It Takes an Educational Village …

In years past, we used to talk about how it took a village to truly improve public education.  It wasn’t just up to teachers to do what they do behind the schoolhouse doors between the hours of 8 and 3.  Parents needed to take a more active role.  Local policymakers needed a greater understanding.  Community leaders — from youth groups to churches — needed greater connection.  And even the business community needed greater focus on skills and outcomes.

Oh, how the times have changed.  In our post-NCLB environment, we are now hearing more and more vitriol about those “outside forces” trying to influence what is happening in our public schools.  We have rallies and blogs and media coverage on how school improvement should be left exclusively to the trained, certified educators in the system.  All others should watch from the sidelines, being told, in the words of Kevin Bacon in Animal House, “Stay calm!  All is well!!”
But we know all is not well.  From third-grade reading proficiency levels to high school graduation rates and all measures in between, all is not well in our public schools.  Yet another generation of students has fallen through the cracks, leaving school either less than proficient or without a high school diploma all together.
The point of this is not to place blame.  There is plenty of blame to go around.  Our struggles are team struggles.  Parents, teachers, administrators, community leaders, elected officials, business community, and students themselves all bear significant responsibility for where we stand today, and play an important role in where we need to head tomorrow.  (And as a parent, a taxpayer, a former school board chairman, and an advocate, Eduflack is right in the middle of those who bear responsibility.)
Which is why it was so disconcerting to read the December 23 Wall Street Journal.  In the print edition (sorry folks, somehow it got edited out of the online version), the WSJ reported on the hire of Chicago/Philly/Recovery District Supe Paul Vallas as the new head of Bridgeport (CT) Public Schools.  The article noted that the hire was made possible, in part, because of philanthropic contributions to help the academically and financially struggling district bring in a talent like Vallas.  
In the piece, the reporter spoke to a leader at the Bridgeport Education Association, who referred to those local Connecticut philanthropists as “robber barons,” and questioned the legitimacy of their contributions.
We will forget, for a moment, the philanthropic support that Bridgeport Education Association and its parent National Education Association receive.  While those dollars may come from a different “clan” of philanthropic and corporate support, there is not question that NEA and BEA are beneficiaries of similar outside support, and that such support is serving a real public good when it comes to teacher effectiveness and improved instruction.
But it was yet another example of the venom with which some speak when discussing the role of public/private partnerships and the growing philanthropic interest in improving our public schools.  Local community members, who want to see their local schools improve and have the financial means to help jumpstart a reform process, are now “robber barons?”  Really?
A century ago, our public schools (both K-12 and higher ed) were hardly the models to write home about.  We lacked the educational resources offered by libraries, museums, and the performing arts.  We saw our medical schools take a significant step forward because of folks like Carnegie.  Libraries benefited from people like Ford.  General education and research supported by the likes of Rockefeller.
There is now an entire literature dedicated to the role of corporate philanthropy and the societal benefits that derived from such giving.  Today, we see large foundations the result of those original “robber barons,” foundations that are committed to improving children’s health, education, and society as a whole.  They do so without a profit motive, just hoping to make a difference with the resources the have available.
Ultimately, we are doing our kids, our schools, and our community a disservice when we try to run off well-meaning philanthropists with name calling, insinuation of ulterior motives, or promoting a general sense of “ickiness” because the private sector wants to get involved in our public schools.  Instead, we should be embracing such involvement.  No, I’m not saying all those involved in ed reform are Carnegies and Rockefellers, nor am I saying that some do not come to the table with a specific agenda.  But for all of those who argue that additional resources are needed in our public schools, yet must acknowledge that beloved tax base doesn’t allow for it, there are alternative paths.  Through private support, we can invest in technology or STEM or improved teacher support or the arts or a plethora of other areas that individuals, foundations, and companies want to get behind.
So where do we go from here?  To start, we need to turn down the rhetoric a little and realize there is a role for many at the school improvement table.  For educators, we need to realize it ultimately becomes an all or nothing bargain; we can’t say this outside funding is OK, but this isn’t.  Either we believe in public/private partnerships, or we don’t.  We depend on philanthropic support, or we don’t.
And what about those business types and educational philanthropists?  First off, be transparent in your giving and proud of your support.  Be vocal about your giving — who you are giving to, why you are giving, and what your expected outcomes are.  And don’t let others define your motives.
Ultimately, it really does take an educational village to improve our public schools.  Teachers, parents, community leaders, policymakers, taxpayers, the business community, and students all have a vested interest in seeing our schools improve and our kids succeed.  And all have a potential role they can play in the improvement process.  Now is not the time to say I can do this myself, and try to walk the road alone.  We need all the help we can get.

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