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A canopy view: ‘The Village Proposal’ book

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

Reforming our schools to deliver a world-class education is a shared responsibility – the task cannot be shouldered by our nation’s teachers and principals alone…” (U.S. Department of Education, ESA Blueprint for Reform 2010)

Christopher Paslay brings his expertise as a high school English teacher, contributor to the Philadelphia Inquirer and Chalk and Talk blogger to make The Village Proposal a timely and compelling read. The book examines the problems in education by juxtaposing Paslay’s personal memoir with solid documented research.

You may not agree with some or all of the arguments, but that is exactly what makes Village Proposal a good read. Paslay argues using a narrative structure not found in many books about education reform. He doesn’t bore the reader with an overly complex or over-simplified problem-and-solution approach to education. He presents a nuanced view of shared responsibility.

In the introduction, Paslay laments the rejection of his application to the graduate program in journalism at Temple’s School of Communication. He makes it clear that he has an ax to grind. One of his former students showed him Temple’s placement test that used an adaptation of a commentary he had contributed to the Philadelphia Inquirer as an essay topic. Paslay drives the entire reading experience by employing his ax and sharing stories that provide fodder for his argument.

Paslay uses his professional trajectory as a teacher and identifies key players who fuel conflicting perspectives about education theory, public policy, and personal responsibility. Paslay writes with a swagger that says he knows more about education reform than policy wonks or academics because “I am a teacher.” He provides readers a view of the “village" via his canopy of extensive classroom experience and research.

In Chapters 1-7, he uses his own teacher preparation, induction, and early struggles in the classroom to argue for better recruitment, retention, and professional development programs. Chapters 8-12 explore the critical roles that family and community play in education reform. These middle chapters also address the tensions of delivering multicultural and differentiated instruction. While remaining anchored to Paslay’s evolving teacher practice, Chapters 13-16 take on a more macro view of education policy. This section shows the roles that politics, popular culture, and technology play in educating the whole child.

Paslay and his students’ stories are central to the narrative structure of the book. Like any well-written narrative, The Village Proposal works because it also contains villains, both figurative and real. Former District Superintendents Paul Vallas and Arlene Ackerman, and even U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, serve as archetypes fueling the “teacher accountability” debate.

Paslay weaves in his approach of modeling journalistic writing for his students by sharing his own headlines. He uses his Philadelphia City Paper story “Philly’s Own Al Capone” and the Inquirer commentary “Teacher Pact for Bad Teachers” to criticize Vallas for trying to strip city teachers of their seniority.

There was some praise for Ackerman’s Imagine 2014 initiative that led to the development of the School District of Philadelphia’s Parent University. But Paslay cautions that there needs to be a balance of responsibility between parents and schools.

Ackerman, on the other hand, made breakfast participation a part of a principal’s performance rating. The argument that “principals, not parents, were being held accountable for students showing up to school in the morning to eat free breakfast should help readers understand how it’s not fair to put all accountability on principals and teachers."

Duncan makes a cameo as the “teacher accountability” boogie man. Paslay highlights the false assumptions in Duncan’s October 2009 speech delivered at Columbia University, when Duncan compares a teacher and a surgeon. The chapter "Leaders and Supports" advocates that teachers be treated like specialists. Readers are encouraged to imagine if surgeons, like teachers, had to take their own X-rays, administer anesthesia, do blood transfusions, make phone calls, and keep order on the hospital floor. Paslay helps us re-imagine teachers as specialists and experts who should be valued and treated as major voices in education reform.

The chapter "Multiculturalism and the Achievement Gap" has the greatest tension. “Social Justice” and Amiri Baraka are the competing foes in the climactic narrative about shared responsibilities. But contrary to Paslay’s perspective, social justice should not be viewed as a polarizing force, but as a means to conduct inquiry around equity, fairness, and what it means to live in a democratic society. Some readers may simply have to agree to disagree with Paslay about social justice. Issues of race, class, gender, and other -isms do matter.

Ultimately, Paslay wants readers to understand that through shared responsibility, students, family, schools, and the community can employ intrinsic and extrinsic solutions to remove or minimize the limitations caused by racism and the achievement gap.

His style of combining his memoir and documented research fuels the narrative of shared responsibility. But Paslay falls short in crystallizing his first-person narrative to incorporate the universal “we”.

In the chapter "First Year," there is a sense that Paslay’s background of attending Catholic schools and growing up in a “refined” suburban, two-parent household makes his edgier students the “other.”

In the chapter "A Day in the Life," this “otherness” reappears when the idea of "What’s with these kids’ parents?" enters the narrative frame. Therein lies the rub with not only the title of the book, The Village Proposal, but also the whole village concept. For the “it takes a village” narrative to work, the “I” must be the universal “we” and “these kids” must be “our kids.”

Overall, though, this book deserves accolades. The structure, narrative style, documented research, and provocative commentary make it a must-read for teacher educators, teachers, policy makers and anyone interested in understanding the landscape of education reform.

Paslay deserves a lot of credit for writing a timely portrait of his vision of what shared responsibility looks like and feels like. For writing The Village Proposal while working as a full-time classroom teacher, prolific blogger, frequent contributor to the Inquirer and sometime-critic of the Philadelphia Public School Notebook, Paslay has my utmost admiration.

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