I Ain’t Talking to You If You Ain’t Talking About Structural Reform

In a compelling recent blog post, Nathan Gibbs-Bowling warned that, as Washington State’s new Teacher of the Year, he won’t be taking positions on most of the hot policy topics of the day (Common Core, charter schools, etc.). Rather, Nate, who teaches at a highly successful school-within-a-school for at-risk high school students in Tacoma, said he wants to use his new bully pulpit to talk about the only things that really matter: the resource inequities that lead to the kinds of horrific conditions we’re seeing in photos of Detroit public schools and the need for more high-quality and diverse teachers. Not one to mince words, he wrote: “If you ain’t talking about the teacher in the classroom, I ain’t listening.”

Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, the Teacher of the Year for Washington State, is  pictured  here at an award ceremony for the Milken Educator Award, which he won in 2013. (Photo Credit: Milken Family Foundation)
Nathan Gibbs-Bowling, the Teacher of the Year for Washington state, is pictured here receiving an earlier award, the Milken Educator Award. (Photo Credit: Milken Family Foundation)

The blog post was roundly applauded and shared widely by people across the political and policy spectrum. It struck a nerve and for good reason: it’s too easy to lose sight of the root causes of educational inequities. As research has shown ad naseum, there is no more important influence on student outcomes than the teacher-student interaction.

I read Nate’s post the day before we opened our annual Portfolio Network meeting, a meeting focused on all kinds of policy discussions that Nate might refuse to talk about: moving autonomy and funding to the school level, unifying enrollment systems to ensure equal access across district and charter schools, replacing or turning around low-performing schools. But here’s why he should:

At CRPE, we believe that the structure of today’s public school systems make strong, equitable schools and excellent teaching at scale nearly impossible. Urban school systems hardwire the inequalities that Nate talks about and create conditions that make it extremely difficult to attract, retain, and develop the teachers our kids need. The way we distribute funds and staff to schools ensures that the most talented teachers end up working with more advantaged students. One-size-fits-all professional development, maddening bureaucracy, and weak leadership discourage great teachers and principals from working in big urban districts. Interest group politics prevent us from replacing ineffective teachers and schools. In the name of “sameness” we undermine true equity and excellence.

The portfolio mindset is not about “nibbling around the edges,” it is about attacking those policy barriers head on so great teachers like Nate can do great work. In order to achieve true equity for all students,

• educators and schools, not central office staff, must be the locus of decision making and accountability;
• dollars must follow students out of the central office and into classrooms on a per student basis;
• the primary job of government has to be ensuring that every child in every neighborhood has a range of good schooling options;
• parents and teachers have to be able to opt-in to schools that are a good fit, not be assigned.

The goal is pragmatic and blessedly non-ideological: to move ALL of a city’s public schools forward, whatever it takes. The portfolio strategy calls for being committed to results and recognizing that the challenges in our cities are too great to be fighting over district or charter. They are too great to think that 50 or even 500 smart people in a central office can find all the solutions. They are too great to let adult interest politics win over what’s best for students.

But these conditions do require serious policy debates: How do you create meaningful autonomies for schools with or without charter statutes? How do you convince central offices to move money to schools? How do you meaningfully engage teachers unions and communities in the need to replace ineffective schools and staff? Those are some of the tough topics we tackled at our portfolio meeting last week with community, district, and charter leaders and mayors’ staff from more than 20 cities.

So while Nate is absolutely correct that nothing in a student’s schooling experience trumps strong teachers, there is also a real danger to his message. It implies that the only policies that teachers should concern themselves with are those that are directly focused on things like teacher preparation, increasing the pipeline of high-quality teachers of color, etc. The portfolio strategy is not a distraction from discussions about supporting great teachers and advancing equity. It is a necessity.

– Robin Lake

This first appeared on the Lens, the blog of the Center for Reinventing Public Education.

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