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Why I’m Starting a School: The Political Answer

I get asked frequently why I’m helping to start a school. I have three different answers to the question, depending on the audience. All are true, and I’m not sure they’re contradictory. The first answer dealt with the particulars of Harvest College High School, and the second answer was more personal. My final answer is political.

Anyone who tells you they know how to improve schools at scale is lying or delusional. There is simply no precedent for taking a large number of struggling or mediocre schools and improving them. To say that the solution is to close them down and replace them with new ones, as the Bloomberg administration has done for 10 years now, is one of the great acts of hubris in our time. The part of me that cares deeply about the politics of educational policy, and its utter lack of regard for democracy under Bloomberg, doesn’t want to support this policy in any way.

But opening a school is doing that. I’m excited for Harvest Collegiate High School to be born, but for that to happen, Legacy High School has to die.

Legacy is not just any school. It’s a small school founded as a member of the Coalition of Essential Schools, as is ours. It’s also the school whose closure was most resisted by its students last year.

I don’t know much about Legacy. I know the Department of Education says it was “failing.” I know it was showing signs of improvement under new leadership. I know a critical mass of students fought its closure. I don’t have the information to address the particulars of the decision to close this school. I do know I trust its students more than I trust the department. Please read what one of them, Justin Watson, wrote me on my blog earlier this spring.

In February, a fellow active union member and organizer wrote me that while he understood my desire to open a great school, he hoped I would have waited until a moment when opening such a school would not make me complicit in the current “school reform” project.

I’m certain his analysis is right, but I’m of two minds on whether or not good people should try to open new schools in New York City right now. On the one hand, it makes one complicit in the failed current “school reform” project; on the other hand, if schools are going to be opened anyway, it’s better that good people be part of that. I honestly don’t know which is right in the end and accept the judgment and criticism I get for my decision to side with the latter view.

But there’s another political part of me, and it’s the part that, in the last year, I realized was more important.  This is the part of me that is interested in the politics and policy of what actually happens in classrooms among teachers, students, curriculum, and assessments. Let’s call this the politics of pedagogy, as opposed to the politics of schools and personnel discussed to this point.

Nearly all political discourse around so-called “school reform” misses the most important part of schooling. The charter vs. public debate, or the big vs. small debate, or the which teachers should be hired or fired debate, while important, only address the container in which learning happens. It doesn’t address the learning itself, which is the result of a relationship among students, teachers, curriculum, and assessment. While there is public dialogue around these pillars as isolated pillars, there is rarely any around what happens in the actual classrooms when they come together. You can’t just focus on one; you have to look at pedagogy, or the complex multifaceted relationship between them. Anything that doesn’t is oversimplifying an immensely complex challenge, thereby making it harder to address.

Ultimately, my decision to help open Harvest is about creating a school where a certain kind of teaching, learning, and assessment can flourish. This kind of pedagogy is captured in the Coalition of Essentials Schools Common Principles. My greatest hope for Harvest is that we’ll embody and realize them.

About our First Person series:

First Person is where Chalkbeat features personal essays by educators, students, parents, and others trying to improve public education. Read our submission guidelines here.