Uncommon Advocacy – Wearing Our Bowler Hats to the Advocacy Challenges that Await

Weekend greetings, CharterFolk.

I’m enjoying a fantastic piece of journalism this weekend that actually, imagine that, doesn’t say the completely predictable thing. Check it out. It’s one I’ll be sure to come back to in the weeks ahead.

I’m also cogitating over this graphic that I came across for the first time this week, which has me pondering how we’ve gotten so much smarter as a species over the past 130 years.

Next, I would like to extend thanks to Lea Crusey for getting our Contributor Columns off to such a great start this year.

There’s nothing like another CharterFolk making bold assertions, like the notion that charter schools can save the country no less! I particularly liked Lea’s encouragement to keep focused on simple, but not simplistic solutions. One of the simple ones we strive toward is the recognition that the charter school movement needs to have great authorizing in order to succeed, but how to create such authorizing is anything but a simplistic challenge. This is a theme we are sure to return to many times in ’24. So to Lea for all her great effort chairing the authorizing activity of the DC Public Charter School Board, as well as for her Contributor Column this week, I offer an additional thanks.

Meanwhile, if there is anything that 25 years of marriage have taught me it’s that the secret to wedded bliss is being more true to your wife’s school than to your own. Thus, not only is my Michigan cap my most worn article of clothing, I’ve even bought a replacement so that I’m ready whenever its forebearer literally disintegrates on me.

So you know where I’ll be, CharterFolk, during tomorrow night’s national championship game:

In front of the TV, cap on, yelling “Go Blue!”

Let’s get on to today’s post.

Wearing Our Bowler Hats to the Advocacy Challenge that Await

Recent work in other contexts gave me occasion to revisit the early days of Uncommon Schools.

Sometimes amid all the din, it can be easy to lose sight of the fact that at the heart of the founding of nearly all great charter school organizations lies uncommonly great teaching.

As Uncommon Co-Founder Norm Atkins recounted in an oral history recorded by the National Charter School Founders Library

… when New Jersey passed its initial charter school law in 1996, he started looking for a partner to help open one of the state’s first charter schools and was introduced to James Verrilli, an educator working in a low cost private school in Newark’s Central Ward. When he visited Verrilli’s classroom shortly thereafter, he encountered what he later described to be “the greatest teacher he had ever seen.”

The two paired up. North Star Academy was founded.

And the rest, as they say, is history.

Very Uncommon history.

My sleuthing of this story led me to a very early-to-the-charter-school-movement video essay filmed by Clarence Page at PBS in 2000 entitled “Charter Schools that Work.”

The piece captured Verrilli in his element, dressed up in period costume …

… as he was wont to do throughout his whole teaching career …

… to make history come alive for his high school students.

This particular moment from the PBS video …

… leapt out at me, transporting me back to my own high school days, when I too had the opportunity to be in the presence of an uncommonly great teacher:

Dave Rogers, was a legend at Arvada West High School. His two classes for seniors – Physical Geography, wherein he taught the history of the universe, and Urban Geography, wherein he taught the history of cities – are still among the best classes I’ve had at any level.

Part of Rogers legend was how legendarily hard he was. His graded exams would come back a bloodbath of red. I used to have every test I got back from him until a flood in a storage unit destroyed them all. Here’s a page from the first Physical Geo test I managed to salvage.

Awash in red.

If you can’t make it out, one of the comments reads:

Remarkable ability to avoid going into any detail! You repeated yourself three times! Does this crap actually work with your other instructors?

On the next page, one that didn’t survive the flood unfortunately, he actually scrawled in inch-high letters

YEEEECH!!

Another now missing page contained the final point-total he awarded me on that first exam:

– 16%

Literally.

Negative sixteen percent.

His grading scale was calibrated to what he said were college standards. If you were doing work meriting a C in college, he reasoned you deserved an A in high school. So 70% was an A in his class. 60% a B. And so on.

Perhaps most memorable was the fact that the worst grade he gave was not an F.

He reserved an even lower mark for those who, like me on that first Geo test, had perpetrated an offense worse than failure.

The dreaded:

U!

Which stood for “U wasted my time.”

A grade I confess I received from Dave Rogers on more than one occasion.

And yet, the hours, CharterFolk, the hours we would all put into his classes. The just absurd amounts of studying. Up until all hours of the night prepping for the next test. Study sessions where a dozen or more of us would get together throwing key terms at one another.

Some of my fondest memories of high school.

Because we knew, for all the harshness Dave Rogers brought to his grading policies, all his teaching was infused with a deep, deep belief in students, a belief that we could achieve things that we ourselves didn’t even realize yet were within our potential to achieve.

Another class I had with Rogers was The History of the Soviet Union where I remember him lecturing about the concept of the political spectrum, exactly the topic that Verrilli was filmed teaching his kids about in “Charter Schools that Work.”

Rogers started the lecture much as Verrilli seemed to be doing, chalking out political views along a line from left to right. And then, just as we were all studiously copying his graphic into our notes, with a dramatic flair, he suddenly lurched at the chalkboard with an eraser in each hand, saying that anyone who presents the political spectrum as a line was an idiot who should never be trusted again.

The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany, Rogers insisted, did not belong on opposite ends of a line as they are often portrayed …

…but belong at the bottom of a circle, the place where, he said, Hitler and Stalin meet.

It’s a concept that, like all the lessons imparted by genius teachers like Rogers and Verrilli, was made alive to students.

So much so it has stayed alive in me all these years later.

I find it an often useful frame for thinking about the work that lies ahead of the charter school movement, and indeed ahead of all who strive toward a public education system in our country that better works.

So many want to present the simplistic notion that education policies exist along a continuum that is best presented as a line.

The idea that there is some basket of conservative notions that belongs at one end, and a basket of liberal ones that belong on the other.

Like the never ending fight over social issues expressed in public education policy.

The simplistic notion is that Florida’s effort to restrict the teaching of certain racial issues …

… is somehow the exact opposite of California’s effort to require the teaching of them.

When, in fact, most mining of the issue finds the deeper truth, which is that both sides are simply trying to rewrite history …

… if not literally cover it up …

… leading them to meet at the bottom.

The place where uncommonly great teachers like Verrilli and Rogers aren’t allowed to do their thing.

The place were history becomes dead to students.

Inert. Picked clean. Infused with ulterior motive that turns off teenagers more than just about anything else.

They’re the kind of policies that everyone can see are not designed to serve some long-term pedagogical purpose but are meant to serve the political strategy of the next election cycle.

In short, an enormous waste of time.

What Rogers invented his U grade for.

Policy makers have been wasting our time.

At precisely the moment when time is so short to make up for a historic loss of learning.

As it is with social policy in schools, so it is now becoming with broader education reform efforts.

On one end, people want to place the likes of Brandon Johnson in Chicago attempting to do away with all school choice so as to benefit employees working within establishment schools.

Meanwhile on the opposite end, people want to place those striving for universal voucher systems that primarily benefit families who already have their kids in private schools.

When in actuality, the sad truth is that these proposals meet at the bottom.

Where our barely-public public education system becomes even less public.

Where even fewer great options are allowed to flourish and where even less fairness determines who gets access to the best opportunities.

Thus making them proposals deserving a U grade from us all.

But unlike cosmetic changes in curriculum that everyone knows will be wiped off the face of public education as soon as our various political fevers break, the kinds of structural changes that are being advanced by the likes of Johnson and the unqualified universal voucher crowd could lead to an even further eroding of the foundations of public education, potentially causing damage for generations to come, if not an outright toppling altogether.

It is in this area where the voices of CharterFolk need to be heard. Advocating for policies that won’t lead us all to meet at the bottom, but will beckon us to the top. Toward a North Star. Policies that will set us on a trajectory toward greatly more public education for all.

Policies that move us away from the status quo’s horizon line, not by protecting the interests of those who are already well served by our current system, but instead by challenging the system to grow the supply of excellent public options while simultaneously allocating access to those options more fairly than happens today.

It will require that we cultivate within ourselves even greater levels of uncommonnness.

Not just uncommonly great teachers making uncommonly great schools like North Star.

But uncommonly great advocacy leading all of public education toward a North Star.

Growing the strength and the courage and the caring needed to wield the red pen that can give the public education establishment the harsh grades it needs to receive while never for an instant losing a deep belief in public education.

Such that public education, like students in the presence of uncommonly great teachers, finally begins to see the potential it has within itself.

It’s a challenge, CharterFolk, that will require that we wear a bowler hat to every advocacy challenge we encounter.

Because the reality that we face right now is a general public that, like disengaged teenagers in a classroom wondering why the hell any of this matters anyway, needs to see education policy matters come alive.

Through imagination and verve and whole new levels of risk taking.

Think the advocacy equivalent of a teacher in period costume standing atop a student’s desk.

All happening within a broader context where having the courage to say the necessary thing can bring massive backlash and retribution.

This is the level of teaching challenge the charter school movement faces as we enter 2024.

One as formidable as any we’ve ever faced before.

Not one I would want to entrust to anyone other than the next generation …

… of UncommonFolk.

Educators and advocates …

… building on the inspiration of those who came before to bring a new generation of bowler hats to the advocacy challenges that await.

The most UncommonFolk to have come to public education in a very long time.

If not ever.

CharterFolk.