Education Panel

Education Panel
Ulcca Joshi Hansen (NJ ’97)

The First Amendment Lounge was packed on Saturday afternoon, and a
spirited conversation was taking place about charter schools and the role they
play in advancing urban education reform. In fine Truman form, the panelist
avoided tired debates about whether charter schools are a good or bad
educational phenomenon, and also dispensed quickly with the idea that charter
schools can be a silver bullet for the problems of urban education. Jennifer
“Eduwonkette” Jennings (NJ ’99), who has made a name for herself analyzing data
and using it to challenge educational myths, pointed out that there are really
good and really bad examples of both charter and traditional schools. Ron Brady
(MA ’87), founder of Foundations Charter School in Trenton, agreed: “Charter
schools versus district schools is an irrelevant argument. It’s about good
schools versus bad schools.”

What high-performing charter schools have done successfully in the last
decade is: (1) to challenge the pervasive belief that urban, minority and
poorer students cannot achieve academically and (2) to demonstrate educational
approaches that succeed in helping these students achieve both academically and
personally. Seth Andrew (RI ’99), founder of Democracy Prep Academy, the
highest performing public school in Central Harlem, sparked a wide-ranging
conversation when he read aloud his list of things that DON’T matter in
schools: class size, money, parents, certification of teachers,
textbooks/curricular materials. While reasonable people can (and did) disagree
about items on that list, the panel agreed that charter schools have paved the
way for state- and nation-wide conversations about some of the issues that
charter school successes seem to indicate DO matter: more time in school, a
culture that expects and supports academic achievement, and high-quality
teaching.

The expansion of charter schools is a key priority for the Obama
Administration, so the topic is both timely and important. While no one
disputes that they often achieve wonderful results for the students who attend
them, charters are critiqued on several grounds: for inadvertently “creaming”
students through high attrition rates for lower-performing students who must
then be served by traditional district schools; for burning teachers out
quickly due to their demanding schedules; and for being difficult, if not
impossible, to scale up effectively. Should these issues matter as we consider
how best to use limited funds and political capital to improve urban education?
Seth and Ron argued that their primary concern was to provide quality education
for the children in their schools. For those in the room interested in policy,
the variety of interests to be served within the education sphere could not be
shrugged off so easily. The session’s back and forth explored the natural
tensions that exist between players in the educational entrepreneurial sector,
who are ultimately accountable to their own goals and values (usually the education
of individual children), and actors in the larger “traditional” system, who
argue that their responsibility necessarily extends to constituents with myriad
interests tangentially yet inextricably related to education.

As would be expected in a Truman forum, there were far more interesting
questions posed than could be discussed: Why is the quality of traditional
teacher education so poor generally and how can it be improved? By opening the
doors to teaching too widely and encouraging a short-term approach to teaching,
do we risk de-professionalizing the field? Is there any potential traction for
charter school students and parents to sue districts to be provided with
facilities? How do we ensure that low-performing charter schools are closed? Is
the highly structured, teacher-centered approach of high-performing charter
schools good pedagogy? Should it matter that many middle upper class parents
would not choose approach their own children? Should the next chapter of education reform focus on creating more choice for parents within the public
education sphere?

For many in the audience, for me as the panel organizer, it was
fulfilling to see so many Trumans engaged with an issue that, until relatively
recently, has been an afterthought for many of the “best and brightest.” As one
1996 Truman observed, in the past, Trumans interested in education have often
been alone in their Truman classes. Most of us spent TSLW and SI learning about
other scholars’ fields of interest, which were more often at the center of
public and policy discourse.

How times have changed.

Interest in education, or perhaps more accurately, educational
entrepreneurship has never been as strong as it is right now among our peers.
Teach for America was in its infancy a decade ago. Today it boasts over 4,100
Corps members in its 2009 class and is the largest employer for members of the
recently graduated classes of Brown, Georgetown, and the University of Chicago.
Charter management organizations like KIPP, Achievement First, and Uncommon Schools
are drawing interest from top graduates interested in helping to lead new
schools. New education fellowships including The Broad Residencies, Building
Excellent Schools, and Education Pioneers field thousands of applications from
graduates of top professional and management programs who want to use their
skills to become school and district leaders. Urging traditional education
actors to engage with and learn from these new players, while holding this
growing cadre of entrepreneurial organizations accountable for high
performance, promises to be an ongoing challenge for those committed to
high-quality education for all children.

Members of the panel are eager to hear from Trumans interested in
getting involved. Seth and Ron welcome visitors and teaching applications. For
those interested in educational issues, a new Google Groups listserv has been
formed: Truman Scholars in Education. Go to http://groups.google.com/group/truman-scholars-in-education
to sign up or contact Ulcca for more information.

Education Panelists:
Ulcca Joshi Hansen (NJ ’97) ulcca1@gmail.com
Seth Andrew (RI ’99) sandrew@democracyprep.org
Ron Brady (MA ’87) rbrady@foundationacademy.org
Jen Jennings (NJ ’99) jlj2102@columbia.edu

Thanks to everyone who attended the panel!

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