A New Ethic for Education Mobilization

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Last week I wrote about whether public school transformation was now dead in Washington, D.C. as a result of Mayor Adrian Fenty’s election defeat. Now, this week, in New York City, NBC News and a host of partners are putting on “Education Nation” to raise ideas and spark discussion about how to change public schools. In both instances, there’s a key ingredient to success missing: creating a new ethic in the nation for mobilizing people to transform public schools.

On Sunday, I watched Meet The Press where the U.S. Secretary of Education, school leaders from Detroit and Washington, D.C., and the head of the American Federation of Teachers spoke about the promise and peril of current school reform efforts. At the very end of the program, the host, David Gregory, shifted from his moderator role to that of parent. Saying that he has three kids, he wanted to know what he could do to help change schools.

What was so provocative about his comment was not what Gregory said, but how he said it. It was as if he had turned to an entirely different topic, one that was wholly unrelated to those his panel had just discussed. You could literally see the energy from the previous conversation sucked out of the studio, replaced by a “nice” and polite conversation about parental involvement. Neither his comment nor the response went to the heart of what’s needed in communities to bring about real school transformation.

Fenty’s loss was not because of his views on how to change public schools, but because he failed to understand how communities change. He was unable or unwilling to see and hear the people of Washington, D.C. He denied their realities only to focus on his own plans. He disconnected people from the very efforts of giving their kids a better shot at the American Dream.

In looking over the Education Nation agenda, I suspect the participants will talk at some length about what it means to “involve” parents and communities in changing schools. But here’s the thing: in what way will they talk about this? Will the conversation simply mirror that of Meet The Press?

Increasingly, the good news on education change is that public discourse is slowly but surely changing. No longer is simply “measuring test results” enough. Instead, people are talking more about innovations in how to educate kids; that outdated teacher contracts must be overhauled; that more wrap-around services for kids are necessary. Even the mere convening of Education Nation can be viewed as a positive sign.

But there’s more to creating effective and sustainable change. Now is the time to focus squarely on the community and its real role. Failing schools are a reflection of failing communities. The key is to bring people together to make education a priority and to marshal the community’s public will, resources, and talents to transform schools – or, better put, to help kids grow and flourish, not simply as students, but as individuals. We can do this, but it will take a concerted effort to engage people in genuine ways about how an entire community can come together.

This task can’t be left for the last thirty seconds of Meet The Press, nor as a nice add-on at conferences. If it is, David Gregory and others may very well spend an afternoon in their kid’s class, but nothing will have actually changed.