Saturday, May 31, 2008

An Organizing Approach to School Change

Don’t’ face school reform alone; organize
An organizing approach to school change.
Let us be clear. A progressive teacher working in a school is good, but it is not school reform.. A progressive activist teacher will improve the education of 30 students, or 100 students, and these are significant contributions. But, one or two activists are not school reform nor is a single progressive principal.
The success of some outstanding schools serving low income neighborhoods indicate that schools can improve, children in poverty can be provided with high quality schooling.(Chenoweth, 2007) Individual schools that have improved their performance and academic achievement are valuable islands of hope for reform. And hope is a vital ingredient in working for change.
Few, or none of the superintendents of major school systems – and their staffs- have reformed their schools to produce equal opportunity. We know from experience in several cities that school reform efforts are not sustained beyond the tenure of a superintendent or a principal. Indeed there are numerous cases of schools and leaders making important changes only to be stopped by control oriented superintendents in the name of reform ( Wilms, 2008). And, there has been realistically little improvement in reducing the achievement gap in urban systems.

Teachers as agents of change
Reform will occur when groups of teachers work together to create a new, more democratic school system to better serve all of the students. Real School reform requires substantive change.
We need to develop a new conception of teachers as change agents for those teachers committed to civil rights and the success of their students. This potential role is under developed. We need active and activist teacher leaders to guide and direct change to a more democratic and a more equal school system. In most school districts administrators are not promoting democratic reform and perhaps their positions prevent them from promoting democratic reform.
There currently exists a number of leadership roles for teachers. They fill positions such as lead teacher , grade level leaders, host teaches, mentor teachers, student advocates, curriculum specialists, teacher organizers, language specialists, union leaders and change agents.
Teachers leaders are needed to provide a teacher voice and advocacy for quality education within the school reform efforts. Teacher organizers are in particular need when schools are under some form of re-constitution or re-organization to improve achievement

What does a change agent do? In Doing Democracy: The MAP model for Organizing Social Movements, the authors list the roles of change agents as including:

Organizing people power and engaged citizens for the common good.
Educates and involves the majority of the citizens on the issues.
Involves pre-existing grass roots and parents organizations, networks, unions.
Places the issues on the societies agenda.
Promotes alternatives.

For teacher activists the first group to organize is other teachers. First you need to find one ally, then two. We know from organizing that relationships matter, so you need to develop positive on-going relationships with a number of teachers in your school site. Indeed, this will make your own work life more interesting and bearable.
Parents are a second important component of organizing. With large scale immigration there is no reason to limit your organizing to citizens, parents are more appropriate partners. It will help to keep in mind those activities which all adults can participate in and those limited to citizens (such as voting).
An important task is to plan an educational agenda. School talk is often mystifying to parents. And, since so much professional talk is used, parents can be mislead to pursue anti democratic projects. Parents have been recruited and used in the anti bilingual political campaigns and often used in divisive campaigns over reading.
Teachers should look for a community based organization in their area and work with it. Several community based organizations such as those affiliated with the IAF, or PICO, or ACORN, work on school reform and prepare parents to become community leaders ( see Anyon, 2006, Oaks and Rogers, 2006, http://www.industrialareasfoudation.org). Parent organizing can provide the power needed for sustained change in the power structure of a school district. Teachers, parents, and educational activists need each other. The first step is building relationships of trust among these constituencies.

As soon as you begin to organize for social justice you will encounter other, already existing groups. Perhaps the most frequent encounter will be with a union activist in your building. It is useful to map out the existing groups and interests and conduct some informal research to see which of these groups may assist you. For example a union activist may well encourage you to bring your goals within the union effort. This is a possible approach. Certainly if you can bring the union to support your projects this will assist you. It is important and valuable for teachers to bring their unions along as they pursue progressive change. These are our institutions with staff, money, and resources.
However, a note of caution is needed. Unions have their institutional agenda which usually focuses on the salaries and the treatment of employees. These are important issues particularly for under paid teacher and teacher assistants. The union agenda is rather well understood. And, whenever possible, you want to work in cooperation with union. However, quite often the invitation to work within the union is actually a recruitment of you to work on the union agenda rather than on your social justice agenda. You can be an activist and will be encouraged to carry out the many valuable service projects of the union. And it is important to have the union with you when you encounter conflict. But it is a significant question. Does working within the union allow you to pursue your previous goals? Or, are you quickly recruited to work on the union goals? This is an area of needed continuous dialogue with your allies. After all, the union may have already developed a valuable strategy which supports your work.
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