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Let's Change the Narrative Surrounding Education Reform

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This coming year, my school is receiving about 300 new students from the now closed nearby school, yet our budget is still decreasing. Our school population will be increasing by over 60 percent, yet we will be without a counselor, noon-time aides, classroom assistants, or necessary resources to educate our children.

Recently, I have heard a lot of discussion from my national union, the American Federation of Teachers, about "reclaiming the promise of public education." I think this is a very powerful phrase. I'd like to reclaim that promise in Philadelphia by reclaiming the language used in describing our struggle.

Words are powerful, and there are a lot of buzz words that seem to permeate the educational atmosphere and integrate themselves into public opinion regarding public education. We need to challenge those perceptions, and tell the stories of what we really need in order to educate our students. I reject the notion that my students are high performing seats. I reject the concept that shared sacrifice is the way to success.

Let's examine this phrase: "the high performing seat". This one really bothers me -- and every other teacher or parent I've spoken with. Our children are not seats. Educating a child is not quite as simple as putting a desk in a classroom, calling it high performing, and magically ensuring the child has a successful educational career.

Teaching is not a game of musical chairs, and when we reduce the profession and our students to describing them as seats, we devalue public education -- mainly because we do not recognize the individual needs of our students and their families. So while along with our demand for full and fair funding for our students, I would also like to ask that we eliminate this discussion about performing seats, and instead have meaningful dialogues about what our students need to succeed.

The other phrase I would like to challenge is "shared sacrifice". This phrase has infiltrated the education reform dialogue in Philadelphia this year. It's a puzzling one to me, because it seems to have no basis in reality -- at least not my reality or my students' realities. Close to 100 percent of my students live in poverty. I spend thousands of dollars annually buying the necessities for my students and classroom. My students' parents often work two jobs, don't buy themselves winter clothes so they can get their child a coat, and spend their money on books for their children. I arrive at work early each day. I am accessible to my families day or night, and often get phone calls from parents and students in need of guidance. I am not saying this to complain. I have taught children for almost 10 years at de Burgos because I want to be there.

However, I bring these examples up because it seems that those looking in from the outside must not realize the realities of our daily experiences. Otherwise, how can they ask for shared sacrifice? How can they ask for us to give more? So, again, while we ask for fair funding, I would also like to ask that reformers stop talking about shared sacrifice and start talking about shared commitment.

I am asking every single reformer who has asked me to sacrifice more to spend a day in my classroom. I am asking every reformer who has asked my students to sacrifice more to spend a day taking the PSSA standardized test. I am asking every reformer who has asked my students' families to sacrifice more to spend a day working two jobs and rely on the bureaucracies of public assistance in order to make dinner that night.

Only when we push back -- and not only ask for fair and equitable funding, but also demand that the discussions surrounding public education are fair and equitable as well -- will we begin to reclaim the promise of public education in Philadelphia.

This piece is based upon comments the author delivered at a rally on Aug. 2, 2013.