From education reform to education revolution
By Kevin P. Chavous
Enough already! I love Michelle Rhee, and I introduced Adrian M. Fenty to the issue of education reform back when he was on my D.C. Council staff. I applaud both of them for their commitment to changing the D.C. public schools. But to suggest that Fenty’s and (let’s face facts) Rhee’s upcoming departures from their positions will be devastating to education reform in the District is not supported by our history. In fact, maybe the change will provide the impetus we need for something lacking in the education reform movement in America: a true revolution.
For several years, starting with our unique charter school initiative, the highly successful federal government partnership that created the Opportunity Scholarship Program, and, more recently, the reforms driven by Rhee as schools chancellor, the District has been a laboratory for education reform admired by reformers throughout the nation. Changes in leadership will not turn back the clock. But as with other education reform efforts across the country, many believe that the District’s quest for change has lacked a soul — that it has been a top-down, elite-directed effort.
Yes, there has been progress. The work of folks such as Rhee, New York’s Joel Klein, Louisiana’s Paul Pastorek, Education Secretary Arne Duncan, President Obama and others has been laudatory. So is the work of our emerging new education leaders like KIPP, Teach for America and countless charter school operators such as Friendship Public Charter Schools’ Donald Hense. These innovators toil every day to close the three primary achievement gaps affecting the lifeblood of our nation: the education deficits between children of color and white children, between all low-income children and children of means, and between all U.S. children and children from other industrialized nations. Despite our best efforts, however, each of those achievement gaps are either stuck in place or growing. At this rate they’ll never be closed. Worse, the education reform movement in America has no sense of urgency in closing these gaps. So the gaps remain. They will only be closed by a sustained, people-driven revolution.
Why a revolution? Throughout history, no meaningful movement for change has ever occurred without one. Such revolutions are needed to overthrow an entrenched oppressor that is working against the masses or infringing on their freedom. When the masses become fed up with the oppression, a revolution is inevitable. As history teaches us, leaders such as George Washington, Nelson Mandela and Martin Luther King Jr. provide leadership in freedom fights. But it is the people who turn those fights into revolutions. Revolutions have a sense of urgency.
In our national education reform movement, the people have yet to weigh in, but they are increasingly becoming fed up with the status quo. The masses intuitively know that what we do in our schools largely doesn’t work for many kids, yet they aren’t engaged in the fight for change.
Often, those of us fighting this fight every day unwittingly push away the very people needed to turn reform into revolution. We do so by not engaging parents, by not being inclusive, by knowing it all. Now is the time for us to let the revolution in education take hold. In places like D.C., Florida, Louisiana, Georgia, Pennsylvania, New York and New Jersey, there are parents and other stakeholders who are ready to go to the streets and fight for the education for their children. These folks understand what past revolutionaries understood, that revolutions are messy, not nice. And that the people’s demand for change must be addressed immediately, not by way of an incremental three- to five-year reform plan.
So while we acknowledge the contributions of Michelle Rhee and Adrian Fenty to the cause of education reform in the District, their exit offers us an opportunity to engage those stakeholders needed to transform our movement into a true revolution in education. Once that happens, the goal of ensuring that each American child has a quality education becomes far more important than arguing over who is in charge.
The writer, a former member of the D.C. Council (D-Ward 7), is chairman of the board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options and a distinguished fellow with the Center for Educational Reform.
| September 26, 2010; 10:22 PM ET
Categories: D.C., HotTopic, Mayor Fenty, education
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