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Chris Stewart’s pizza-and-policy session produces agreement — and disagreement

CC/Flickr/edkohler
Broadway Pizza in North Minneapolis played host to a wide-ranging education policy discussion on Tuesday night.

Tuesday night at north Minneapolis’ Broadway Pizza, a slender reed was extended over a deep, wide chasm. It wasn’t the bridge dreamed of by Chris Stewart, who paid for the pie and set the ground rules, but it was a good start.

Chris Stewart

Director of the African American Leadership Forum and a former Minneapolis School Board member, Stewart is possessed of a restless intelligence. Lately he has nurtured a minor obsession with the idea that inviting improbable combinations of people to talk — and listen — might result in putative foes finding common ground.

A month ago, he stepped into a roiling Facebook debate about education reform and threw down the gauntlet: “Okay, reformers, traditionalists, unionists, teachers, parents, ideologues and other representatives of public education’s motley crew. It’s not enough to talk AT each other without ever finding even a smidgen of common ground.”

Indeed the Facebook page in question, the Contract for Student Achievement, started life as a place where people of differing minds respectfully and constructively posted links to articles of interest to education wonks, noteworthy events and so on. But over the course of the summer, tempers flared and the barbs started to get personal.

Were the flame-throwers brave enough to show up for a meal?

Nearly two dozen people accepted his invitation to read and discuss two books, one selected by Stewart, the other by his antagonist-turned-co-host, Robert Panning-Miller, former president of the Minneapolis Federation of Teachers (MFT), a leader of the Public Education Justice Alliance of Minnesota and a teacher at South High School.

Other attendees included: former board members T. Willliams and Catherine Shreves; Daniel Sellers, who recently left his job as head of Teach for America (TFA) Twin Cities to take the reins of the reform advocacy group MinnCAN; MPS teachers Caroline Hooper and Patricia Rydeen; Richfield teacher Emily Lilja Palmer; community advocate Mel Reeves; longtime MPS activist Peggy Clark; TFA Twin Cities Alumni Affairs Director Kyrra Rankine; Adelante College Prep teacher Kathryn Spotts; a couple of team-player spouses and some late arrivals who missed the introductions.  

(Fun fact: Sellers was Panning-Miller’s student at South. I’ll bet the older teacher is regretting all of those critical thinking skills he imparted on the younger one.)

The group ran out of time to discuss Stewart’s pick, “The Strike That Changed New York,” by Jerald E. Podair, about a series of racially inflamed labor actions.

Panning-Miller chose “Education and Capitalism: Struggles for Learning and Liberation,” edited by Sarah Knopp and Jeff Bale and published in April. A collection of essays about Marxist theories on education and teacher unions, it includes a critique of Barack Obama’s “neoliberal agenda for public education.”

Among other ideas, the book asserts that as a system that must have economic winners and losers, the capitalist society has no incentive to provide all of its citizens a high-quality, empowering education. The ruling elite is better served by schools that continue to churn out an underclass; to that end, the national education reform movement is at heart an effort to privatize the schools.

And it goes a step further: The crisis in education will not be resolved until capitalism has been replaced with a just and equitable economy.

The book is dense reading — observed Sellers: “I read this on my honeymoon, and that was a mistake” — so Stewart provided guests with excerpts of key passages.

In terms of reaction, the improbable conveners covered a spectrum. There was universal agreement on nothing, but a surprising amount of agreement on several of the points:

  • Teachers spend too much time administering standardized tests, many of which don’t yield the kind of data they need.
  • Particularly since the passage of No Child Left Behind, teachers have been maligned for failing to fix ills over which they have no control, such as poverty.
  • Rhetoric notwithstanding, it’s not entirely clear that the body politic wants to close the achievement gap.

The points where deep divisions were clear:

  • Whether charter schools and alternatively certified teachers are elements of a plot to privatize education.
  • Whether testing in any guise should continue.
  • Whether charter schools that are beating the odds on tests do so by “drilling and killing.”

The point where the room broke into two distinct camps concerned poverty. Can there be educational equity and good outcomes for all kids before poverty is eliminated?

Panning-Miller was among those who said no. Williams and Sellers were firm that we can’t wait for an answer.

The group agreed to meet again. The books for the next conversation are Diane Ravitch’s “The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education,” and Stephen Brill’s “Class Warfare: Inside the Fight to Fix America’s Schools.” Details will be posted on the CSA Facebook page as they become available.

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Comments (5)

  1. Submitted by RB Holbrook on 09/21/2012 - 11:15 am.

    “Regretting all of those critical thinking skills”

    Ms. Hawkins, isn’t that just a tad insulting to Mr. Panning-Miller? You imply that a teacher only likes critical thinking when the thinker agrees with him/her.

  2. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 09/21/2012 - 12:04 pm.

    This is a fine initiative! I think especially helpful are Mr. Stewart’s emphasis on finding common ground, and insisting that people from various viewpoints learn to talk with each other, think with each other, on the problems of public education in Minneapolis.

    On the question of poverty, which educators know underlies huge parts of public education’s problems: it is not enough for reformists to insist that we can’t wait for poverty to be eliminated before attempting reform. They must provide solutions. Options for how to deal with the issues that stem from poverty, not just complaints about teachers.

    Great book list for these folks (and the rest of us) to read!

  3. Submitted by Beth Hawkins on 09/21/2012 - 12:27 pm.

    Mr. or Ms. Holbrook;

    I meant it as a tongue-in-cheek compliment to Mr. Panning-Miller, actually.  Part of the critique contained in the book he selected had to do with the inevitable failure of an education that does not connect with a child’s reality. If history, political science, economics and other topics are not taught in a way that enables a student to draw inferences about his or her life and socioeconomic status, that student will not be empowered to challenge the status quo or to change his or her position. Panning-Miller clearly succeeded with Daniel Sellers. Indeed, South High has produced an extraordinary number of grads who have gone into education or education advocacy.

  4. Submitted by Emily Palmer on 09/23/2012 - 03:08 pm.

    And another “fun fact”…

    And another “fun fact” – Daniel’s twin brother was my former student at Anthony Middle School, where Beth currently has a student. Although Daniel & I disagree on some things with regard to charter schools, I am tremendously proud of him and his work with both TFA and MNCAN. I am sure Rob is too, and I was disappointed with Beth’s “tongue in cheek compliment.”

    Since participants were listed with minimal context, I would clarify that my attendance at the dinner grew not only out of my friendship with Chris Stewart, but primarily out of my doctoral research into professional development with teachers around closing racial achievement gaps. While I am currently a Richfield administrator, I am also a former MPS teacher and MFT union executive board member, a product of the MPS schools, and a Minneapolis resident with a 9-year-old in a charter school. I believe many others at the table came wearing multiple hats as well.

    I appreciate Beth’s attendance at the dinner and agree that it merits an article, because it is rare that a group like this would ever come together. But this short article doesn’t do the evening justice. It was a wonderful, spirited, intense discussion among a group of amazing individuals, all deeply committed to kids, with truly diverse viewpoints on education reform. People asked tough questions and grappled with multiple perspectives. The point of the evening was not to convince or agree, but to hear each other. Individual stories and experiences are powerful.

    I hope the next dinner merits a few more column inches, and the chance to dig into some real analysis of where we all are in relation to each other on the subject of school reform. Kudos to all the attendees, and to Chris & Rob for putting it together!

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