Schools, Bureaucracy, and Politics: Parent Power and Teacher Professionalism

Summary: Restiveness by parents in Los Angeles and teachers in Seattle reflects the tendency of educational bureaucracies to ignore voices from the grass roots level.

Crenshaw High School in Los Angeles is poster child to the desperate academic struggle in too many American urban schools. According to Christina Hoag of the Associated Press (Seattle Times 2/4/13), at Crenshaw “just 3 percent of students are proficient in math and 17 percent in reading.” Further, “just 37 percent of students attend school 96 percent of the time. Just half of the class of 2012 graduated,” though given the skill proficiencies cited one wonders how many of those graduates have skills that are ready for the real world of employment and higher education.

So it is counter intuitive to learn that some Crenshaw parents are in the process of filing a civil rights complaint with the US Department of Education, alleging that drastic reinvention of Crenshaw into a magnet school has led or will lead to significant destabilization of their community, in which the school has been framed as one of the few pillars upon which the residents can rely. Moreover, the changes have been made, allegedly, without grass roots community input, by leadership removed from the largely black and Latino communities that are affected.

Though the particulars of complaint vary from community to community, other groups around the country have filed similar civil rights complaints involving top down change in their own schools.

The Federal Department of Education itself appears to be one primary driver of the controversy, albeit in the role of providing money for school reform, $535 million, to be exact. “School Improvement Grants” are given to schools which “turn themselves over to a charter or other operator, replace at least half of the staff and principal, hire a new principal with a revitalized learning strategy, or which simply are closed” (in which case, presumably, the money is used for the transition to whatever comes next).

Politicians, school boards, and other power elite who know how to access and organize these monies, no doubt with the best of intentions, would seem to be placing themselves on the other side of a divide from at least some of the population they are determined to liberate from clearly failing schools.

LosAngeles Unified School District Superintendent John Deasy labeled “immoral” the historically poor performance of Crenshaw High. He might have also echoed the cry of others, ironically given the civil rights suit pending against the school district, that improving school performance among low income and students of color may well be the civil rights issue of our time.

Yet why have these efforts elicited a backlash, in fact a civil rights suit, from the very families whose prospects they intend to transform?

The suit charges that community input was shortchanged in the course of the decision to convert Crenshaw to a magnet school. Apparently key parent priorities, poorly grasped by elites outside of the community, were ignored or at best minimized. As would any self respecting set of individuals, elements of the community are fighting back. In effect, they are saying, “Listen to us.”

The motivation of higher level administrative types is not questioned here; they are as pained by the failure of schools under their authority as any one.

Yet in the rush to reform, and under pressure to perform, elites — politicians, federal education officials, state directors of education, on down to school superintendents and even principals — understandably fall prey to the perceived facility of making orders from their relative perch rather than engaging authentically in the time consuming process of grass roots input.

Thus the entrenched educational culture readily channels communication top to bottom, but allows too few messages to reach up from grass roots to influence decision makers, whether those grass roots folk are parents or teachers.

In my experience and observation this pattern infects much effort to reform our schools, is too little recognized for the harm it inflicts, and may well be an important reason why progress is less than all parties hope to achieve.

Many teachers in the classroom experience the same habitual top down management style that has elicited the Crenshaw parent backlash.

In the case of teachers, otherwise promising initiatives are clumsily implemented for want of teachers’ practical voice.  Or, ideas poorly conceived in isolation from the lives of real kids are not adequately vetted from a viewpoint in the classroom and so waste time and money rather than promote the mutual cause.

Moreover, such top down, bureaucratic order stifles any healthy growth of the teacher professionalism that many parties agree is the lynchpin to a sustained and successful school reform. Instead, the product is resentment.

Teachers hide behind their collective unions, as their port in the storm, and thereby incur criticism; they reflexively resist change, become part of the problem rather than providers of solution, and thereby are partly responsible for being bypassed in the decision making process. Ah, I smell a vicious cycle.

Could the power elite more consciously respect teachers by including them better in the decision making process? Of course. Could teachers and their collective unions get more out front of the reform process, thereby claiming ground that is theirs? Of course. What we have here is a dance, destructive to the common goal, in which elite entities and teacher entities mutually reinforce the unproductive behavior of the other.

In a similar manner the long history of dysfunction and community disorganization at Crenshaw elicits the top down directive of the school elites, who in their zeal to right the ship trample community prerogative and point of view.

In parallel with the Crenshaw civil rights rebellion by parents is a current refusal by an apparently united teaching staff in a Seattle high school, Garfield specifically, to administer to its ninth graders a standardized test called the Measures of Academic Progress (MAP). The test typically has been administered in Seattle schools from grades one through nine, two to three times a year, and is used to monitor and diagnose student progress, as well as to form part of teacher evaluation.

According to Linda Shaw writing in the February 6 Seattle Times:

“Teachers say the tests’ margin of error is greater than the number of points that the average ninth-grader is expected to gain, that the tests cover material they are not expected to teach, that students who are struggling must take the tests more often even though they shouldn’t miss class time, and that giving the MAP test ties up Garfield’s computer labs for weeks.” (The MAP is administered via computer)

Jose Banda, Seattle’s relatively new superintendent of schools, seems to demonstrate some ability to listen when he is quoted in the Shaw article as having learned in the dialogue with the Garfield teachers that they may not have had the training necessary to make use of the MAP’s results.

While the time devoted to testing is a widespread teacher complaint, clearly the zeitgeist of this current interval in schools uses testing to diagnose student academic ills, and to inform remedial action; the practice is common to the point that failure to do so might well incur critique. In my own school, I believe it to have guided progress in student test scores, and the MAP is reported by associates in nearby schools to be useful for the same purpose.

So the Garfield teacher boycott of the test in part may be based upon unstable ground, perhaps created by a district bureaucratic lapse when it did not bring the teachers on board with proper training.

On the other hand, it is mainstream thinking to ask, as do the Garfield teachers, whether or not added hours of testing for struggling learners, to the detriment of time on task in the classroom, is a productive use of time and resources — the third of the four reasons quoted in the Times as rationale for the boycott.

Whatever the particulars of this struggle over testing, they invite comparison to the parents of Crenshaw and their civil rights suit. In both cases centralized directives evoke rebellion that sounds a lot like “No mas!”

As did the Crenshaw parents, teaching staff at Garfield had a choice to either knuckle under and let events wash over them, or to resist in some way.

That they chose resistance, whatever the merit of different items of their reasoning, to my thinking is evidence of some vitality in their ranks, and at least incipient professionalism.

In no way does this mean the district administrators are the demons, but it does mean teachers, to pursue a professional identity, must become players at the table of policy within schools and within districts. The old adage, “power is taken, not given,” applies here. The school district cannot “give” teachers professionalism; teachers themselves must create it and earn it.

Possibly such is the subtext of the current conflict; hopefully Mr. Banda is skillful enough to recognize the opening and utilize the opportunity. He is in a difficult position, because simultaneously he has to maintain some discipline in the ranks.

Meanwhile, the leadership of the Los Angeles School District might do well to pause in their restructuring plans and ask what the civil rights complaints against their efforts really mean, and how a sensitive address to the concerns might lead in the end to a more broadly successful shift of gears. Methinks it likely the LA educational elites are missing something substantial.

Granted, leadership can’t please everyone, and worse than incorporating all points of view is not to stake a direction and take action.

However, the widespread nature of the civil rights complaints, and their repetition over many sites, seems likely to derive from the common tendency of educational bureaucracies to wax roughshod over grass roots intelligence, whether in the community served or of the teachers employed.

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