Local knowledge By Shea Howell


Local knowledge

By Shea Howell

Michigan  Citizen, May 29-June 4, 2011

  Emergency Financial Manager Roy Roberts is continuing to set himself apart from the style and substance of Robert Bobb.  Roberts flatly rejected Bobb’s threat to authorize high school classes of 6o students.

 “We aren’t going to do that. That’s unacceptable,” Roberts said. He then went on to do something Bobb rarely did, acknowledge the desire of our children to learn. Roberts told the Detroit News, “These are kids who want to learn and can learn. We have to make sure we are in a position to help them learn.”

 Such independent thinking and willingness to set aside the bullying tactics of Bobb are a welcome shift at a time when we need our best thinking to re-imagine our schools.

First, we are going to have to clear away much of the propaganda about the benign influence of big foundations  especially those of Gates and Broad.

  Most Detroiters have learned from experience that we were justified in our suspicions of the motives and methods  of the Broad Foundation. Robert Bobb is one of their graduates. It  paid much of his outsized salary. He clearly exemplifies the kind of educational leaders they are developing. Most of us found him arrogant, ill-informed, bullying and divisive.  He not only  increased the deficit he was supposed to reduce; he created incredible chaos. As an example of the Broad idea of change, Bobb is someone we have every reason to reject.

The Gates Foundation presents a more complicated picture. Bill and Melinda Gates have spent a lot of time and money shining up their image as do gooders. Many of us welcomed the Gates Foundation Small Schools initiative and some of the most successful Detroit schools reflect that philosophy.

 Nationally however,  the small schools initiative failed to produce the wholesale change Gates sought. Now Gates has a new plan. According to a recent New York Times article, “His new strategy is more ambitious: overhauling the nation’s education policies. To that end, the foundation is financing educators to pose alternatives to union orthodoxies on issues like the seniority system and the use of student test scores to evaluate teachers.”

 The first questions we need to ask are: “How does  the Gates Foundation get to set educational policy in a democracy?  Is a national educational policy a good idea?

 For many educators, local schools reflect a growing understanding of the ecology of place-based learning. They offer the promise of engaging our youth in creating solutions to the challenges we and they  face in developing sustainable communities.

In a recent article by Professors Gregory Smith and David Sobel we read, “What distinguishes place-based education is its focus on learning experiences aimed at incorporating local issues or knowledge into the curriculum and offering students the chance to do valuable work.”

 Later Smith and Sobel say that community-based learning “enables these young people to see that they could lead others to adopt new practices for dealing with a difficult issue.”

 The best thing that EFM Roy Roberts could do for our children is to turn away from the highly-financed educational experimentation touted by foundation propaganda efforts.

 As the New York Times reported, Gates and its pal Broad are engaged in a kind of “philanthropy” that “is squelching independent thought.”

Yet independent thought is thriving in many schools and youth-driven programs in Detroit. Public schools like Catherine Ferguson Academy and Carsten Elementary  bring together  committed leadership, caring teachers and engaged communities. Northern High School and Burton International have produced exemplary community activists.  Innovations at Aishe Shule, Nsoroma, Waldorf and Friends School all attest to the flexibility and thinking that are essential in creating new ideas.

We encourage Roy Roberts to not only reject  Bobb’s style and substance but the foundation ideas he represented.