Good morning, CharterFolk.
Happy New Year to you all.
It seems odd to start the first post of 2022 thinking about how monumental the changes are going to be this year when we’ve just come through 2021, a year which seemed to define “monumental change.” (See the CharterFolk 2021 Year in Review.) But as I’ve had time to reflect during the holidays, I’ve come to the conclusion that, in fact, 2022 is going to be a year of even greater change than the one we’ve just lived through.
I know how completely overwhelming that can be for CharterFolk and indeed for all people connected to education to hear right now given all that is going on with the pandemic. It’s why a part of what we will try to do here at CharterFolk in the months ahead is to find ways to get additional oxygen to people – small gestures intended to help our world deal with the unreasonable level of responsibility that is being heaped upon us right now. If we do it right, perhaps CharterFolk itself can become seen to be something of an “oxygen bar for the movement” at a critical moment. I’ll have more on this topic in the coming days.
Meanwhile, over the holiday break, contemplating the approach of transformational change, the MFA-side of my brain naturally gravitated to Yeats language – to the center not holding, to things falling apart, to some rough beast slouching toward some place to be born.
But toward where?
Partially yes. My next post will talk about the seismic changes that are coming to our state legislatures in 2022 and how we all have to get ready for that.
But over the break my first thoughts centered on the loci responsible for the operations of our schools. At some point I began thinking more and more about “Normal Street.”
Those of you who know San Diego remember that San Diego Unified’s central headquarters …
… is called “Normal Street.”
It’s a name that goes all the way back to the 1890’s …
… when the city elders decided to create the “Normal School.” As the University Heights Historical Association describes it:
In the late 1890s, San Diego officials believed that a normal school should be established to help the town grow and increase certification of teachers. The site of the aborted San Diego College of the Arts on Normal Street at Campus Avenue was donated to the State of California to build a “Normal School,” a state-sponsored teacher-training college. The term “normal” refers to the goal of these institutions to instill and reinforce particular “norms” or societal values and ideologies within students.
By the 1930s, the teacher training program had been moved elsewhere and the campus was converted into an elementary and middle school. By the 1950s, the original buildings had been condemned as unsafe and were demolished, and the “Education Center” was built to house the district’s central administration. When I came along 50 years later to take a job at the district, I was a soon-to-be-new-father and recognized I’d be putting in a lot of hours. So I wanted to be within a few stop signs of work. We ended up finding a place in the surrounding neighborhood where residents proudly claim to have achieved the very heights of normalcy.
By the early 21st century, no one seemed to remember much of the history that gave the place its name. Everyone just referred to the central office as “Normal Street” without thinking twice about it. But as an outsider, I was constantly struck by the irony of the district’s headquarters being referred to as in any way normal. Of all the work environments where I have been employed, none has ever felt even remotely as un-normal as San Diego Unified’s central administration.
Don’t get me wrong. I met incredible people working at the district. Some of them are among my closest friends and most respected colleagues to this very day. But the environment there was brutal. The dog eat dog of it. The office politics. The everyday randomness and absurdity that existed side-by-side with goose-step-rigid bureaucracy and compliance requirement. All of it topped off by a board whose members were split 3-2 on virtually every topic. The lack of civility within the building was a function of the lack of civility between board members. At one point, a board member was revealed to have sent a supposedly joking email about shooting other board members.
Board dynamics made it plain to all how fragile the situation was. The loss of just one vote would put everyone’s livelihoods in the central administration at risk. It created a presumption of impending transience, which led the vast majority to think of our work in the very short term. You think publicly traded companies are too focused on the short term having to report financials quarterly? Just spend a little time in a Normal Street setting where short-term thinking is orders of magnitude worse.
In the meantime, you make sure you know who your friends are and you do whatever you can to support them. As it so happened, Tess was born in the first week of November in an election year. The doctors let us leave the hospital late on a Tuesday afternoon. On the way home, we stopped to vote in school board elections.
I wonder how many other children there are on earth who, like Tess, saw the inside of a polling booth before they saw the inside of their own baby crib.
A year later, I got the chance to join the team at High Tech High, which turned out to be just an incredible opportunity. The contrast with Normal Street could not have been clearer.
Some of my work over the years has given me occasion to visit the central offices of many large urban school districts in our country. Each time I enter one, I am reminded of Normal Street: impressive but highly stifled people; a toxic work environment; and an organization anchored to an original vision and mission presuming that some small group of centrally located people should be empowered to instill norming values and ideologies in everyone across an entire community, when those for whom the norming is being done are perfectly equipped, and would very much prefer, to be doing their own norming themselves.
The dysfunction happening within “Normal Street” settings across the nation has been on highly visible display during the Covid crisis. It has contributed to district central offices becoming destinations toward which a rough beast is now slouching.
For a long time, I have been thinking that the pandemic would create a moment of great challenge that would likely result in many parents and students shifting to charter schools, but that at some point things would sag back to a paradigm similar to the one we had pre-pandemic. That included an assumption that the prevailing political dynamics affecting charter schools pre-pandemic would be the same ones post-pandemic as well.
I don’t think that any more.
Now I think that we are on the precipice of monumental change.
This change comes after many generations of stasis having been maintained by the forces that benefit from a system of schooling that was designed during the agrarian age of Horace Mann. My old boss Larry Rosenstock used to say, “The American high school is arguably the least changed civic institution we find anywhere in modern life.” The same can be said for all of public education. For many of us who have been working decades toward a moment when profound change and improvement of our public education system could occur, we are likely to see more change in the next few years than we have seen in the rest of our lives.
This necessity for change is not coming about as we would have hoped, by people becoming enlightened and proactively deciding to do the right thing because it is the right thing to do. Rather, it is coming about because so many people working within the system are leaving that the system simply doesn’t have the base capacities needed to sustain itself.
And so, as Yeats put it, things fall apart.
It’s like the Soviets in the 1980’s. It would have been nice if the Politburo had just seen that evolving its nation into something more aligned with the interests of its own people was simply the right thing to do. But that’s not what happened. The system broke down because it simply did not have the capacities to sustain itself, and so there was no other choice. Change happened because change had to happen. In the end, a rough beast in the form of Gorbachev appeared slouching toward Moscow uttering noble sounding words like perestroika and glasnost.
Change in public education is going to happen now because it has to happen. The hour has come round at last. And many of the words that policy makers will utter regarding public education in the years ahead will be pleasant sounding to education reformers.
- Changes making it easier for people to join the teaching profession.
- Changes allowing greater use of online and remote learning so that fewer teachers can more effectively serve larger numbers of students.
- Improved tools emerging customized to the unique needs of learners.
- Schools evolving away from seat time as the basis for credit and toward students demonstrating mastery of subjects.
- Excessively rigid HR rules and regulations relaxing to allow for greater job-sharing and redefinition.
- Lines blurring between credentialed staff providing formal instruction and other staff providing custodial supervision of minors.
- The need for greater innovation generally resulting in many more schools receiving regulatory relief to try new things.
- As schools begin to differentiate to try new things, parents demanding and being given greater choice over where to enroll their students.
Many of these reforms, of course, will seem like common sense. They will seem like gestures designed to allow our Normal Streets to finally become “normal,” not in the 1890s sense of the word, didactically imposing centralized norms on all others in a community, but in the common sense form of the word, allowing parents and students and other community members to play the normal self-determining role they play over other parts of their lives.
But what’s coming, as Yeats put it, is a rough beast. We don’t know exactly what form the change will take. Things could veer in all sorts of directions, some of them threatening. Those powers who see their current interests threatened by the shifting sands will surely do the most egregious things.
The role of charter schools at a moment like this is to get even better at what we are already good at. Generally, while we have not been as innovative in the aggregate as many would have liked, we have been far more innovative than the traditional system, and we have been able to act with far greater agility than school districts. Now more than ever, society will look to charter schools to innovate new models which transcend the new capacity constraints that have been placed on the system, and we will be counted on to help ensure that those models can be adopted successfully by other kinds of public schools.
Our role will also be to take on key advocacy responsibility helping to ensure that the common sense we need in policy is allowed to happen, not just for charter schools but for all public schools. Part of that will mean working to make sure that candidates who support common sense are able to make their way into office. As I say, 2022 will be a year like no other along these lines, and we already see many of our advocacy organizations rising to the occasion.
In sum, our role is to help make sure that the massive perestroika and glasnost transformation we are about to go through in the education world proves successful. Or at least proves successful enough that we avoid the emergence of some Putin-like alternative who could, in Yeats’s words, vex us all to nightmare back toward a new paradigm that ends up being as bad or worse than the one we had before.
Generally, in the aggregate, I am optimistic, but I am also not naive. It’s an incredibly important time for the charter school world to do incredibly important work incredibly well. And many of us are completely exhausted as we head into this new chapter. So it’s a time to be incredibly careful and to be watching out for one another the best we possibly can.
I really don’t remember what was the pretext, but one day district colleagues came by my desk in the Ed Center. For some reason they had been given a set of keys to go into Annex 2, the only original building left from the 1890’s era at Normal Street. Did I want to join them? I’d never been in and had always been curious, so of course I went.
The building …
… stands as a monument to an outdated stasis. Since the 1950’s it has been deemed seismically unsafe so it can never be used. Since the 1990s it’s also been deemed a historical monument so it can never be altered. It’s a combination of designations that puts the place in a state of perfect suspended animation. I’ve been in lots of old schools in my day, classrooms with teacher closets full of that familiar musty smell of crayons and chalk and aging children’s books, a scent that can invoke in some a nostalgia deeply rooted in our childhood experiences of school.
That’s not what Annex 2 was like. It had become nothing more than an ornamental, dilapidated storage facility, full of old furniture, outdated maps and globes, and mainframe computers from a long bygone era.
Annex 2 is at the heart of the Normal Streets that control the values and ideologies and the very operations of our nation’s public schools – an outdated stasis. And now through sheer necessity, a second coming is upon our public schools. It is a time when, Yeats tell us, the worst are full of passionate intensity and the best lack all conviction.
It is a difficult balance to find something between those two dysfunctional poles – not driven by a passionate intensity, but girded by the conviction needed to help something constructive, something fundamentally better, emerge on the landscape, not just for ourselves but for all kids and families. It is the kind of quiet, dispassionate, but ultimately steely conviction I see many CharterFolk summoning as they take on the great challenges we face in public education today. And it’s the tone and spirit we will attempt to bring to all we do here at CharterFolk in 2022.