THE BLOG
08/04/2014 04:26 pm ET | Updated Oct 04, 2014

The Public School Counterinsurgency Field Manual

PRIVATIZATION EXTREMISTS

Their means may not be military, but across this great land, insurgent extremists are at work attacking public institutions and undermining the citizenry's confidence in the same. Our public schools are on the front lines.

Yes, the forces against us are strong. And while our public school foundation is solid, we mustn't let the insurgency gain further foothold in our communities.

THREAT ASSESSMENT

Our intelligence agents have determined that the private sector itself is not the enemy. Main Street businessmen and women are our allies. It is the privatization extremists, driven by free-market fundamentalism and greed, whose influence on the general populous we must neutralize.

To defeat the extremists, public school defenders need a counterinsurgency approach. Our brothers and sisters in uniform have something to teach us.

The Army's Counterinsurgency Field Manual classifies insurgencies as struggles "designed to weaken the control and legitimacy of an established government." Affirmative. Our fight is for legitimacy, for the people's confidence in an essential government institution, our schools. This is a battle for hearts and minds.

Unfortunately, the insurgents are skilled at information war, and many innocent Americans have succumbed to the "hoax" that privatization is good for the public school system. Many believe, for instance, that since some charter schools do a good job then you must be a charter school to do a good job. On the contrary, the positive attributes of some privately-run charter schools - like energetic and mission-driven teachers, innovative scheduling, etc. - are common in public schools. Consider the much-lauded Expeditionary Learning network: some schools are charters, many are not. (WHEELS, the EL school praised in our President's 2014 State of the Union address, was not a charter.)

Alas, when good educators take advantage of the policy convenience of charters to start a new school, it can unwittingly advance the agenda of insurgent profiteers who are using charter schools and other tools to pad their billfolds with dollars designated for the care of children. Privatizing core public infrastructure is their aim. To understand grim reality of this threat assessment, one need look no further than the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), a clever and vigorous organization, deliberately chipping away at public institutions across the country.

STRATEGY

What strategies can public school defenders use to thwart the agile ALEC and the privatization fundamentalists that are fueling this insurgency? To answer this question, we refer again to our Armed Forces' Counterinsurgency Field Manual. First we consider four special traits of insurgents forces:

1. Insurgents will "try to exhaust U.S. national will, aiming to win by undermining and outlasting public support." (Consider the unrelenting thirty-years of discourse denouncing "U.S. public education as a total nationwide failure.")

2. "Effective insurgents rapidly adapt to changing circumstances." (Consider the rapid privatization of New Orleans' schools in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.)

3. "The enemy may appear to have many advantages." (Consider the billions of dollars brought to the insurgent war chest by the Walton Family, Koch brothers, billionaire Hedgefunders, and other clans.)

4. Insurgents "cleverly use the tools of the global information revolution to magnify the effects of their actions." (Consider the recent proliferation of online private "schools" paid for at public expense.)

With this kind of enemy in mind, says the Army, there are two broad strategies essential to victory. First, our institution - the school system - must make "a concerted effort to truly function as a learning organization." Second, we must "focus on efforts to secure the safety and support of the local populace."

Much has been written and ample efforts are underway to help schools become better learning organizations. At this point in our struggle, where we need more boots on the ground and better tactical thinking is on how to secure the support of the local populace.

TACTICS

A public school defender's tactics should certainly include conventional weapons, such as union organizing, protests, civil disobedience, legislative, electoral and judicial processes. But conventional weaponry alone cannot beat back an insurgency. School-based educators especially must focus on non-combative, ally-building approaches: tactics that foster personal connections between the local populous and their public schools.

To teach and learn are verbs, actions, experiences. If people are to value public schools, they need to experience, personally, in the present tense, what happens there. Unfortunately, a 2012 national poll found that "only 38% of Americans without children had been in a school building in the past 12 months." This day-to-day distance between the average citizen and our public schools is an inherent weakness of our school system - and the Armed Forces would remind us here that insurgents explicitly aim to "exploit unstable internal conditions." Neutralizing the insurgency requires we address this instability. We must close the gap that exists between Americans and the schools they sustain with their hard-earned tax dollars.

The good news is that bridging this gap happens at a very local level, in the operational sphere over which educators and their partners have the most control: day-to-day curriculum and instruction. Victory requires nothing more than tactics that engage our citizen neighbors in the learning life of children and the school. These are the rules of engagement:

Tactic 1: Learn from Citizen Teachers
Tapping the expertise of professionals in our communities - as direct part of the learning process - is one way to bring citizens into meaningful contact with the schools they pay for. Panel discussions, guest lectures, mentor relationships, teaching partnerships: each of these offers an adult the meaningful experience of imparting what they know to youth of their community. This tactic is especially effective if the student contact with the citizen teacher is prolonged, involving cycles of discussion, feedback, collaboration. Senior Project, for instance, at the school where I work, requires students to work with a community mentor to complete a year-long project in an area of new learning. Students don't graduate if they fail at this partnership. Every year scores of new community members are engaged as teachers.

Tactic 2: Value the Citizen Evaluator
All of our talk of career readiness is no more than lip service if we don't involve professionals from related careers in our classes - especially in the assessment of student work. Who better to judge a student's emerging expertise than a professional in the field? Of course, the certified teacher is the one who ultimately has to say whether a student has met the school standard, but assessment feedback can and should come from people other than teachers, people whose careers connect to the discipline. Some schools create formal forums for citizens to participate in the evaluation of student work. It is well worth the effort. The citizens involved get an authentic glimpse of the work of the school and they leave with a sense that their expertise is of value to the children and educators of their community.

Tactic 3: Work in Citizen Spaces
A natural extension of citizens' involvement in the classroom is engaging citizens as hosts for student learning experiences. This tactic can include, but should go beyond, the fieldtrip. Here we are talking about place- and work-based learning, internships and substantial field-work opportunities.

Tactic 4: Engage the Citizen Audience
We see this tactic in operation at school athletic contests, performing arts events, and when student work is displayed in local galleries or places of business. This tactic is effective at bringing student work to the public eye. However, the audience is typically passive, observing. It is important to use this tactic in conjunction with others. Citizen engagement can and must go deeper.

Strategy 5: Cater to Citizen Consumers
One can expand the concept of Citizen Audience by thinking more broadly of the Citizen Consumer, which can lead us to different kind of engagement. It invites us to consider the tastes and preferences of citizens, and requires we consider design, craftsmanship and production value in a very different light. What can students design and produce that the public needs, desires, and would consume? This question can inspire curriculum and student work of all types - from food to films, from bridal gowns to hip hop tracks, to any number of STEM and Real World Design Challenges.

Tactic 6: Tell the Citizen Story
Every citizen in the community has a story to tell that provides an opportunity for learning - whether that citizen is a home-schooling parent, senator, illiterate tradesman, homeless veteran, or business owner. Even the libertarian contrarian, who votes the school budget down every single year, has a story of value to tell. What better way to begin building bridges with people who have negative perceptions of a school than to have young people ask them who they are, how they live and what they believe? We see this tactic when students engage in local history projects, documentary productions, and the archiving of oral history.

Tactic 7: Gather Citizen Advisors
There are certain citizens who are less likely to be involved in day-to-day instruction, but quite willing to serve on an advisory board, to help guide the development programs and curriculum. The board need convene only once or twice a year, and this can be a good way to engage leaders of various sectors - CEOs, presidents, directors, business owners and others - who can contribute their insights to big-picture strategic thinking.

Strategy 8: Integrate the Citizen Struggle
Our curriculum can and should be focused on the challenges faced by ordinary people in our country and world. Those struggles are our struggles, our students' struggles. Teaching that tackles contemporary social challenges and controversy is teaching that engages students and community members both. Last year I co-taught a class that focused on the challenges local young people face and the local people or institutions who help them develop resiliency. A health teacher and I collaborated with teaching partners from Prevent Child Abuse Vermont and the Vermont Folklife Center. In this yearlong course, we studied domestic abuse, teen depression, drug addiction, teen pregnancy, and other issues important to our communities. The bulk of the learning came from in-person panels and interviews with people who are living through such challenges and the professionals whose work is to help them. The class culminated in student-made documentary films, which were shown to the community in June. But the connections to the community didn't stop after school was out. A student film on drug abuse was later shown in a neighboring town in conjunction with a feature length film, "The Hungry Heart." And a student film on LGBT identity was shown in conjunction with "The Laramie Project" at the Vermont Pride Summer Theater Festival. Curriculum that takes on topics of moral and political relevance has great potential to engage the local populous.

Tactic 9: Host Citizen Events
The school is a building that has space to offer community organizations. The key to using this tactic effectively in our counterinsurgency campaign is to not only open the doors to outside groups, but to integrate students in the effort. Citizens skeptical about the value of public schools will not be persuaded of their worth by simply setting foot inside the building. They need to be in contact with young people and their work. A fine example of this tactic will happen next door to me this fall. The regional Career and Technical Center is co-hosting the annual meeting of a local Community Development Corporation. It will be a very full collaboration: students from the Culinary program will prepare food; students from Graphic Arts will help design the corporation's annual report; students from Business Management will help develop the agenda; and a panel of youth will engage with the 50 - 100 citizen members to discuss the economic and career outlook of youth in our towns. Every citizen who comes will experience an engaging annual meeting - and they'll leave the event more informed about public school programs and how their tax dollars are being put to use.

Tactic 10: Mobilize Citizen Activists
Most of our tactics intend to engage the population most vulnerable to the insurgency's misinformation: citizens without school-aged kids at home. Mobilizing citizen activists, however, can necessitate tapping into the passion - and labor hours - that only certain school stakeholders can bring: parents and students. The work of Minnesota's Parents United for Public Schools and the Providence Student Union are emblematic of how parents and kids can be especially effective at generating political will for a public school cause. What is particularly powerful about how these organizations operate is that they are teaching people how to lead, cultivating capable public speakers, developing skills of persuasion, carefully crafting their messages and public relation campaigns. These groups of parents and students are able to have real political clout because they represent themselves persuasively and with polish to the general public.

LESSON PLANS = BATTLE PLANS

Forward march, Public School Defenders!

Your curriculum maps and lesson plans are now battle plans; these ten tactics, your rules of engagement. By connecting the citizen to the learning of the child, we will win back popular support for our schools and beat back the privatization insurgency. The extremists will be neutralized as more Americans feel that their own stories, expertise and identity are intertwined with the life of the school. It is very important that we succeed. The welfare of many children, our public schools and our democracy depend on our success.