Wednesday Reading List: A Failure to Communicate

Hillary Clinton spoke to the National Education Association, the country's biggest teachers' union, yesterday. While this wasn't the biggest presidential election news of the day, it was the most significant event from a policy standpoint:

Hillary Clinton delivered plenty of applause lines Tuesday in a speech to the nation’s largest teachers union at a gathering in Washington, calling for less standardized testing, more support for vulnerable children and more respect and pay for public school educators ... But Clinton also signaled her willingness to challenge union orthodoxy on the lightning rod issue of charter schools, saying that there are some successful charter schools whose approaches should be studied and replicated.

There's little doubt that a Clinton presidency would mean a regression to the mean on education policy, but this statement helps reform supporters understand that she won't be willfully dismissive of strong results. Stephen Sawchuk from Ed Week was there and describes the reaction of the crow, including the "jeers" for her charter comments:

Overall, the speech, which was proceeded and followed by power ballads by female artists, like Kelly Clarkson's "Fight Song," was heavy on firing up the troops. Teachers' union volunteering can be even more powerful for a presidential campaign than members' donations. NEA President Lily Eskelsen García, for one, liked what she heard ... here's how García explained the boos that greeted Clinton's charter remarks: "In so many of our communities, charter schools have devastated school funding," she said. "For us, the anger comes from the growing franchise of for-profit charters."
Sharif El-Mekki

Sharif El-Mekki

García can point out the failure of the for-profit charter sector, but I'm skeptical that her members are parsing Clinton's statements so thinly. In both traditional and social media, folks conflate nonprofit and for-profit charter schooling, and I worry that these comments are aimed at further confusing that differentiation. Sharif El-Mekki is frustrated with this double speak on schooling, too. He challenges "anti-reformers" to understand the roots of school improvement battles:

While there is much angst amongst the “traditionalists” about progressive things like charter schools and school choice for poor families, we know that Malcolm X  called for school systems to significantly shake things up. He demanded that there be a significant number of turnaround schools-calling for 10% of their persistently failing schools to be turned over to the community ... Malcolm, as often is the case, knew the blueprint for our liberation. He knew that limiting school choice options was not in the best interest of the Black community. Still isn’t.

Elizabeth Harris at the New York Times looks at whether her city has any chance of mounting more significant efforts at desegregation. The short answer seems to be "not really," but there are pockets of the city where demographic changes make modest, localized efforts possible:

... in most city school districts, where poor children live near other poor children, no such diversity exists. There, meaningful integration would require major intervention. But no comprehensive plans have emerged from City Hall or the Education Department. The schools chancellor, Carmen Fariña, has said she wants to avoid mandates in favor of proposals that bubble up from schools and local communities “organically.” That approach, say critics like Councilman Ritchie Torres, a Democrat who represents parts of the Bronx, amounts to tinkering around the edges of a dense and vast problem.

Almost everyone, including me, agrees that our schools need to be much less segregated by race and class. The complications in Harris's piece, however, demonstrate that there's no magic wand for integration, and that any significant systemic desegregation effort will consume most of a municipality's educational energy for years. Elsewhere in the Times, Ford Foundation president Darren Walker describes how internships have become the workforce's gated community:

As the summer internship season gets into full swing, consider, for instance, how a plum internship may alter a young person’s career trajectory. While some students take a summer job in food service to pay the bills, others can afford to accept unpaid jobs at high-profile organizations, setting them on a more lucrative path ... America’s current internship system, in which contacts and money matter more than talent, contributes to an economy in which access and opportunity go to the people who already have the most of both ... The result is not limited to the labor market. The broader implication is privilege multiplied by privilege, a compounding effect prejudiced against students who come from working-class or lower-income circumstances.

Internships represent one of many small issues that, when compounded, contribute to inequality. While it might not seem like a big deal to field a phone call from a college friend whose kid needs a summer job, giving that kid a job confers a serious career advantage that, while meaningful to the privileged, could be life-altering for a young person with less access to social capital. Folks underestimate the power implicit in making hiring decisions. Next time you hire an intern, it's worth considering the extent to which you're perpetuating a vicious cycle. 

Further upstate, Tara García Mathewson at the Hechinger Report looks at how the Syracuse school district deals with large communities of individuals, including refugees, who do not speak English:

Sometimes cultural differences keep parents from understanding that schools want to hear from them. But there are other times when parents who want to be their children’s advocates — or simply be well-informed about their children’s progress — are kept from doing so because of language barriers ... “It’s very challenging for immigrants, and refugees especially, because a lot of them just don’t understand the process for how you would file complaints, or that you even have a right to file complaints,” Ahrens said. These parents do not understand their rights or the responsibilities of school districts. And even worse, school and district administrators often do not, themselves, understand their legal obligations to parents who don’t speak English.

It's important to understand that this is both an instructional issue and an access issue. Parents who cannot communicate with a school are at a severe disadvantage in advocating for their children's needs. The more unique a student's needs are, the more the communication gap becomes a liability.