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Education Reform Starts With Community Reform
by Andre Perry
We have an opportunity to pass a test that has challenged our nation for decades—to create schools that authentically represent the public and compel us to learn together. But we will miss this opportunity if we continue to focus on achievement tests. We must ask, are achievement tests a worthy measure of our ultimate goals?
For example, if faith is the standard for Christians, what is its public analog? What standards should public institutions be measured against?
Community! Community is faith clothed in public garb. It's the unseen and very real ideal that gives us reasons for being. Community is composed of the spiritual and material bonds that tie people together.
I am a New Orleanian and those of us who consider New Orleans home only have to leave our city for a few days to understand the spirit of place that is community. But along with the spirit, community members need very real resources to thrive. In this regard, theorists MacIver and Page offer a good definition of community. In their 1949 work Society, they write, "The mark of a community is that one's life may be lived wholly within it. One cannot live wholly within a business organization or a church; one can live wholly within a tribe or city."
A clear vision of a neighborhood and a school has to make plain the goal or destination of education. The usefulness of the various tests in education should be determined by their relationship to the community standard.
We currently use standardized tests well beyond what they were designed to do, which is measure a few areas of academic achievement. Achievement tests were not designed for the purposes of promoting or grading students, evaluating teachers or evaluating schools. In fact, connecting these social functions to achievement test data corrupts what the tests are measuring. In statistics this is called Campbell's Law. In other words, what does a score measure after it has been connected to a teacher's pay or job status? In education talk, this is called teaching to the test, hiring to the test, and getting paid to the test.
I certainly see truth and I am encouraged by recently reported gains on the ACT as well as the climbing graduation rate. However, when we place achievement growth data next to the very real needs of the community you can see their relative importance.
For instance, people living in the lowest economic areas of New Orleans live 25 years fewer than those in the highest economic neighborhoods. One in seven black men are either in prison or on parole. Thirty-seven percent of all New Orleans residents do not have the financial means to support a household for three months at the federal poverty level. White households earn twice as much as black households, and colleges are making smart people poor. All the while, national and local media outlets as well as advocacy groups are providing effusive praise for New Orleans' education reforms and they point to growth on standardized tests and/or graduation rates.
We all are tempted and incentivized to spotlight our personal contributions within something as spectacular as education reform. We also want to cheer for any successes that we may have. But when we remove our eyes from the higher standard of community, we also remove our personal responsibilities for improving it. I—like many others—have abdicated our community responsibilities to teachers, community based organizations, and City Hall. To a fault, we've placed undue responsibilities on police and prisons to restore order. Given the magnitude of our community problems, everyday citizens must unlearn how we made disengagement an acceptable behavior.
When we remove our eyes from the higher standard of community, we don't see the intersectionality of community problems. When you're community focused, you can't be vigorous about school reform without being spirited about prison reform. When you have faith in community you understand the costs of not reforming the police department.
When we have faith in community, we will begin to understand fully that we can't fire our way to academic excellence. When we have faith in community, we can never believe in a theory of improvement by deletion. Community members don't go away. They may be literally locked away in jail and prison, but people are still here.
We must be mindful when we are testing things we already know to be true. We know that all kids can learn. We also know that adults of all varieties can teach and lead. Yet we over-test because we have lost faith in both children and adults. You will hear the phrase "adult issues" spit about like bad okra.
As important as our current school reforms are to the future of the city, the impact of its graduates won’t be felt for decades. Two-thirds of New Orleans' 2025 labor pool is working-age adults. Meaning, if we want to become a more literate and productive city, we must make significant investments in adults. We have to train, employ, and most importantly trust the members who share a common fate.
Not having faith in adults supports an illogical notion that schools fix society. Really, societies fix schools. When we don’t trust community, we don't find ways to see its members as part of the solution. Again, residents don’t disappear. When you have a focus on community, both adults and children have to be part of the solution.
Touting growth on achievement data that is disconnected from real social mobility distracts us from actually helping the people in the scores.
In my work in education, I've been faced with some undeniable truths: We can make people smarter, and not necessarily make communities more livable. We can make people smarter, and not necessarily make communities more equitable. We can make people smarter, and not compel them to learn together. Smartness has its place, but we must remember, "Man shall not live on bread alone." The needs of our children are far greater than math and literacy achievement.
I do not discourage you from trusting data. As a social scientist, I have to believe in empirical evidence. As a social scientist, I'm encouraged by test score growth. As a practical addition to achievement data measures, I propose to researchers that we make the city the unit of analysis, and growth should be measured in terms of equity.
However, as a community member, the living and breathing forms of evidence inspire me most. It's the living and breathing evidence that will bring the good news.
For example, If you ever come to New Orleans, look up Kwame Floyd and take the time to become his friend. He and his story evidence real growth. Born in New York to a drug-addicted mother and his father’s whereabouts unknown, Kwame bounced around in foster care for approximately four years after his birth. The data say that not having a permanent home is one of the strongest predictors of academic failure, poverty and social decline. Kwame found himself in the tricky web of people, homes and bureaucracy for a total of six years.
His mother, lost in the world of addiction eventually found herself and regained custody of Kwame. However, it was educationally un-credentialed pastor of a storefront church—Pastor William Irving Anderson of Bethlehem Temple Apostolic Church—who got Kwame and his mom their first apartment and first car. Pastor Anderson did not go to college. He may not have graduated from high school. But when Kwame's mother died from a sudden asthma attack and the state thrust him back into foster care, Pastor Anderson opened up his home. He made his home more public—stronger evidence of progress.
Pastor Anderson found Kwame's aunt and uncle in Long Island. After landing in that permanent home, Kwame restarted his academic engines. Many teachers supported Kwame along the way. He graduated among the top twenty students in his class and got a scholarship to attend Penn State University where he graduated in 2006. However, if you ask Kwame who was the most significant person in his life, he will say, "I will name my first son William Irving Anderson."
Kwame joined Teach for America in 2007, came to New Orleans and became a founding member of Langston Hughes Academy. He fathered a daughter, Kayla, whose smile provides the powerful proof of love. Kwame and Kayla's mother broke up, but Kwame kept custody of her in New Orleans.
All these things make for a wonderful story. However, just a few days ago, the bank approved Kwame for a mortgage. Let's not confuse the meaning of that mortgage as simply a down payment on a house. That mortgage is evidence of his commitment to New Orleans. That mortgage is evidence that a community decided they were going to save a son. Most importantly, that mortgage is evidence that true transformation is possible through every day people.
Measures of smartness won't save New Orleans—or any other city. Commitments to community will.
Dr. Andre Perry is the Associate Director for Educational Initiatives for Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education. The Institute assesses the success of post-Katrina education reforms and also creates enrichment opportunities for students in the metro area.
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