Joe Nocera, writing in his new column on The New York Times Op-Ed page, accuses the education reform movement of hubris and prescribes reformers a dose of humility as to what reform can and cannot accomplish. I’ll leave to others to point out that the beliefs attributed to the movement are straw men. But given that there is clearly such a perception, a glimpse at how humble most actual reformers are is certainly worthwhile.
Many years ago, I sat at LaGuardia airport with a group of talented school leaders, including David Levin, co-founder of the KIPP charter school network. It was 5:30 in the morning and we were waiting to hop a prop plane to Rochester. At the time I was the head of SUNY’s charter authorizing arm and, in the wake of closing two badly performing charter schools, I had asked the leaders to go to Rochester, hoping to entice one of them to start a school up there. I, myself, was feeling pretty humble having had a hand in authorizing both schools to open only to see them fail the children and parents they had made promises to. My sense of my own failure at my job was not much alleviated by my knowledge that parents had fought SUNY tooth and nail to keep the schools open or by knowing that their children would return to district schools that were no better.
At some point, Levin was looking at an email that informed him that three kids from his graduating eighth grade class had ended up gang-banging around the neighborhood—one, I think, had been picked up by the police. I remember him saying that the kids had acted like they had completely bought into the lessons that the school was trying to teach about character, perseverance and the worthwhileness of succeeding in school. But, he said, it was clear that they had much more to learn and the school had much more work to do. “This work sometimes feels like Sisyphus,” he said. And in that moment, in the early light of a late spring day, he looked worn, tired, dispirited.
But ten minutes later, by the time the plane was called, he had pulled himself together. He was already thinking through how the school could make adulthood and the character he knew the kids needed to internalize more attractive to the students in his school. He was already asking himself what he and his teachers could do better. And in that moment, Levin wasn’t thinking he had the solution, the magic bullet to erasing the effects of poverty. He wasn’t thinking, either, that teachers are at fault or the unions are the enemy. And I’m sure he wasn’t thinking he would succeed with every kid. But what he was thinking was what was in his power to change and improve so that at least one less kid would lose the ability to participate on fair terms in our society. And that’s pretty much all he thinks about.
No, school reform, as Nocera reminds us, won’t fix everything. But it should be self-evident that we should do all we can to create and support public policies that allow educators like Levin (whether in district or charter schools) to fix as much as they can as urgently as they can.