I was at the annual meeting of a local Chamber of Commerce last week and couldn’t help but be struck by the simplistic way in which business leaders talk about education reform. I am frustrated by the double standard adopted by the business community when it comes to shaping and, in many cases, driving education reform efforts.
Business leaders are vocal in opposing increased regulations on business generally and on all manner of specific industries. They argue that politicians and bureaucrats do not understand the complexities of business; that regulations create hurdles and uncertainties that stymie innovation and growth; and that the money used to comply with regulations could be better spent on core business enterprise.
Yet, when it comes to education, we see three growing trends among business advocates:
I have to admit being wryly amused these days after conversations with colleagues who have been on the “reform” side of education policy conversations over the last four years. The reason? Many of them are now parents whose children are getting ready to enter preschool or kindergarten. People whose day jobs often entail wholesale advocacy of higher standards and accountability for schools, students and educators seem to forget these issues during conversations about the programs they are considering for their own children. A recent exchange at a social event is reflective of this general trend:
College prep charter school models like KIPP began as middle schools. The idea was to catch kids before they went to high school and to ensure that they were brought up to levels of proficiency in basic math and literacy. In other words, these schools focused on academic remediation. The fastest way to achieve this goal was to have teachers deliver a lot of content quickly and efficiently.
Not surprisingly, schools developed highly prescribed and scripted curricula, and focused on behavior management and routines that ensured teachers used time efficiently and all students covered the same materials. The push to expand these models was facilitated by an influx of enthusiastic but generally untrained college graduates into urban classrooms through Teach for America (TFA). A highly scripted curriculum allowed TFA Corps members to teach because it reduced the need for planning lessons and facilitating student-directed learning experiences.
My 7-year old son just started at the Rocky Mountain School of Expeditionary Learning (RMSEL) in Denver this fall. It is, as the name indicates, an expeditionary learning (EL) school model that is been recognized as one of the top-performing schools in the state. One reason so many families enter the competitive lottery is the whole-child approach to education that the school takes. RMSEL students explore a rigorous academic curriculum through a project-based instructional model. This is combined with a strong Outward Bound focus on leadership and character development. Parents and older students speak appreciatively about ways in which the small school environment allows for individualized learning and the development of authentic relationships between all members of the school community.
It was against the backdrop of this school environment that I found myself in a discussion about school choice in Denver with Tasha, the African-American mother of my son’s new classmate, who works at a local detention center. I mentioned wanting to explore the social justice issues involved in the current push to replicate college prep charter school models within areas of the city with concentrations of poor and minority students. (My use of college prep in this blog refers to what some also call high-performing charter school models including KIPP, STRIVE and a handful of others here in Denver; and networks such as KIPP, Aspire and YES Prep nationally). Tasha’s voice got a little higher as she mentioned one local school she had visited which had been highlighted by DPS as a strong college preparatory model for students through the 5th grade.