We need a Green New Deal for EducatioN Part II

Updated: Sep 11, 2019

One of the more Faustian bargains that the charter school sector entered into with education policy-makers was that, in exchange for granting our charters, we would improve “academic outcomes” of our students, that we would do so in relatively short order and, as required by many accountability plans, we would outperform our local districts. Forgetting for the moment that requiring charter schools to shame their local district schools is a dubious recipe for collegiality, the “outperform” policy combined with the demand for “data-driven instruction” set in motion what has become the single biggest talking point for charter school advocates (our test scores) and, simultaneously, a profound threat to traditional ideas about the teaching profession.

There should be no doubt at this point that many of our nation’s large and successful charter management organizations are rocking the tests. Even given the accusations leveled against these networks (counseling kids out, no backfilling, etc) the evidence strongly suggests that schools that adopt a “relentless focus on outcomes” (test scores) and data-driven instruction have shown that they can absolutely move the needle. So, first of all, we should acknowledge and congratulate this accomplishment by “high-performing” networks. They have delivered as promised and delivered far better than everyone. But in doing so, they have also exposed uncomfortable truths about the role of educators in a data-driven, outcomes-focussed environment.

High-performing networks have demonstrated that you don’t need a staff of well-paid veteran teachers who have worked for years to improve their craft. Instead, you hire bright, young teachers right out of college, give them hours of classroom management training and sufficient mentoring to make sure they’re delivering the teaching scripts correctly and staying “laser-focussed” on the data. Overwhelming anecdotal evidence suggests that few teachers in these systems last longer than three years before they burn out and move on. But no biggie; that churn is built into the network business model. The goal is not to encourage and prepare lifelong practitioners. The goal is to train competent technicians who can keep their classrooms orderly and remain focussed on the bottom line of the enterprise—high test scores.

This is the game that many of us have agreed to play in order to get and maintain a charter and it has required a tremendous degree of patience and compromise for those of us who lead schools that have a mission beyond rocking the tests to satisfy the needs of narrow-minded authorization and stay true to our mission. It is antithetical to the very idea of innovation -- yet here we are.

To be sure, there is a growing and welcome movement in charter authorization to explore other measures of student, teacher and school success but it will require a concerted effort to continue to push towards multiple measures. Because the game as it’s presently being played is not going to help solve the vexing problems of our world. The game as it’s being played IS one of the vexing problems of our world.

A Green New Deal for Education must insist upon a different game if there is to be any hope of attracting talented young people to the teaching profession. And a Green New Deal for Education must also recognize that the true spirit of innovation for the revitalization of the teaching profession lies within the self-managed, mission-driven charter schools that are typical of our membership. If there is one paradigm that’s been learned and put into practice by our schools, it’s that the paternalistic, centralized hierarchy that is still the norm within most of public education (and sadly within some of the highly regimented charter networks) is at odds with 21st century learning skills of creativity, collaboration, critical thinking and communication, and that teachers need to be given agency, time, space and support to succeed in their craft.

Young people who still dream of becoming teachers with the awesome power to transform the lives of young people cannot possibly have dreams of entering a system in which they have no say and no agency. There’s no fun in that. And, as “high-performing” networks have demonstrated, there’s no future in it either. The way to save the profession is by making sure that our own schools are living up to their potential as places that inspire and maintain a teaching staff that revels in the power that we have entrusted to them, and is prepared to go boldly into the future.

We have seen this new paradigm -- and it is us.

Keep on keepin’ on.

Steve Zimmerman


© 2020 Coalition of Public Independent Charter Schools

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