AISR Speaks Out: Commentary on Urban Education
Community Organizing for Educational Improvement
The recently released, much-discussed documentary on education in the United States, Waiting for Superman, focuses on the efforts of individual parents to secure a quality education for their children. In the film, parents are essentially viewed as individual consumers and objects of change, rather than as the subjects of change. The role of parents in leading collective action to improve their neighborhood’s schools is neglected.
A counterpoint to the film lies in the accomplishments of neighborhood-based organizing groups in low-income and working-class communities of color that are projecting the voices and power of parents and students into the debate about how to improve their schools and take reform to scale across communities. The NYC Coalition for Educational Justice (CEJ) — a coalition of community groups organizing for school improvement in New York City’s poorly served Black and Latino neighborhoods — is leading this effort in the nation’s largest city.
CEJ grew out of more than a decade of education organizing, beginning with CC9, a parent-led collaborative in the South Bronx. CC9 parent leaders addressed the need to improve teaching quality in their schools by creating the first Lead Teacher program in the New York City school system, in collaboration with the United Federation of Teachers and the New York City Department of Education. The program placed highly skilled teachers in low-performing schools to mentor and provide collegial professional development to other teachers. An independent evaluation of the pilot project showed increases in teacher retention and student achievement and credited CC9 with a critical role in the program’s success. The program was later expanded to the whole city. In 2006, CC9 joined with parent collaboratives in other neighborhoods to form CEJ.
The Annenberg Institute provides research, data analysis, training, and logistical support to CEJ and other parent- and youth-led organizing efforts. We believe that this kind of authentic community involvement is essential to successful, sustainable education reform as part of our vision of smart education systems, which combine a high-functioning district with community and civic partners to provide high-quality learning opportunities and support in all areas of students’ lives — at school, at home, and in the community.
The future of public education stands at a critical crossroad. Supported by a web of national foundations and policy institutes, a market-based approach is gaining strength across the nation. This approach relies on competition and external rewards and consequences to guide educational innovation and improve student achievement. It leaves decisions around curriculum and instruction up to school leadership and external providers, while providing few opportunities for community input and for planning across schools and communities.
As a result, decisions are often imposed on communities rather than constructed in collaboration with them. Moreover, this approach provides few opportunities for collaboration and support across schools and often does little to support capacity-building for teachers and principals. These features of the market-based approach weaken, rather than strengthen, the community consensus that is needed to sustain reform. And by constraining the spread of expertise, they make it more difficult to narrow achievement gaps both within and across schools.
A recent book by Hunter College professor of social work Michael Fabricant presents the CC9 model as an alternative to what he describes as the dominant discourse around school reform that privileges certain solutions such as charter schools and quantitative teacher evaluation and ignores community engagement and the need for investment in public schools.
In an interview with AISR, Fabricant emphasized that education reform must be part of a larger effort to rebuild poor communities and address inequities, which can't be done without targeted investment and community involvement. He highlighted that co-equal partnerships with allies such as universities, teachers unions, and foundations have an important role in supporting community organizing for education reform.
The project of public education is complex — it's ultimately a relationship project. It's about all these relationships pushing in a particular direction. We need foundations to support the work of CBOs, and we need parents working together to push for targeted investment in public education.... That's a critical corrective to the present, very limited discourse about which way public schools should be moving.... Data and research play an important role in pointing out inequalities of investment and discrepancies between what [policy-makers] describe as the problem and remedy and what parents describe as the problem and remedy.
Solutions that are mainly market-based and technical, Fabricant argues, fail to address political issues and are opposed to the targeted investment in the public sector that is needed to revitalize the poorest communities and their schools.
There has to be a recognition that some part of this is political. Once you begin to speak to questions of investment and/or targeted investment, then what you have is a struggle over the distribution and direction of investment, because there's a lot of resistance to increasing investment in anything that's public. And that then becomes a political struggle.
Fabricant suggests that the market solution offered to parents — simply exiting the public school system — is not the remedy for bad schools. The only way to improve education for all children is for parents and communities to engage in the messy, often contentious, political struggle that will make their voices heard. He has this to say regarding what is important about the CC9 story:
The women (the parent leaders were largely women) — how heroic they were in this struggle — coming to meetings every night between family and work. Women who were often the first generation, recently arrived — and education was an absolutely essential value they held for their children. It was something they were prepared to do something about — coming together collectively and figuring out what they could do.
Ultimately, this is a story about how poor women of color were able to create change — this is a bottom-up story — a parent-led initiative where parents grew, changed, where their capacity evolved, where they were able to go toe to toe with powerful interests and experts within a city and win a major reform that went citywide. This didn't happen accidentally — it grew out of the work of developing those parents as leaders. And that has implications nationally.
Director, Community Organizing and Engagement — New York City
Annenberg Institute for School Reform
Staff Editor/Research Analyst
Annenberg Institute for School Reform