Reframing School Reform

I recently read an article from www.the74million.org written by Rob Pondiscio, a dope writer and a friend to the reform movement. There were some salient points from the paper and some items that did not resonate with me. I won’t go line for line regarding my likes or dislikes of his piece, but I would like to offer an alternative perspective for those that care to hear one.

Schools Are Bad for Everyone

I agree with Robert’s assertion that schools have failed minoritized students for generations. However, schools haven’t been great for rural and suburban white kids either. In sum, schools just haven’t been good. My thoughts are that if we focus solely on how schooling has been for Bb kids, we miss an opportunity to point out the obvious, schools in their totality are just bad for all kids, not just the schools that serve Bb families predominately. Real reform won’t occur until it impacts white kids. Making this argument an “All Minds Matter” argument is a more powerful argument.

Wilson (former CEO of Ascend Charter Network) states, “Those who founded and ran such schools built their pillars— academic achievement and high expectations for all students—are in a defensive crouch, stunned seething or bending to a knee to a new social justice orthodoxy that now frames their effort to advance racial justice as just the opposite: an attempt to impose white supremacy on Bb children.”

Lived Experiences

For those of you that do not know, I’m a charter school insider. In his article, many of the schools Robert named were the governing models and provided playbooks for other charter schools. If you speak with reflective charter school leaders who led schools during that era, they will openly admit to the schools’ harmful practices. I ride for charter schools, but if we can’t be self-reflective on practices that didn’t work and openly discuss those policies’ residual impact, we are no better than any other movement for students. Regardless of the success of these schools, the lived experiences of students and families are essential. This article fails to capture the voices of the tormented souls that attended these charter schools. The students who wore yellow shirts when they did not submit to white school leaders’ will. Students who were isolated from the general population (Gen Pop) when they broke the rules. Students who had to sit on hard wooden floors to earn their seat at the table. As a newly fermented charter school leader, I admit my complacency in these Civil Rights violations. It was my first year as a dean of students, and my job was to enforce these rules. I found a workaround, built relationships with students, so they complied based on being treated like humans. Yet, I witnessed white colleagues that treated these students as anything but human. And when I finally built up enough courage to speak out against student treatment, I earned the label of not being a team player and was non-renewed.

No Excuses for the Damages Done by No Excuses

I’d visited some public schools around the time when Zero-tolerance charter schools were sexy. The article mentions that some of the public schools were wild. There’s truth to that. Much of the popularity behind Zero-tolerance charter schools centers on school safety. Parents compromised their students’ rights to provide them with physically safe learning environments. In doing so, many parents did not address the psychological impact that these schools had on children. So, when you see alumni lashing out, it’s not because they aren’t grateful for the opportunity; it’s because many still live with the trauma inflicted upon them by the schools they attended.

Room to Grow

I wanted to read this article and disagree profusely. I don’t. However, when items like this come out, it’s essential to include a multitude of voices. I’d love to see the representatives of Bb founders and prominent school leaders that identify as Bb. They may be hard to find. If you look at the movement under a microscope, that’s where it fails Bb students, in my opinion. My suggestion is the next time an article like this publishes, let’s find students who had horrible experiences in these schools and let them include their voices. Parents who have had less than stellar experiences in these schools also include their votes on the record.

Published by Raymond J. Ankrum, Sr.

Mr. Ankrum is the current Superintendent of the Riverhead Charter School. Mr. Ankrum has gained notoriety as a school turnaround expert. He is enthusiastic about helping students from low (SES) find ways to end generational poverty through educational advocacy. If you believe PoC can end generational poverty by exercising educational opportunities, you have an ally in @Mr_Ankrum.

4 thoughts on “Reframing School Reform

  1. I had much the same reaction to Robert’s article. it’s not either/or, it’s an evolution of thought.

    I know we made some mistakes back in the day, but we were better than other options then and are even better today. Robert makes it sound like we’re a movement that has been diminished by evolving toward greater justice; we are not. This evolution makes us stronger, not weaker. We show strength by being humble and reflective and by changing based on what we learn. We’re here for out students, and we when we better learn what they need, we change.

    When I read criticisms like this (for example, hand-wringing over KIPP’s dropping of “work hard, be nice”, I have to wonder if it’s the voices of those conservatives who have supported charter schools for their own reasons in the past but who are uncomfortable with our evolution.

  2. First, it is Robert, not Ron.

    Next, my continued and growing frustration with reform is that we all admit/accept that what we are trying to reform is built on antiquated and even racist and classist notions, but we are hell-bent to “reform.” Education needs to be transformed to meet community and especially individual needs. Then the naysayers start in. Restorative practices are bullshit. Trauma-informed is false. And by the same token, expectations held high never seem high enough or, by turns, are unfair.

    I feel perspectives and points of view are critical to appreciate from the various angles they come from. In the end, when we govern, manage, and lead or teach without empathy we miss opportunities for growth. We miss chances to help others grow.

    I feel you made great points, I feel Robert did as well. The real trick, as you shared, is to hear from kids and parents/guardians. No easy answers.

    Thanks for sharing this.

  3. Thanks for the thoughtful engagement. I won’t go back and forth with you; I had my say and happy to let you and others have theirs. I will say, however, that before Steven Wilson gave his talk, I’d been reporting for several months a long piece on “no excuses” charters for which I interviewed many dozens of leaders, teachers, and (particularly) parents of color. That piece may or may not see the light of day eventually, but the piece you’re commenting on reflects my best effort to reflect the views of a wide variety of people involved in those big CMOs, not just white folks.

    I appreciate and respect you and your work a lot. Thanks for being there.

    Robert

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