Field Tripping: Economists Take Education Faculty to Visit Charter “Success”

In this guest post, Dr. Donna Wake, Associate Dean of Education at the University of Central Arkansas, relates an experiences taking a trip to visit a charter school with two economics faculty members. Donna has written other posts for this blog, including one about cursive writing (see here), and another about the educational mistreatment of Emma, (see here). Readers are encouraged to contact Dr. Wake with responses to this piece and/or engage in the comment section below.  

In the fall term, two economics faculty from my university’s College of Business contacted me about a trip they were taking to visit a charter school in the Arkansas Delta. The first email came on a Tuesday afternoon. Two economists, one who positioned himself as an educational policy analyst, were planning this trip and wondered if faculty from the College of Education might be interested in joining them. On Friday. In 3 days.

Despite the inconvenience of shuffling my week’s schedule for an impromptu trip to a school 3 hours away, I appreciated that they thought to include us, albeit at the last minute. With that in mind, and given my own curiosity about this specific charter school, I convinced a colleague to join me and made arrangements to go on the trip.

Friday morning arrived. After a three hour drive into the Arkansas Delta, we spent the morning touring the school’s various facilities, visiting classes, and talking with students and faculty and administrators. Collectively, my education associate and I asked the school personnel hundreds of questions in our three hours at the school. We asked about teacher turnover, free and reduced lunch rates, bus routes, and percentage of traditional versus non-traditionally certified teachers. We asked about parental involvement, class demographics, administrator preparation, use of Common Core, and school response to the recent changes in test requirements. We asked about the newly implemented teacher evaluation system, professional development initiatives, and state funding models. The economists followed us, listened, and took notes.

At times, we worried that we were “taking over” the economists’ trip. But when we individually asked the economists if we should allow them more time for their questions, they told us keep driving the conversations. Our questions helped them to think about this school.

In contrast to our many questions, the economists asked multiple school personnel only one question, repeatedly – “to what do you attribute your success?” When pressed to define “success”, the economists cited recent standardized test results, particularly when compared to local districts.

 

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Economist #1 (E#1), the educational policy expert, clearly assumed the school’s impact was positive, and he assumed this positive impact was correlated with standardized test scores. Unfortunately, I was not able to uncover any depth of research behind his assumptions. In fact, both E#1 and E#2 were openly surprised when I asked about how the school’s presence might be harming the local contexts by de-stabilizing the local school structures.

I began to feel as if our presence had been arranged simply because the economists didn’t know what questions they should be asking. This suspicion was confirmed the following Monday when E#1 emailed me to ask what was the difference between a traditional and non-traditionally trained teacher. I carefully typed my response and connected him to the department of education website as a resource.

I heard nothing from the economists for several months and had almost managed to forget the whole exchange. Then in January I received an email asking me to recommend a film for an economics student group as they discussed “School Choice Week.” I cautiously complied by recommending “Waiting for Superman.” I use “Waiting for Superman” in my own classes to talk about the complexities of public education and the positive and negative impact of school choice on districts, families, and students.

I also suggested that perhaps the students stage a panel discussion after the film viewing to include education faculty. I felt that the students might need guidance in discussing the history of school choice as well as both the pros and cons of school choice. I even volunteered my own time for this event.

I soon learned that my panel idea had been rejected by the student group. That’s right… rejected by the student group. But, they wondered if I might let education majors know of their film screening by sharing the following information:

This Thursday: Film Screening & Dinner Discussion of Waiting for Superman

Want to improve kids’ education? Come learn about realistic changes that make huge differences in the lives of children.

To celebrate National School Choice week (January 24th -30th), the Young Americans for Liberty are hosting a screening of the documentary Waiting for Superman. Great conversation, pizza, and beverages will be provided.

Perturbed does not begin to describe my emotional response. I immediately responded that I would not be sharing the announcement. I also asked that the world “celebrate” be replaced by the word “discuss.” In fact, I pointed out that using the word “celebrate” was based on the assumption that school choice is something to celebrate and represented a bias in programming that should really be a part of the larger conversation happening around this topic.

Here is my take away from this sequence of events… It is wonderful that so many people care about kids and education. It is fantastic that people outside the field of education want to help and think they can help support teachers and kids in schools. However… we in the education profession all need to be much more blunt about our communication with people outside of our field. To make real differences in the lives of teachers, students and schools requires a deep understanding of context and requires a great deal of time working within school structures and thinking about issues related to educational practices and policies. I wish to refute the idea that “anyone can teach.” I want to support the idea that teaching is a profession with long standing traditions and discourses. While the field certainly has its issues, it is impractical and troubling to think that those from outside the system can enter and “fix” the system with no knowledge of the field.

While people enter into these situations with the best of intentions, this intrusion into the field was ineffective and potentially harmful in that it promulgated the narrative that school choice is a “solution” to all of the complexities and challenges facing modern educational contexts. Put simply, if you want to play in my sandbox, then spend some time studying the field (e.g., perhaps take coursework and earn a degree or licensure) and spend some time yourself as a teacher in local schools. Once you do that, then engage with me in a conversation. Until then, I will not be celebrating choice – particularly when we do not know the impact those choices have on teachers, kids, and schools in local contexts, where it matters most.