Some Main Street USA Reality

Sometimes, our national education policy debates become very “Beltway-centric.”  They are discussions among federal policy leaders and national education voices, between influencers and devil’s advocates, between those who have power and those who seek it once again.  Too often, we focus on in the inputs and who is seated around the table, often forgetting those we are affecting and those who will be asked to carry out the very policies being put into place in Washington.

Eduflack was reminded of that last evening.  I had the privilege of sitting down with members of a town council and a local school board up in New England.  Like far too many communities, they are struggling with both the economic and the educational challenges of 2009.  A town with a rich history, they’ve seen home values dramatically decline (by more than a third in two years), they’ve struggled to meet AYP (particularly in math), and they are finding it hard to communicate their community value to those who are looking for new communities to live in, despite their proximity to a major city and their strong quality of life.  They want to make sure there are real job opportunities for their kids in the future, but they aren’t sure how to ensure it.
It is a diverse community, growing more diverse by the year.  As a result, the schools are forced to deal with growing demands of ELLs, both as students and as parents.  The school district has implemented an ambitious school improvement plan, seeking to address struggles in math and ELA proficiency with lower student-teacher ratios, full community involvement in the schools, and a community-wide commitment to improvement and innovation.  They have a clear vision of where they want to do; they now just need the roadmap to get there.
Their challenge is this great nexus between economic and educational factors.  Too often, we believe education operates in a vacuum.  We do things because they make sense on paper (or worse, because others tell us it looks good on paper) without realizing how it fits into the larger picture.  In communities like this, we see the ongoing continuum generated by the economy/schools intersection.  School improvement requires additional dollars, money beyond the stimulus and Title I dollars offered by the federal government.  That money comes from local government, which relies on property taxes to get there.  Housing values decline.  Housing sales slide.  And the community has fewer dollars to do all of the things it does — police, fire, transportation, social services, and yes, education.  So in a downturn, we are looking to reinvest in the schools, making them stronger so new families want to relocate in the community because it is a district on the rise, yet we struggle to find the dollars to execute.
Fortunately, in many towns like the one I visited yesterday, they have a real story to tell, offering a rich history with a clear plan of where they want to go.  They have a loyal local business community, dedicated municipality officials, and schools committed to doing what it takes to improve.  Are they happy with their AYP or their standing on state exams?  No.  Are they throwing up their hands, saying that a community with their challenges is a lost cause?  Of course not.  They are acting.  They are looking to innovate, within the confines of their human and fiscal realities.  They realize the status quo won’t cut it, and are looking for new ways to teach, new ways to learn, and new ways to share their story with those in the community and those who may join the community.  They see this as a joint effort, with school and town working with local business, local churches, and local families and community leaders to move forward.
A few months ago, there were some guffaws around EdSec Duncan’s planned “listening tour.”  They grew a little louder when we learned that the EdSec was actually doing the listening on these visits.  He wasn’t going into communities to tell them what he was doing or to explain what they needed to do to fit his goals.  He was listening to their experiences.  He listened to stories of the fiscal troubles in communities like Detroit, where the schools are now facing bankruptcy.  He was, supposedly, greatly impacted hearing the tales of learning and school improvement in our Native American community.  Hopefully, he is hearing stories like those I heard last evening, understanding how federal action is but a small part of actual turnaround and improvement.  He is realizing the collective responsibility, from the feds down to the localities, we all have in real innovation.  And he is appreciating that his goal of turning around the 1,000 lowest performing schools starts with those actual schools, and does not come with a trickle-down of federal policy, dollars, and well wishes.  It comes through empowerment, support, and investment beyond the annual checks.
I walked away last evening feeling better about the possibilities.  In recent weeks, the details about federal education “improvement and innovation” had me feeling that there was little truly new and innovative happening.  Aside from a renewed interest in charter schools, we were dealing with retreads of ideas of the past, talking about issues like mayoral control and inputs-based changes, hopin’, wishin’, and prayin’ that those inputs would result in improved outcomes.  History tells us they rarely do.
So it was refreshing to hear directly from a local community that was taking the future into their own hands, committed to a turnaround plan built specifically for their community, supported by those in the locality, and addressing their real needs (and not the needs of a program officer in Washington).  They understand the stakes have never been higher, and they are prepared to ante into the game and do what is necessary to improve education — and the lives — of the students of both today and tomorrow.
No, what I heard is not unique to this community.  It is a tale that can be told of communities across the nation, where education improvement and innovation is underway, and has been before the influx of stimulus dollars was made available.  It is told of those cities and towns that realize the schools are the heart and soul of the community, and require real attention and commitment.  And hopefully, it is a tale that the EdSec and his staff are hearing as part of their listening tour, helping them see how they can help encourage and enhance current efforts, and not get in the way of real innovation.
 

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