Bringing Citizens Together to Make a Difference for Public Education

Category: Insights from Charlie

What I Would Do

While serving for 13 years as superintendent of the Medina City Schools, I faced many challenges.  None, however, were potentially more explosive than the discovery of a picture of Jesus in one of our school district’s elementary buildings.  What we learned in ultimately defusing the situation was truly an education for me and others close to the situation.  I was recently asked by someone who lived in Medina at the time what I would do if I were still a superintendent and the current controversy surrounding critical race theory showed up on my doorstep.  Here is my response:

Thank you reaching out to me.  I struggle, however, with these kinds of questions because I know all too well how it feels to get advice from those who don’t have to put their advice on the line.  Still, there has to be some benefit to learning from those who can say, “been there, done that — well, sort of.”

So, here is my answer to your question . . .

What first comes to mind is that I’d like to find out what’s going on in my community with regard to teaching about race.  It wouldn’t be limited to what teachers talk about in the classroom.  It would also include what is happening throughout the community.  Let’s face it, when it comes to children forming beliefs and attitudes about race, the lessons given by the collective community, including their families, are far more impactful than what the schools could ever hope to do on their own.

It seems to me that those expressing fears about teaching critical race theory (CRT) feel that it changes a commonly accepted narrative about our nation’s founding.  The issues I hear being raised seem to be less about facts and more about how people give meaning to those facts. Unfortunately, that makes the matter more complex since disagreements about facts can ultimately be addressed by doing more research — problematic, but doable.

All of this says to me that this whole matter is about values.  I see them as basic and fundamental beliefs that guide or motivate our attitudes and purposeful actions.  In a way, they become the lens through which we view the world.  We’re not likely to change anyone’s beliefs by calling for a town hall meeting to debate the matter.  More often than not, those efforts are knee-jerk responses that only magnify the problem by asking people to choose an identity.

I suspect that the only thing that would satisfy those who have attached themselves to the CRT issue would be for the schools to say and somehow demonstrate that “we’re not doing that.”  But that would be misleading and probably dishonest because the real issue is teaching about a complex history of race — and I don’t know any public schools that don’t do that.  Moreover, I don’t know of any community that doesn’t send strong messages (though often mixed) to children about race. The schoolhouse is the community.

I’m not one who wants to jump into a conversation that has been going for 400 years with the intent to resolve it.  At the same time, I don’t want to sweep an issue under the rug in hopes that it will bypass me.  The reality is that our nation is struggling with its history, and school leaders are faced with a question: What are our schools for if not to learn from what we are in the midst of?

With that in mind, I’d find a way to say: “Let’s pause and take a look at all of our actions throughout the community and see what they tell us about what we are teaching our children about race.  That will tell us what we value.  Then we can talk about what we think needs to change.”  We would learn first, and deliberate later.

To be sure, those whose motivation is set on a desire to discredit public education will not want to participate in any helpful way in this sort of fact finding.  Those people wouldn’t be my concern.  I would be far more interested in reaching those who have become conflicted by the messages they’re receiving. But I don’t think we can do that by turning up the heat with shouting matches.

The next step would be the most critical.  It would be to enlist individuals into that study.  Those who teach must be included, but I would enlist more than public school teachers.  I would include those who teach in non-public schools, churches and any other organization that sees itself as being a participant in the community’s responsibility to rear its children.  That could include those in recreation, civic organizations, health care, and of course parents.

Beyond that I’d look for thoughtful individuals who could articulate a motivation for becoming involved that extended beyond a desire to advocate for a particular outcome.  I would seek out people who wanted to learn more than they wanted to fight.

Here comes the point I would find to be most difficult because it would require that I step away and let others take charge of the effort.  It is difficult because I’d have to contend with my superintendent DNA that wants to control outcomes.  But giving into that would be a mistake because it would send a message that CRT is about the schools.  Whenever school leaders take ownership for matters that are beyond their capacity to resolve alone, they reinforce the belief that schools are hopelessly broken because they cannot fix the sins or the rest of our society.

What happens from that point will depend upon the depth of commitment these individuals have to honestly answering the question: What is our community teaching its children about race?  There will be no scarcity of evidence, although they will most likely encounter conflicting points of view.  They will also have to avoid the temptation to become judgmental because the objective is simply holding up a mirror in front of the community.  The truth, wherever it takes you, has to be the goal.

How the learning that comes from this study is communicated will be up to those conducting it.  If this is truly a community matter, then the community ought to decide what happens from that point on.  If CRT is still an issue for some, then it is the community they need to be at odds with, not just the public schools.  I learned this when, as superintendent in Medina, we were dealing with the picture of Jesus being in one of our elementary buildings.

For me, the bottom line is this:  The current movement charging that our nation’s public schools are promoting CRT is quickly gaining momentum.  Without community support, our public schools are a sitting duck for those who want to use them for political target practice as our nation heads toward the next round of elections.

In addition to having served for 13 years as superintendent of the Medina City Schools, Charlie Irish is currently a member of the Statewide Leadership Team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, an education partner of the Kettering Foundation and co-author of Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools.

Who We Are as a Nation

As recent events in our nation’s Capitol begin to settle in, it is becoming increasingly clear that we are witnessing a struggle over the definition of who we are as our nation.  What’s more, it is clear that education will surely follow in its wake.

Until recently, the debates around school legislation have been influenced primarily by a sense of affordability. Indeed, legislators were chosen because of their beliefs about how and where the state’s resources should be invested. Today, it is no longer that simple. Ideologies that extend beyond mere fiscal priorities are playing an increasing role in the selection of policy makers and what is expected of them when in office.

While in the past, those of us in education may have felt immune to many of those ideology wars, a look at the current landscape quickly dispels that notion. We are in the middle of a political landscape that is constantly being whipsawed by competing societal forces.

My point is this: As we work with state policymakers, we have to realize that they are impacted by the increasing polarization caused by zero-sum world views. Therefore, the decisions they face have become more complex as they are influenced by more than the availability of money.  Accordingly, we have to put more of our hope for the future in our own hands — lest we become just one more faction that acts out of a sense of having been deprived of something owed to us.

This brings me to the realm where I think we can make a difference — our local communities. The world around us seems to have gone mad because people are constantly told what separates them, rather than what they might commonly care about. The fearful and hateful tone of those messages come from feelings of powerlessness where extremism seems to be the only option.

But our communities have choices. They don’t have to act out of a sense of impotence. Regardless of the diverse political views that surely exist in most places, there also resides an opportunity to chip away at this disunity through joint work.

Think about the old fashion barn raising where virtually every person filled a role. The outcome of that effort was a finished structure to be admired. However, the greater result was that everyone felt fulfilled and proud to be a useful and important part of their community. Of course, today we outsource that job to professional builders because it’s more efficient. But, in doing so, we’ve gradually traded away the value of personal contribution for increased productivity. Barn raising may be a thing of the past, but the opportunities for a personal sense of purpose and relevance does not have to be.

Consider the relationship schools have with the people in their communities. Therein, I believe, lies the key to our future. That relationship has to become closer and more genuine — more than a box to check off — and more than something we’ll get to when we find time.  It has to come from an ethos that says we are in this thing together as equals.  Of course, a strong focus on teaching and learning is still an essential element, but it just isn’t enough anymore.

If our public schools hunker down in their own silos without including the people and other local institutions in any substantive way, public education will find itself marooned on an island regularly battered by the changing winds of political struggles.  It will become just another voice lost in those winds.

We cannot declare neutrality in these wars we see around us, but we don’t have to choose sides either. Instead, we can be the adult in the room as we rise above the insanity. But that can happen only with a citizenry that enters the arena and actively works together for the purpose of rearing its children to become happy and productive citizens.

More than anything, people need to feel that they are an important part of something bigger than themselves. They need to feel relevant. We can start providing for that by recognizing how we, in schools, have become isolated from community life and taking a giant step back into it. We have to join the community instead of asking it to join us. Maybe our first task is to understand the difference.

When schools and their communities reunite, not for the purpose of becoming a faction that seeks more power than the others, but into entities that work together for all, then we will become an example of democracy working as it should. We will have done our part to give citizens a purpose and a place.

This is why the grassroots initiative of the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network is so important.

Charlie Irish is a member of the statewide leadership team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network, an educational partner of the Kettering Foundation and a former 13-year superintendent of the Medina City Schools.


A Paradox We Need to Confront

With the publication of her new book, Learning How to Hope, our colleague Sarah Stitzlein’s timing couldn’t be better.  While I suspect that she had no idea of the specifics that would come to define EdChoice legislation when she began writing, her book is an excellent study into what we face and the changes we will have to make to overcome it.

She writes about hope as a verb, the purposeful action of people who choose to come together and pursue their common aspirations.  She calls it a “pragmatist hope” where people take charge of their hope by building habits that are founded in mutual commitments to inquiry, truth and growth.  Then she gives all of that the perfect name — “hoping together.”

We all read works of this nature through lenses that focus on our preferences, so her ideas will impress each us in different ways.  I encountered my arresting moments when I pondered the contrast she draws between pragmatist hope and privatized hope.  Where pragmatist hope is founded in the work that involves people pursuing their common aspirations, privatized hope is the drive to achieve one’s own limited dreams.  That difference helps me to understand why some view education as a competitive, zero-sum game, and others see it at its best when it is a community effort.

This points to a paradox I think we need to confront.  The struggle EdChoice has precipitated is about more than just money (though the amount at stake is huge).  It is about how we will exercise our hope in the future.  That has a lot to say about the future of public education, whether it is a reflection of a public’s aspirations or just a name.  The paradox I see is that we have been drawn into a struggle for the support from citizens, which feeds neatly into the narrative EdChoice advocates promote — it’s all about competition.  And yet, if we do not engage in the struggle, we will lose significant financial support.  Of course, we must respond to this legislation, but I think that Sarah presents us with an opportunity to think about that response in a way that is more expansive than just winning.

The book is replete with ideas and examples of how the habits of hope can become an integral part of the goals for education.  These include students, teachers and groups of citizens who work and learn together to make their communities and schools better places.  I suspect that the people in these communities would view EdChoice-type legislation as an affront to the community, not just the schools.  They would know that what is at stake is more precious than money.

It seems to me that those who are actively involved in the everyday habits around the work of hoping together are our best bet for bringing about an ethos that values true public education.  The people who want to preserve this aspect of their community life are those who are best suited to effectively confront EdChoice legislation.

Charlie Irish and Sarah Stitzlein are members of the Statewide Leadership Team for the Ohio Public School Advocacy Network.  

Brexit and Sacred Cow Thinking

As a public school superintendent, I spent much of my career challenging the conventional thinking of my profession.  Recently, I wrote about how the Brexit saga in the United Kingdom exposes some of the sacred cow thinking that is putting that relationship in jeopardy:

Trying to follow the convoluted twists and turns of the Brexit matter becomes a mind-boggling effort for most of us.  Yet, I see a lesson in it.  It is simply that when confronted with complicated issues in a democracy, voting is the last thing to be done, not the first. 

Consider how things might be different in the U.K. if what we are seeing now had been a pre-election discussion rather than post-election fight.  It strikes me that, as a nation, the U.K. is being asked to define itself with a gun to its head.  Before we get too smug, however, let’s bring that notion closer to home and compare it to the ways schools address serious matters like finances. 

It has become the norm for a board of education to lock in the parameters of choice in an election before there is any public deliberation.  Even in the very few cases when public discussion occurs in advance of the board’s action, it typically is to confirm what has already been decided “up high.”  And then, of course, when people finally become involved in levy campaigns around an unalterable choice, there is nothing left for them to decide other than yes or no. 

In Brexit, the vote preceded a national deliberation where people begin to understand what the issue means to their lives.  In our schools today, we lock in the choices given to the public before it can have meaningful conversations about them.  I don’t see much of a difference between the two. 

Instead, what if the whole process began with public deliberation?  What if, through its deliberation, a community would tell its elected officials what is the appropriate choice to be presented on a ballot? What if a board of education committed to not put any issue on the ballot until it was clear that the community had deliberated sufficiently enough to narrow its choices and was now ready to vote? 

That doesn’t mean a consensus has been reached.  Rather, it simply means that people have identified their choices and understand what is at stake — as they define it through their own eyes, not the eyes of professional educators.  That is when voting becomes the next appropriate step. 

In addition to greatly improving the chances of passing tax issues, meaningful public deliberation would ensure something even more important.  It would strengthen the legitimacy of the school district as part of the community. 

Just to be clear, legitimacy does not automatically come with the designation, “public school.”  Legitimacy exists when citizens believe the institution is theirs, not when someone tells them that their only choice is to say “yes” or “no.”

Co-author of the book, Cleaning Up the Mess from Sacred Cows: A Strategy to Take Back Our Public Schools, Charlie Irish has spent much of his educational career challenging the conventional thinking of his profession.


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