Between a Thank You From Fortune and a Picture of My Wife – Mikhail Gorbachev

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I’ve been working on a post early this week on this Jay Matthew’s piece …

… which, I admit, drives me crazy.

It’s an article about this book …

… which, I admit, drives me even more crazy.

The book attempts to tell the story of how public education in Los Angeles improved over the last 25 year without demonstrating a deep understanding of the power dynamics that allowed that improvement to come about …

… all while sharing fundamentally inaccurate and unfair characterizations of charter schools.

But if I’m going to write on this topic with such a contrarian bent …. (even Caprice said the book got it 90% right) … I’m going to need to be thorough and precise, neither of which I have sufficient time for until later in the week.

So I was on the cusp of just resigning myself to only getting one post out this week.

And then I saw this story come out …

… which is prompting me now to spin off something quick.

Readers of CharterFolk may have recognized that I have a bit of a Gorbachev obsession.

I included reference to him in my first post of the year.

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.

A couple months later I quoted the Oldest Living Bolshevik, a character in “Perestroika,” the second part of Tony Kushner’s masterpiece play Angels in America, when talking about our movement’s need to identify a new theory by which to drive our efforts.

“Theory! How are we to proceed without theory …?

Change. Yes, we must change, only show me the theory, and I will be at the barricades, show me the book of the next Beautiful Theory and I promise you these blind eyes will see again, just to read it, to devour it, that text. Show me the words that will re-order the world, or else keep silent! 

If the snake sheds his skin before a new skin is ready, naked he will be in the world, prey to the forces of chaos. Without his skin he will be dismantled, lose coherence and die. Have you, my little serpents, a new skin?”

Ever since I started teaching, I have thought that “perestroika,” is emblematic of what we are trying to do in education reform.

It’s an idea that has resonated across the country for decades …

… the notion that our system of public schooling in the United States is an educational Soviet Union desperately in need of transformation.

It led me to say in the 90s and the early 2000s that what public education needed was Gorbachevs, thousands of Gorbachevs, leaders who recognize that restructuring the system and devolving power back to those who should have it are more important than maintaining one’s own personal position of authority and control.

Very few people restructured a system and devolved power back to others with greater integrity and courage than Mikhail Gorbachev.

Clearly, things didn’t play out as Gorbachev intended, and he demonstrated all sorts of other faults and shortcomings along the way.

But our world is very fortunate that, as it just so happens, the leader who controlled a stockpile of nuclear weapons large enough to have destroyed the entire world many times over also just so happened to be one of the most principled and courageous public figures any of us have seen in our lifetimes.

If he had made his own political survival his top priority, he could have held on for decades.

Instead, he saw that something else was needed. And he brought it about, even if it meant his own political demise.

For those reasons, I consider him one of the great heroes of the 20th century, right up there with Mandela and Gandhi and very few others.

My admiration for him and the applicability of the concept of perestroika to our work in education was such that, one year when I was still at High Tech High, I insisted to Amy that the only thing I wanted for my birthday was a framed picture of Gorbachev.

This was back before you could just order something up on the internet. All I kept hearing was how impossible it was going to be to find.

But sure enough, on my birthday, what did I unwrap?

A framed picture of Mikhail Gorbachev.

I keep it in my office to this very day, on the top shelf of the bookcase right between a thank you note from Fortune School

… and a picture of Amy herself.

(To this day, when Amy wants to explain to people how positively insufferable her life’s mate can be, she will sometimes say that I’m the kind of person who wants nothing but a framed picture of Mikhail Gorbachev for his birthday.)

Obviously, the way that history has turned out, Gorbachev resonates in different ways.

Who wants to say we desire some perestroika when we know what came next?

But in the aggregate, acknowledging the comparison point’s limitations, I can live with it.

I don’t have any intention of taking Gorbachev off the shelf.

The fact is that, to this very day, we still need thousands upon thousands of Gorbachevs in public education, people who will force the traditional system to do what it must, which is to relinquish control and direct it back to where it rightfully belongs – into the hands of parents and empowered educators.

Leader after leader, many who present themselves to be reformers wanting to devolve power before they assume the superintendency, once they’re in office, want to keep it all, falling back on that age-old view that they’re the special leader who can fix everything if just given sufficient power and control.

There are exceptions.

Joel Klein in New York.

Tom Boasberg in Denver.

Lewis Ferebee in Indianapolis.

They have brought about some of the most important lasting contributions to public education that we have ever seen.

But, sadly, they are the exceptions.

Los Angeles has had some strong superintendents over the years, some who I admire greatly and who showed great courage during their time in office.

But none of them had the basic orientation of a Klein, a Boasberg or a Ferebee, and so, sadly, though much progress has been made in Los Angeles, we could have made so much more.

Now we see a new superintendent come to town …

… whose inaugural “state of the district” speech laying out his plans for the future contained 7,385 words, not one of which was the word “charter.”

CharterFolk, what our country’s kids and families need is greatly more public education, which can only be brought about through a fundamental restructuring of the system.

It is why we need Gorbachevs, thousands of educational Gorbachevs.

Those leaders who help us get where we need to go will deserve our respect and admiration and will rightfully find their portraits on our collective top shelves, right beside keepsakes of the people and places we cherish most.