This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
During the third annual Symposium on Equality hosted by the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia (PILCOP) I kept thinking: if only there were more of these types of events being offered to a wider audience of participants within our city.
The event was a model of what civic engagement in educational policy discussions should look like.
Each session presented relevant knowledge, analyzed current research, and detailed the implications of the information presented for educational practice. The discourse of the day was a refreshing antidote to the shallow sound bites that too often pass in the media as educational analysis and debate. The conference concluded by considering specific actions that the participants could pursue in supporting the goal of creating better educational opportunities for all children. I envisioned the members of neighborhood school communities engaged in lively conversations concerning proposed school reform strategies.
It is time for a great national debate concerning our educational priorities. The issues we face as a society concerning how to provide an equal and equitable education for every child are formidable. They are complex. Yet there are few opportunities for citizens to engage in activities that will help them to become better informed concerning the current state and possible future of public education.
This is not possible in the atmosphere that surrounds educational reform in our nation. Unfortunately, the vast majority of our citizens have little if any opportunity for engagement in educational policy discussions. Warren Simmons, the keynote speaker of the symposium, pointed out during his address that the educational discussions that are determining our national educational reform priorities are taking place between a small group of elected leaders, wealthy philanthropists, and members of the media elite. These are the individuals who are in control of the dialogue as well as the policy decisions that determine what reform strategies will be enacted.
So what do you do when you know that those who have the power to make changes are not listening to you? Do you sit down and be quiet? Or do you keep moving forward in pursuit of what you know is right and just?
Deborah Meier, a well-known educational leader who is currently senior scholar at the Steinhardt School of Education at New York University, was one of the featured symposium participants. Last spring I heard her speak at a conference sponsored by The Forum for Education and Democracy. During her presentation, Meier noted her amazement at the claim made by policy makers, foundations, and corporate leaders that everyone agrees on how we should spend our money on fixing education. She stated that no one had ever bothered to invite her or any of her friends to a discussion concerning the policies that are being forced on states and individual schools by the power elites who control the national school reform agenda. She further stated that these policies neither have research backing nor real agreement. It was incredible to hear that such a successful practitioner of school transformation has been left out of the discussion on how to improve our schools.
The notion of a small and elite group of powerful leaders deciding what is best for the masses is one I suspect that did not sit well with many of the individuals who attended this event. Having read and listened to the ideas that Meier advocates, I am sure that she does not support this less-than-democratic approach to leadership.
Her response to being excluded by the powers of the day is instructive. She doesn’t sit down, nor does she quiet herself. She continues to makes herself heard wherever she can.
Creating opportunities for meaningful public engagement around the important issues facing our democracy is vital to the health of our nation. PILCOP has offered an essential public service by their sponsorship of the annual symposium on equality. Hopefully other groups and organizations will also sponsor similar events. More importantly, the stakeholders close to the actual operations of our school communities: students, parents, teachers, administrators, and advocates need to follow the lead of individuals like Meier.
Take a stand. Speak up. Insist on being included in the discussion.