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“The Danger of a Single Story” (Part Two)

October 12, 2010

I recently wrote a blog post that focused on a TED Talk by novelist Chimamanda Adichie, who cautioned her audience about “The Danger of a Single Story” – meaning that when we only hear one narrative about a subject, we accept stereotypes as truths.  In the United States today, the risk submerging ourselves in the mono-narrative of failing public schools, which some observers have suggested is another manifestation of what Naomi Klein dubbed The Shock Doctrine in her recent book.  Klein argues that danger and instability make it possible for those in power to make changes and advance agendas that would otherwise encounter opposition.  If our public schools are in crisis, then the public is more likely to embrace dramatic remedies, in the form of traumatic “school turnaround” models and the rapid expansion of charter schools and mayoral control, along with the end of due process (“tenure”) rights for teachers, and an infusion of cheap, short-term staffing solutions via Teach for America.

Today, I want to offer some of the counter-narrative.  Yes, many of our schools are struggling, in ways that should hardly surprise us when we lead the developed world in poverty and trail in quality of health care.  As a nation, we need to re-examine our priorities and our investments.  However, in the midst of these problems, many of our public schools are succeeding.  They have skilled and dedicated staff members, providing a high-quality education to satisfied families and communities, and their graduates are heading off to college and career success in droves.  Here are some examples of where and how they’re doing it.  And in other circumstances, I would be glad to highlight the outstanding work of some excellent charter schools, as my colleague Kelly Kovacic has done here at InterACT.  However, the point today is to expand the narrative.  The Gates Foundation and Broad Foundation are investing millions of dollars to get you into theaters to see “Waiting for Superman,” so excuse me if I don’t feel like charter schools need my help at the moment.  (Hat tip to Stephen Krashen’s blog post at Schools Matter).

Teachers unions are quite supportive of innovation when it’s done right, involving teachers in planning and implementation rather than dictating changes that won’t work.  In Poway Unified School District here in California, teachers work as evaluators as part of a long-standing, innovative program that should be a model for other districts.  (ACT featured the Poway program in our report on teacher evaluation reforms).  It’s a great example of how districts and unions can work together when there are adequate resources and mutual respect.  The Poway local teachers association also participates in CalTURN, part of the national Teachers Union Reform Network (TURN).  You will rarely hear about internal efforts to bring improvement to teachers unions, because it doesn’t fit the narrative.  If you’re a filmmaker, TV personality, or major network, the story works much better if you present the unions as monolithic entities willing to sacrifice education quality to protect bad teachers.

What about teachers going above and beyond the requirements of the job?  Apparently, (I didn’t see it myself) one featured educator on the poorly named “Education Nation” teacher town hall told an MSNBC audience that she wanted to do more work, but the union wouldn’t let her – an incident that sparked an interesting blog post by Jose Vilson, with a lengthy series of comments.  Here in California, fellow ACT member Larry Ferlazzo has made a career out of going above and beyond, becoming a resource for colleagues around the world through his prolific blogging.  But the main reason I mention Larry is that his focus on parent engagement (as a blogger, and as a book author) has direct benefits for his students and his school.  In this interview, the principal of Larry’s school, Ted Appel, describes parent visits and other successful efforts by the school to honor the backgrounds of diverse students and ensure that they are part of an inclusive, supportive atmosphere.  The interview appears at the Public Schools Insights blog, produced by the Learning First Alliance.  Their website offers many more opportunities to learn about public school success stories, including these from California.

Another ACT member, Liane Cismowski, serves on the board of directors for CTA’s Institute for Teaching (IFT), a union-led effort to support innovation in California public schools.  The website Teacher Driven Change features a variety of IFT projects that are having a direct, positive effect on student learning.  There are many to look at, including the Algebra Project and Positive Deviance, a project to reduce the number of students dropping out of high school.

Union participation in school reform efforts can also be found by looking at the NEA Priority Schools Campaign.  Through the NEA site, I found a recent newspaper article describes the improvement of one California school that successfully implemented a Quality Education Investment Act (QEIA) grant, which relied on union support.  Additional California success stories can also be found on the NEA site.  It’s also worth taking a look at articles about the Math and Science Leadership Academy (MSLA) in Denver, a teacher-led school – no principals.  Follow this link to one (slightly dated) story about MSLA, and find many other articles about their work.  (I’ve also blogged about the school and one of its leaders, Lori Nazareno, once before).

So, if you find yourself being subjected to “the single story” about our broken education system and the incompetent, uncaring teachers protected by the indifferent or greedy unions, watch out.  Some people have a significant investment in you buying that narrative, and if you didn’t before, you know better now.

17 Comments leave one →
  1. Jim Davis permalink
    October 12, 2010 7:16 am

    Thanks, David. The “crisis strategy” has long dis-served American education, and quite obviously since publication of “A Nation at Risk.” Advocates for public education might well oppose the underlying strategy and mentality even more than the piecemeal iterations of it. Perhaps your blog post is a start – or at least a renewal of what others, like Gerald Bracey, have tried to do. JSD

    • David B. Cohen permalink*
      October 13, 2010 10:12 pm

      Jim, I’m glad you found some useful information or a useful approach here. Gerald Bracey is certainly an inspiration. We should all honor his memory by carrying on his efforts to deflate rhetoric with truth.

  2. Lynne Formigli permalink
    October 12, 2010 3:26 pm

    I really appreciate how you highlight the good work being done by teacher’s unions. All too often we see examples of union bashing right along side teacher bashing. Both seek to target teachers as the enemy and are harmful to our students

  3. October 15, 2010 6:54 am

    Bought my copy of Drive…. $27!!!! Good think I’m intrinsically motivated.

  4. October 15, 2010 6:54 am



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