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Reinventing Education

strategically, collaboratively, and sustainably

Where We Stand

One of IDEA’s core values is transparency. We're committed to sharing where we stand on controversial issues in education.

Guiding Principle

The principle that guides where IDEA stands on every issue is this: “IDEA believes in education by, for, and with young people and communities.” We believe that schools should be “public” in the sense that they’re owned by the community, whether they are governed by a school board or charter, or are privately run. To paraphrase Michelle Fine, we believe that rather than fixating on the school’s structure, it’s more useful to consider whether they are sites of exploitation, sites of struggle, or sites of possibility.

On Standardized and High Stakes Testing

Is IDEA opposed to high-stakes standardized testing?

Yes, IDEA is opposed to high-stakes standardized testing and the use of standardized testing as the main -- or only -- factor for making large decisions such as student graduation and assessment, teacher assessment, or assessment of an entire school. As one of the most discussed topics in the education debate, standardized testing is a hot topic in research and analysis, and many organizations and educators have published on the subject.

Here’s a survey of the research showing the dangers of high-stakes testing:

President Obama, in an unguarded moment, actually spoke to this issue back in the spring of 2011. During a town hall meeting filmed by Univision, a student asked him what could be done to reduce the number of standardized tests:

“...We have piled on a lot of standardized tests on our kids. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a standardized test being given occasionally just to give a baseline of where kids are at. Malia and Sasha, my two daughters, they just recently took a standardized test. But it wasn’t a high-stakes test. It wasn’t a test where they had to panic. I mean, they didn’t even really know that they were going to take it ahead of time. They didn’t study for it, they just went ahead and took it. And it was a tool to diagnose where they were strong, where they were weak, and what the teachers needed to emphasize.

“Too often what we’ve been doing is using these tests to punish students or to, in some cases, punish schools. And so what we’ve said is let’s find a test that everybody agrees makes sense; let’s apply it in a less pressured-packed atmosphere; let’s figure out whether we have to do it every year or whether we can do it maybe every several years; and let’s make sure that that’s not the only way we’re judging whether a school is doing well.

“Because there are other criteria: What’s the attendance rate? How are young people performing in terms of basic competency on projects? There are other ways of us measuring whether students are doing well or not.”

“So what I want to do is -- one thing I never want to see happen is schools that are just teaching to the test. Because then you’re not learning about the world; you’re not learning about different cultures, you’re not learning about science, you’re not learning about math. All you’re learning about is how to fill out a little bubble on an exam and the little tricks that you need to do in order to take a test. And that’s not going to make education interesting to you. And young people do well in stuff that they’re interested in. They’re not going to do as well if it’s boring.”

While we are highly critical of high-stakes standardized testing, it’s important to note that the focus on tests has led to increased awareness of the achievement gap and the disparity of resources and attention to lower-income students and students of color. While the tests are deeply flawed and this finding does not justify their use, we believe that the greater awareness of this gap will lead to policy and practice changes that bring historically marginalized young people more resources, support, and engaging learning experiences.

Taking a cue from Lisa Delpit in Other People’s Children, we are aware that students need to learn to read and write critically in order to access power, and it’s essential to ensure that underserved youth in particular are learning what they need to know to thrive in the world. However, as the above articles indicate, high-stakes testing is not effective in measuring these skills and the obsessive preparation for tests takes away valuable time that students could use to develop them.

We have lent our support to the national backlash against high-stakes testing by signing a video (2:36).

If high-stakes standardized tests shouldn’t be the main form of evaluation, then how else can we evaluate schools and students?

We believe in accountability. The question isn’t “should we have accountability?,” but rather, “what should schools, students, and teachers be accountable for?"

IDEA believes that schools and educational programs should be engaging places to learn and to work. They should provide young people with the opportunity to be challenged, to be supported, to be leaders, to be active in the broad community, and to be decision-makers. They should provide educators with the opportunity to be mentored, to be in regular dialogue with other educators, to be leaders, to be learners themselves, to be creative in their teaching and classes, and to also be decision-makers. They should be centers of community for parents, families, and the surrounding neighborhood to learn, to come together, and to have a voice in continually building a more just and vibrant community. And we believe all schools should be equitably funded so that no student has to attend a school that is in disrepair, that has inadequate facilities, that is overcrowded with high class size, or that is lacking in key support staff including social workers, guidance counselors, learning specialists, and nurses.

School and Program Evaluation

We believe the above criteria ought to be standards to which all schools are held. Several assessment tools that seek to evaluate schools in this way include:

  • Global Best Practices: An internationally benchmarked self-assessment tool for secondary learning put together by the New England Secondary Schools Consortium, which includes standards grouped into “Teaching and Learning,” “Organizational Design,” and “School Leadership."
  • Classroom Climate Assessment Instruments created by the Alliance for the Study of School Climate, which includes sections focused on “Physical Appearance,” “Faculty Relations,” “Student Interactions,” "Community Relations," and more.
  • The Hope Survey: A unique tool which enables schools to assess their school environment through the eyes of their students by measuring student perceptions of autonomy, belongingness and goal orientations, as well as their resulting engagement in learning and disposition toward achievement.
  • IDEA has also created our own School Evaluation Survey to combine the best of other surveys we have found for evaluating the climate and culture of schools and learning programs.

Student Evaluation

Beyond school-wide assessments, there is an important role in evaluating the learning of students. The goal is to find out more information so as to support the growth and learning of young people - to take an assets-based and improvement approach rather than to search for deficits and create a cycle of fear and blaming.

Here are assessment tools and schools that practice innovative forms of evaluation and graduation models:

  • New York State Performance Standards Consortium: The Consortium and it’s 28 schools have pioneered proficiency-based performance assessment since the 1990s. Students complete projects and give presentations to the school community and qualified experts who evaluate the work based on mutually agreed upon standards or “proficiencies.” Description of the Performance Assessment process.
  • Jefferson County Open School: JCOS in Lakewood, Colorado is a national leader in innovative, student-directed learning, with a thoughtfully-designed assessment process that outlines the school's values and educational goals and translates them into a series of graduation expectations and extensive projects, all while meeting and exceeding state standards. The Community Owner’s Manual provides an overview of the school’s curriculum, assessment practices, and graduation requirements.
  • Big Picture Schools: Started as a single school in 1995 in Providence, RI, Big Picture now support over 60 public schools around the U.S. and the world practicing personalized learning and learning through internships. They have developed a strong system to meet the state standards and engage young people in learning and pursuing their talents and interests. Overview of Performance Assessment at Big Picture Schools, and more about their approach to Authentic Assessment.

On School Choice, Charters, and Vouchers

School choice is an issue that cuts through traditional educational divides. Historically there have been efforts from both progressive and conservative groups to support school choice programs and models. It’s an issue about which we have deep concerns and in which we see great potential. It’s contentious enough that the IDEA staff and board don’t all agree on every aspect - something that we think is healthy in an education organization. We do agree, however, that voucher programs do not pass the “public” test since their goal is to move away from a shared community responsibility for the education of all young people.

One of the major tensions in the school choice debate, and a chief concern for us, is that many of the parents who take advantage of school choice options are typically highly active in their children’s lives and savvy at navigating the education system. When these parents pull their kids out of neighborhood public schools, those schools end up struggling for lack of funding and community involvement. At that point, under-resourced students do not receive the high-quality public education they deserve, and the opportunity gap widens. The “public” in public education is eroded and we end up with two inequitable educational systems. While the extent of this issue varies by state and school, it’s enough of a concern to name here.

Connected with that is our deep concern that the “choices” often being sold as the answer for children of color and youth from low-income families focus on getting students “career and college ready” through standardized drill-and-kill-based models that assimilate students into existing power structures. Instead, we believe that under-resourced and historically marginalized youth are the most in need of empowering and personalized learning experiences.

Our worries have deepened in recent years as school choice, especially charter schools, becomes more and more dominated by large corporations and charter school companies that barge their way into communities to sell their model. The voices of parents, students, and community members are rarely heard, and the particular context of the community is washed out in favor of the pre-determined model. We stand in opposition to this model of school choice.

However, the great potential of school choice is that such schools and programs can show how learning happens differently and they can build pathways for the conventional system to adapt. This was the original intent of charter schools beginning with the first charter law in Minnesota in 1991. And there are great schools of choice around the country that are “community-owned” - where parents, teachers, young people, and community leaders have come together to create magnet options, charters, out-of-school programs and independent projects. These are not hedge fund companies - but the “public” trying to find a way to get the education they want for their children. Some of these schools work alongside districts and act as the innovative labs they were intended to be, and stay connected to the community fabric.

Clearly, the same vehicle of choice has been used to create sites of exploitation as well as sites of possibility, as education scholar Michelle Fine has said. The introduction to Keeping the Promise, a book about the various sides of the charter school debate, states:

“The question facing the charter school movement is whether it will fulfill its founding promise of a reform that empowers the powerless, or whether it will become a vehicle to further enrich the powerful and stratify our schools."

IDEA’s work is focused on carefully sorting out which is which, in order to highlight schools and programs that deserve the public's attention. More broadly, we are less concerned with structure, in and of itself, and more focused on sites that value ownership, youth engagement, and learning that actually makes the world more just and sustainable.

A few key examples of these efforts are The Project Schools of Indiana, Helen Gym’s Parents United for Public Education in Philadelphia, the Minnesota Association of Alternative Program’s network of alternative and charter schools, and the Boggs Educational Center in Detroit.

We stand committed to supporting these schools, programs, and networks, and to building the conditions on the ground to grow and sustain community-owned education.

Additional Resources on School Choice

Overview article: An insightful and balanced overview of both the potential and challenges of charter schools (and to some extent of school choice overall). From an introduction to Keeping the Promise: the Debate Over Charter Schools, put out by Rethinking Schools.

Support for School Choice:

  • From a moderate perspective: A paper put out by The Brookings Institute entitled “Expanding Choice in Elementary and Secondary Education
: A Report on Rethinking the Federal Role in Education” (PDF).
  • From a progressive perspective: A position paper (PDF) put out by the International Association of Learning Alternatives (IALA), a long-time policy organization that supports school choice alongside proposals for multiple measures beyond standardized tests.
  • From a conservative perspective: The position of The Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice as described on the FAQ page of their website.

Critiques of School Choice

On Teachers’ Unions

Unions are vital in giving teachers a voice to influence the learning and culture in their schools. In every place IDEA is engaged, we make it a priority to reach out to union leaders and so far have positive relationships in each case. We can think of few more powerful potential actors to change the story of learning in the U.S. than unions, who can have a powerful and generative voice in a national conversation short on depth or vision.

At the same time, we don’t think it’s productive when unions become overly dogmatic, fail to communicate well, and, in some instances, defend poor teachers (the 5%) at the expense of the profession. We think unions can be too easily caricatured -- but sometimes they do live up to the stereotypes. Our focus is on being critical friends with unions and supporting the potential leading role they can play in professionalizing the field of education and engaging in the larger conversations we are spurring.

On Social Justice

Social justice is at the core of our work and infuses the way we talk about who we are and what we do. Real life learning experiences that are rooted in community, and the interests and success of students uphold a commitment to improving the conditions of not only educational spaces, but all avenues of society. We believe that when people are meaningfully educated and engaged in communities, able to adequately navigate themselves through 21st century society, and understand that this world is full of different perspectives, backgrounds, and cultures, their communities will be better equipped for coexisting in a highly complex and diversifying world.

IDEA showcases curriculum and programs that we see as firmly on the side of young people, communities, social justice, and sustainability. We connect networks and organizations with shared values -- such as those who work for social justice, place-based, SEL, systems-thinking, and youth power/democracy -- so that they can be more potent.

IDEA is focused on having diversity in the backgrounds and viewpoints of board leadership, staff, organizers, and volunteers with a commitment to elevate the voices of people and groups that have been historically marginalized.

What has IDEA said or done around dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline?

We have several IDEA organizers who are actively working on dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, and we fully support their efforts. There is value in having organizations for whom resistance is a primary strategy.

Our own organizational strategy is grounded in highlighting what we are for. What should exist instead of the school-to-prison pipeline? We believe that when schools meaningfully engage students and the community, practice restorative justice or other methods of conflict resolution, and are rooted in healthy relationships between adults and young people, the school to prison pipeline will be broken.

For example, at the 2010 US Social Forum, IDEA helped facilitate a People's Movement Assembly with Grace Lee Boggs, Dr. Vincent Harding, Bill Ayers, and others. The focus of this collective work is how communities and young people reclaim schools away from corporate interests or standardization.

On School Reform

Terms like “astroturf” and “deform” have popped up among teachers and organizers in social media and hallway conversations. The words point to people’s distaste for the tactics of national organizations and foundations like Students First, the Gates Foundation, Stand for Children, the Broad Foundation, the Walton Foundation, and ALEC, to name a few. What is IDEA’s take on what is happening here?

First, while these particular terms and organizations are not as widely known as some might think, the “reform fatigue” that is expressed when folks talk about them is widely shared in our experience. Teachers and community leaders are exhausted by change efforts that come and go with new grant programs, that have hidden agendas, or that aren’t supporting and strengthening existing efforts over time.

We think the biggest challenges with the organizations listed and the overall tone of these kind of reform efforts is:

  • These organizations may set up campaigns or programs where they intentionally pretend they are from the state or place they are working.
  • They are either focused on taking credit for work done or operating in back channels with no transparency, and both approaches are problematic.
  • They appear to be strategically coordinating with each other and all share an agenda that is blindly pro-charter schools, anti-union, and focused on teacher pay linked to test scores.

For more on this subject, we suggest reading the piece “Relationships Between Advocacy Groups, Unions Testy” in EdWeek.

These national organizations can be overly simplistic, seriously misguided, and some have an overt agenda to deconstruct public education so it becomes open to private markets (what we call “legitimately bad actors”).

We think it is important to keep in mind that these organizations have attracted lots of well-intentioned human beings who really do care about poverty, education, and the community. However, they may not have all the information about the for-profit agendas driving the not-for-profit organizations. They may not have the insider analysis to see the larger strategy of these efforts or the potential ramifications of this type of reform over the course of many years. Read “Hired Guns on Astroturf: How to Buy and Sell School Reform” for analysis of the subject. Here is a key quote from the article:

Yes, the policies of ed reformers are wreaking havoc in public education, but equally destructive is the impact of their strategy on American democracy. From the start, the we-know-best stance, the top-down interventions at every level of schooling, the endless flow of big private money, and the imperviousness to criticism have undermined the “public” in public education.

Moreover, the large private foundations that fund the ed reformers are accountable to no one—not to voters, not to parents, not to the children whose lives they affect. The beefed-up political strategy extends the damage: the ed reformers (most of whom take advantage of tax-exempt status) are immersing themselves in the dollars-mean-votes world of lobbying and campaigning.

On Democratic Education

What is democratic education, and what is IDEA’s role in it?

Democratic education is not a type of school or research-based practice. It isn’t one kind of learning program or philosophy. It is a frame. Education by, for, and with young people, educators, families, and communities --- what we call “democratic education” --- is the frame we use to identify, connect, and mobilize action around the best ideas and practices that advance learning and sustain the core democratic values of our society.

The frame of democratic education is a way of gathering together a vast and powerful set of ideas, philosophies of learning, research, school models, teaching practices, policies, and community visions so that a powerful story can be told that reclaims the “public” in public education.

And it is a story that demands to be told.

Democratic education is a story of values. Values are the foundation that lead to networks of organizers and organizations, and to shared visions and strategies.

Democratic education is a story of vision. It is not a reactive frame. It is a story about the present and future of learning held by values and a commitment to young people, educators, families, and communities.

Democratic education is a story of relationship. It is about people working together with openness, critique, and empathy. It is about realizing equity of access, quality, and spirit.

Democratic education is not a “big D blue” or a “progressive R” concept. It is simply about promoting educational experiences for all students that will create a thriving democracy. Something we find almost everyone thinks is a great idea, but don’t quite know how to make it happen.

This is where IDEA shows up. Our work as an organization is to support students, teachers, parents, school leaders, unions, networks, policy makers, and the media to connect the dots. To make the critical connections. To see what powerful learning looks like in 2012 and 2020 and create the pathways so more young people get access to that learning everyday, everywhere.