fresh voices from the front lines of change







Back to School: Investing In Distraction

My guest today is Sabrina Stevens Shupe. Sabrina is a teacher, writer, and activist who has worked with students in struggling communities in Philadelphia and Denver. She recently helped to organize the Save Our Schools March & National Call to Action, and she also launched the Failing Schools Project, which aims to empower teachers, students, and parents in so-called “failing” schools to share their stories about what it’s really like to work and learn in such schools, and to promote alternative ways of thinking about and solving the problems these schools face. She currently uses her written, artistic and multimedia skills to serve organizations, candidates, and campaigns that work to advance democratic solutions to educational and social problems.

(Or, “If I had a [b]illion dollars…”)

I will never understand how some people spend their money.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve visited school buildings and classrooms where temperatures had risen above 90 degrees. (In kid terms, that means fidgeting, nosebleeds, nausea and worse– not so much in the reading, writing, & ‘rithmetic department.) That, in a time when districts across the country are switching to a four-day school week to save money, asking parents to pay out of pocket for things like bus service and extra curricular activities, and laying off teachers and other school personnel.

Yet, wherever else I go, I can’t stop seeing online banner ads or billboards for the “One Chance Colorado” campaign, a vague yet incredibly well-funded school reform campaign.

The people behind the campaign haven’t really said what, specifically, they’ll do to “improve the quality of our public schools today,” but they’ve sure spent a lot on yellow ads at bus stops.

For my money — and that ain’t much, especially in comparison — I can’t imagine why it hasn’t occurred to any of these titans of industry that a few million dollars might be better spent helping kids not faint in the middle of math class, or ensuring that they can actually get to school in the morning, even if their parents can’t afford a bus fee. Investing in transportation, infrastructure improvements and programs literally is something that can be done to “improve the quality of our public schools today,” yet that takes a back seat to largely uninformative commercials.

One thing those commercials have done, is make me think of all the other things that get lots of media attention and money while dire needs and more promising solutions are ignored.

For example, organizations like Stand for Children (whose Colorado chapter is one of the partners in the One Chance campaign) and Students First have spent a ton pressing for laws that weaken teachers’ rights, even though the American public largely trusts and supports teachers. If teacher quality and professionalism are high priorities for them, why not invest in high-quality teacher education programs, both pre-service and ongoing? (For that matter, if we all agree that teacher quality is important, why can more people name these two groups than have ever heard of important organizations like the Center for Teaching Quality?)

Stand For Children and Students First would say they’re not for weakening rights, but for teacher accountability. OK. Accountability is all well and good, provided it’s fair: a response to actions taken directly by those teachers (and schools, and districts) for outcomes within their control. Even so, accountability is what we deal with after something has already happened. What about responsibility? What about making sure our kids and schools have been set up for success from the beginning?

The time and money that’s spent mobilizing for (and, once public school stakeholders figure things out, against) such campaigns, is time and money not spent strengthening and expanding high-quality teacher education. It’s time and money not spent supporting promising practices like action research and tailored professional development that would actually make an immediate difference for kids.

It’s also time and money that’s not spent making sure that kids can get to school in the first place, or are in safe, healthy buildings that will allow them to make the most of their learning opportunities once they’re there.

Truly, private organizations and the foundations who fund them probably shouldn’t be as influential as they are in this realm. Public schools are a public investment, which benefit both our students and our economy as a whole, in the present and in the future.

But while we prod our leaders into getting their priorities straight and creating a fair, effective tax code that really supports schools, we’re going to lean heavily on private entities. How can we hold them accountable (if not responsible) for investing in concrete solutions instead of distractions?

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