Today’s post is a bit of a Board’s Eye View swan song, as I am embarking on two new projects that take me off “the board” as they widen my “view” considerably. I will be helping David Steiner, dean of education at Hunter College and former New York State commissioner of education, establish a new Institute for Education Policy at City University of New York. We hope to make the Institute an important forum for issues facing K-20 urban education. I will also be helping Ann Tisch, founder and chair of The Young Women’s Leadership Network, create a new and innovative curriculum for urban high school students. This too will be an exciting project, designed to bring essential twenty-first-century skills to our urban students.
What I hope to bring to both endeavors are some of the insights gleaned while serving on my small public district’s board of education and writing for the last twenty-five months (this is my 400th blog post for Fordham, but who’s counting?) about school governance...
The lessons of school board service do not quickly dissipate. My feelings about BOE service are similar to those of the new Bridging Differences interlocutory Pedro Noguera (taking Diane Ravitch’s place). Known for his education scholarship at the University of California, Berkeley, Harvard, and now New York University, Noguera spent four years on the Berkeley school board. He didn’t have a good time. California was “in the midst of yet another fiscal crisis,” he reports, and he and his colleagues were having…
to make impossibly tough choices: cut classroom aides or the music program, lay off teachers or eliminate another guidance counselor. I had no idea when I was convinced to run for the board that I would be spending most of my time managing what I came to regard as the “dismal and totally inadequate status quo." I had been under the illusion that I would be able to use my position to fight for the rights of the children who were poorly served and push for changes that were needed to make schools more just and equitable. It took only a few months for me to realize that making a difference from the school board would be much harder than I had imagined.
This insight gets to the core of our democratic experiment—a word frequently used to describe the American social contract. We are constantly confronted with new information about the world we inhabit, but we’re always having to adjust the terms of the contract to reflect the new information. It’s a lousy system, as Churchill once quipped; there just isn’t anything better.
A commenter on one of my recent posts about the Chicago Teachers Union strike suggested that the messiness of the thing could be solved if we “remove[d] education from politics.” Yes, politics. That’s the “dismal and totally inadequate status quo” which helped drive Professor Noguera back to the ivory tower.
Though we are always called to make “a more perfect union,” we’re stuck with a system that thwarts perfection. This is why we argue so much. This is the American conversation—the only way of tracking the ever-changing variables of the experiment. Can there be a Eureka moment? Never. Can there be progress? Always—but only if we keep the conversation going.
Just yesterday, I received an email alert of a new post on Jay Greene’s blog. “Subject: Why ED Hirsh [sic] Should re-examine his position on parental choice.” It was Matthew Ladner wanting to argue over a 2008 Sol Stern story in City Journal. Rather, he was taking on E.D. Hirsch for comments he made in response to the Stern story. Two days before that I had pulled Hirsch into a post of mine about a Peg Tyre story about a high school on Staten Island. And on we go—as we must.
Can we remove education from politics? At our peril. Politics, and the ensuing policymaking, is the lifeblood of the American system. But if we don’t have the informed public that Jefferson warned we needed—a public informed by constant conversation and debate—we will be clogging the nation’s arteries faster than a double cheeseburger and fries.
It has been more than a little fun having the opportunity to be part of the dialogue about how to improve our public education system. And to be part of a blogging team like the one the Thomas Fordham Institute has managed to field so consistently for so long—before there was blogging!—has been a great honor. They are the best. And be it noted, Mike Petrilli, that this last Board’s Eye View post, is under 800 words! It will be a challenge to Tweet, but I’ll be twittering from @boardseyeview. And you’re invited to follow.