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Why can’t we be friends?

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

I believe in the idea of quality public education.

I believe that the opportunity to attend an amazing school should not be dictated by how much your family makes and where they can afford to live.

I myself am a product of the Chicago suburbs’ excellent public schools, kindergarten through high school. When sticky divorce proceedings put a crunch on my parents’ finances, my canny mother moved all over the suburbs, chasing after acclaimed school districts in the same way that Plains Indians tracked the buffalo.

Perhaps because of the sacrifices we initially made as a family to live in such neighborhoods, I never took my public education for granted–I always recognized that it was a huge privilege to be able to attend such schools for "free" and to be able to receive instruction from such experienced, talented teachers.

However, I think many Americans are far too willing to take public schools for granted. Sure, sweeping reforms are attempted, but how many receive enough public support to pass? Why, for example, is there not a more comprehensive, meaningful teacher evaluation protocol in Philadelphia? Why is it so hard to fire a truly negligent teacher in many school districts all over the country? These, and many other questions burned in my head as I retired from the School District of Philadelphia to work at a charter school.

Huh? How is it possible that I could so ardently support public schools, yet I left the school district to work at a charter – a charter which, by all accounts, is not wanting for staff or student applicants? You may have your hypotheses, but here’s the answer, plain and simple: I was working in a system set up for failure.

It didn’t matter how competent my administrators were because they were too busy to focus on enforcing thorough, whole-school disciplinary systems or investment pieces. It didn’t matter if the teacher next door was the most seasoned veteran or the most enthusiastic greenhorn. What structures were in place for us to co-plan? Our preps were consistently taken away to cover for a teacher who went on a months-long extended leave every year. Even if I became a better, more experienced teacher, how could I trust that my students weren’t just going to be handed off the next year to an ineffective one?

The ugly truth is that our current dinosaur of a system, for what it’s worth, is not working.

It pressures teachers and administrators to magically turn what may be legitimately failing grades into unwarranted passing ones. It allows children, some of whom are in need of genuine intervention, to go unattended for months while their paperwork languishes in the offices of often overworked school counselors. It protects teachers wholesale, making the issue more about protecting teachers than student achievement.

I couldn’t stand behind that then, and I can’t stand by it now. And while the School District of Philadelphia has in many ways made huge leaps and bounds in the four short years since I’ve been teaching, we cannot ignore the fact that we are still failing to serve thousands of students. I believe that an effective system should always be a step ahead. Our system, if you will, is being outpaced by its constituents, and doesn’t show any sign of catching up to it soon.

After that fateful afternoon in the spring of my second year of teaching, I began to look into jobs with charter networks that were known to be high-performing. I wanted to know what it was like to be a part of a system that worked. (For those unfamiliar with this particular ongoing debate, a good cross-section of these voices can be found in the comment section of my last post.)

I’ve found that because they tend to be smaller, charters are more open to large-scale innovation and flexibility (in a best-case scenario, at least). For example, this year a colleague and I deviated significantly from the reading list and the prescribed curriculum – with the blessing of our administration – because we made the argument that our students required more rigorous material as they grew throughout the year.

Perhaps it’s this advantage that causes detractors to say things like, "You take only the smart kids. You kick out all the bad kids. You hurt unions." Such commentary undermines the good things that can come out of schools like these.

Why do we in education constantly feel the need to tear each others’ successes down? This "us vs. them" mentality is not effective. Instead of telling flatly why not, we should be asking gamely, "Why not?" Can the KIPP, Mastery, or whatever model be replicated exactly on a large scale? No! But instead of squabbling about it, we should be thinking about how to adapt these models, or at the very least extract what works, and swiftly implement it to tackle challenges at schools that sorely need support.

It’s not that I believe that charter schools should replace district schools, or that all charter schools are better than district schools. You see, I don’t just believe in charter schools, I believe in schools that work. And if you’re reading this, you do too.

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