Anonymous Organizer Frustrated with Education World

This is an organizer speaking to fellow community organizers based on the experience of his organization in advocating for the quality use of effective research-based reading programs for the children in low performing schools.

Aristotle understood the importance of teaching when he stated, "All who have meditated on the art of governing mankind are convinced that the fate of empires depends on the education of youth."

"Enlighten the people generally, and tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish like evil spirits at the dawn of day." Thomas Jefferson

Eight years ago when the organization I was working with selected public education issues as an area of priority, I thought, "Great! We are about to work on an issue and with an institution that has children as the center of its focus."

I couldn't have been more mistaken. Instead of children and their high academic achievement being the center of attention, too often focus is placed upon the career advancement of persons within the system, the maintenance of order and the status quo, and the many financial and other interests driving public education today (such as publishers, teachers unions, politicians, contractors, etc.).In addition, I have expressed many times that I would much rather negotiate with a banker, mayor, sheriff, and city councilpersons than with mid- and higher level school system administrators. (But let me clearly state that my experience with the vast majority of teachers has been positive - but they are extremely powerless to make significant change to the education system).

So why should an organization consider taking on the issue of beginning reading skills, or any other public education issue for that matter, if the bureaucratic resistance is so devilishly tricky and difficult? Because in the twenty years I have worked as a community organizer, I have never seen leaders become so passionate over an issue! Through their years of experience with the results of failing schools, our leaders have come to know instinctively what every educational research study points to as fact.

First, reading is the foundational skill for life-long academic success. Second, if a child is not reading fluently by the third grade, they only have a one in ten chance of graduating from high school. Third, the strong correlation between illiteracy and such social ills as juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, and high unemployment is undeniable. When I have seen leaders visit schools using scientifically proven teaching strategies that are properly implemented (i.e. with adequate teacher training along with school-based and district leadership and monitoring), their reactions have been overwhelming! Concrete and tangible hope replaces what had previously been a hopeless situation!

One could write extensively about the successes that have been experienced within schools in our communities and nation-wide using scientifically proven reading strategies, as well as, the high-levels of satisfaction found among teachers and parents who have used such strategies. One could also cite the mountains of national research that support such strategies and describe the strategies themselves. Instead, I would like to share a few reflections about why I believe such effective strategies receive such resistance from the education establishment of our communities and a few things our organization should be caution about in working for change in our public school systems.

If a scientist discovered a cure for cancer, the world would embrace her as a heroine of great significance. Yet, as a society we have the technical know-how to solve the cancer of illiteracy that eats away at so many of our core-city communities and choose to ignore it. Why this resistance? My experience leads me to believe that there are three primary reasons.

  1. First, teaching is not a mature profession like, for example, medicine. Rather than being results driven, it is philosophically driven. Our public school systems, not to mention our colleges of education and the publishing industry, rarely submit the strategies and materials they develop to rigorous evaluation. The analogy I have often heard in this regard comes from the medical field. If you had a brain tumor and the doctor you went to said, "I know what 99% of the doctors do to remove tumors, but I have a new idea that I think will work," you would be out of his office in no time! Yet, we experiment with children all the time, using strategies and materials that have never been properly field tested and evaluated.
  2. The primary constituency of the public education system (i.e. who School Boards and School District Administrators listen to most) are relatively well-educated, predominantly White middle-class Americans who often have the ability and time to provide literacy and verbal skills to their children prior to entering school and ongoing tutorial assistance during most of their children's twelve years of education. The remaining population is ignored and often blamed for their children's failure.
  3. A very powerful education bureaucracy, that has a relatively constant revenue stream regardless of how well they perform, has developed countless strategies to remain immune to outside forces of accountability. And within that bureaucracy, the rewards of promotion and pay raises go to those who obediently carry out the directives of higher-ups while keeping disturbances to the system at a minimum, rather than to those who challenge the status quo and seek to achieve academic excellence for all children.

Certainly one of the most refreshing aspects of working with educators seeking to successfully implement research-proven strategies has been their honest admittance that, "If a child is not learning, it is not the child's fault. It's our responsibility as educators to find the strategies that will work for that child." It has also been refreshing to work with people who recognize that we must meet the educational needs of all children, and not simply be satisfied if 50% or less are learning at grade-level.

Those organization that seek to enter the arena of public school reform must take such a step very seriously. Don't do it if you are not prepared to battle for and monitor these issues over the longer-term. Also recognize that there is a need to identify and support school-based educators who are willing to buck the system and to literally put their job on the lines. Finally, there is the need to cultivate solid and ongoing relationships with numerous allies including the local school board, parents, school principals and teachers, business allies, area legislators, and other community organizations that share an interest in improving public education.

Public education is unable to reform itself from within. It requires outside forceslike our faith-based community organizations to hold them accountable to their primary mission - teaching every child the foundational academic skills that will allow them to become life-long productive citizens. In as much as beginning reading skills help lay that foundation, it is a goal worthy of our attention and within our reach and power to significantly impact.