The Parent Imperfect is raising his head again after yet another long hiatus. To explain my absence, I should be hiding behind the fact Liz has faced many challenges with her own family over the past few weeks. And, oh yes, Connie continues to do way too many things as she navigates the dangerous emotional shoals of middle school. For further excuses, this is the time when Vince, as a high school senior, is meant to be preparing his applications to take the next step in the adventure that is life. But the real reason I haven’t been writing is that I’ve been quite overwhelmed than usual by the task of trying to help pull off a little gathering of academics, advocates and activists to talk about education reform.
“Rethinking Education Reform: A Human Rights Perspective,” happened this past Thursday and Friday, sponsored by the Program on Human Rights and the Global Economy (PHRGE) at Northeastern University School of Law (NUSL). It brought together a really interesting group of people to wonder together whether or the human rights framework has anything to contribute to the debate about education reform. Teachers, students, and community public education advocates spent two days focused on the issues of charter school expansion, high-stakes testing and “zero-tolerance” discipline.
They had important discussions about three topics that are on the mind of anyone who’s involved in public education today. New relationships formed and old ones were strengthened. Participants wrestled with real policy options and the real challenges of advocating for those options. My only disappointment was that we didn’t find a way to get more people into the room on a rainy night in Boston to hear the Institute’s keynote speaker, Julian Vasquez Heilig. A professor of education of education at Cal State Sacramento, Heilig crossed the country to deliver a powerful talk about the ways that certain policies that started out as conservative, market-oriented education initiatives have somehow managed to cloak themselves in the language of civil rights. He pulled not one single punch, conjuring up the memories of César Chávez and Martin Luther King, among others, to help him make the point. A self-identified Generation X-Man, JVH has something to say and he is using social media and other communications tools to make sure people hear him. If you haven’t seen his blog, Cloaking Equity, check it out. We’re going to hear much more about this man in the not-too-distant future.
Never has a policy discussion at a law school produced such immediate results. The mere suggestion that the PHRGE Institute was going to discuss discipline in Boston charters and public schools led the BPS to announce on Wednesday that they were popping a shocking trial balloon they had recently floated. They were withdrawing their suggestion that they arm school officers and other discipline staff with pepper stray to control students during potentially violent incidents. Even more amazingly, aware that such a powerful group was bringing a human rights lens to analysis of the charter school phenomenon, Charlie Baker made his first community appearance as Governor-elect at a charter school in Springfield. Subtle messaging, huh? The PHRGE Institute also assembled an extraordinary circle of present and former teachers from Boston, Brookline, Worcester, Newton, Milton, Lawrence, Somerville, New Haven, CT and New York to discuss the issue of testing in schools. As this group worked with FairTest members and others, to design a not-so-fictitious statewide human rights campaign on testing, the Department of Education announced that it had hired an outside firm to conduct an independent analysis of whether there is too much standardized testing in the Commonwealth’s public schools. Imagine if the PHRGE Institute had gotten any publicity!
More seriously, PHRGE decided to convene its confab at a time when big cracks are appearing in the bipartisan consensus around education policies like high-stakes testing, charter school expansion and hard-ass discipline. As if by magic, at this very moment, the Commonwealth of Massachusetts (or that small percentage of people who voted) elected a Republican governor who’s a champion of market reform in the education sector. And in case we didn’t get that message in the campaign, Charlie wasted no time naming one of the most visible ed reform advocates in the Commonwealth to head the Baker transition team. Friends, the plot is about to thicken.