Tuesday, October 18, 2011

When Outsiders are Needed

I've written about the push to include more outsiders in education (here and here, for example), and often focused more on the negatives than the positives of doing so.  So, today, let me take a brief moment to highlight one of the negatives of not allowing outside perspectives into education.

As regular readers know, I used to teach at a middle school in the Bronx that was shut down a few years back.  While shuttering the school (and subsequently opening three new, smaller, schools inside the building) was certainly no panacea, it's hard for me to believe it could possibly have made the situation any worse.

Not everything at my school was a disaster (the most notable exception to me was that a good portion of the teachers were at least very devoted if not also very skilled), but the list of negatives far exceeds the list of positives.  "Dysfunctional" would be a fair (maybe even kind) assessment of the day-to-day operations of the school.

That's the background for this snippet of conversation between two veteran teachers from a few weeks ago:

Teacher 1: "The more i visit schools, the more I see we were doing this right. [Our school] should have never closed."
Teacher 2: "You are so right [Teacher 1]. I still get angry about it...like it was our fault!"

I'm not a psychologist, but it seems pretty clear to me that the two teachers are (still) unable to dispassionately evaluate our school.  This would align with the split in reactions to the announcement the school would close that I witnessed: the newer teachers in the building (myself included) mostly seemed to say things like "good riddance . . . I'll find a better position somewhere else," while the vets struggled with the decision and where to go next (and were suddenly filled with nostalgia for a school they'd ostensibly detested the week prior).  They obviously had a much deeper connection to the school than did us newbies, but they also seemed to interpret evaluations of the school as implicit evaluations of their own personal performance.

I'm sure there are a million good reasons for them to feel this way, but the policy-relevant point is that those feelings prevented them from seeing all sides of the situation.  If any attack on the school becomes a personal attack against them, it seems unlikely that they'd ever be able to embrace radical change in a school that clearly (to me, anyway) needed just that.

So, in this case, I'd argue that outsiders were needed to do that.  I left before the new schools were up and running, so I have no idea if the outsiders' solution really helped, but I think the recognition that the school wasn't working was a valuable contribution regardless.

In short: while outsiders frequently intrude where they're not needed, this was an instance where they were.


Attorney DC said...

Corey: I'd agree that an outsider's opinion may certainly be valuable in the evaluation of a school. However, I'm concerned with the current trend where people with little or NO educational experience at all (not just no experience in that particular school) are evaluating and implementing our education policies. Am I crazy, or is it true that Arne Duncan has no educational experience (i.e., never a public school teacher or administrator)?

Corey Bunje Bower said...

I'm certainly not arguing that outsiders are always good (see my past posts for some examples of negative effects they can have), just that there are some times when they're needed.