaders, and district staff, from who gets called on to answer a question in class to who we make exceptions for when it comes to our policies.
The end result is a system largely designed for the minority of our students. In a district that is made up of 75% students of color and 65% students who qualify for free or reduced price lunch, we spend considerable time and energy catering to white and/or privileged families. And while those families find ways to make the system work for us, many families find themselves trapped in schools that aren’t
serving them well.
We have to rethink the mechanisms by which we hold schools accountable for serving all students well. If the only options are trapping kids in “failing” schools, or forcing kids out of schools for the promise of something better, we are failing – we are failing the children who can’t move, we are failing the neighborhoods those schools serve, and we are failing the promise of public education. Schools need to be held accountable, but trying to do that entirely through bureaucracy is inefficient and puts massive power in our institutions. Meanwhile, entirely local based criteria for accountability leaves open the door to lower standards, and continued inequalities between schools. We need to find a middle ground.
We need new mechanisms that, rather than encouraging parents to change schools for something better, encourage schools to change into something better. But to do that requires new power structures that not only elevate the voice of parents, but are intentionally designed to elevate the voice of ALL parents. These are hard spaces to create because we have few examples of truly equitable power sharing in our society, and yet, if our kids are to thrive in the world they are poised to inherit, they will have to become fluent in creating those types of spaces. A world in which work is increasingly done collaboratively with an increasingly diverse group of people will require a skill set that we should be modeling for our kids. The ways we go about trying to fix our schools, should look like the ways we expect our kids to thrive in the future.
It seems to me that we will only do that by acknowledging who our systems were created by and for, and then working to re-think the way those systems work. We must engage in this work collaboratively, through honest, thoughtful conversation, a recognition of existing privilege, and a
commitment to elevating ALL voices.
Andrew Lefkowits is a proud graduate
of DPS. He has two kids at Stedman
Elementary and is co-chair of Park Hill Neighbors for Equity in Education
(http://phnee.org). He is also the co-host of The Integrated Schools Podcast