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

The former Minneapolis school board member thought that inviting improbable combinations of people to talk — and listen — might result in putative foes finding common ground.

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?

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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.