Disorganizing Schools: What Diane Ravitch Could Learn from Saul Alinsky

They arrive at a time when American public education and its teachers are under attack. Never have public schools been as subject to upheaval, assault, and chaos as they are today. Unlike modern corporations, which extol creative disruption, schools need stability, not constant turnover and change. Yet for the past dozen years, ill-advised federal and state policies have rained down on students, teachers, principals, and schools. –Diane Ravitch on the Common Core State Standards and education reform.

The first step in community organization is community disorganization. The disruption of the present organization is the first step toward community organization. Present arrangements must be disorganized if they are to be displaced by new patterns…. All change means disorganization of the old and organization of the new. –Saul Alinsky on organizing for meaningful change.

When I was a classroom teacher on Chicago’s South Side, I had a series of three principals in five years. One of the principals I worked with embraced a version of the “creative disruption” idea that Ravitch references above. (As if having three principals in five years wasn’t enough of a disruption, she wanted to add more.) Our new instructional leader—that’s what we are told to call our principals in Chicago—wanted every teacher to move in to a new classroom at the start of the school year.

If you’re a public school teacher then you’re probably nodding your head and smiling a little warily right now, because you’re all too familiar with the process I’m describing. For those of you who aren’t public school teachers, this type of creative disruption meant taking all your teaching materials, including papers, books, art supplies, anything on the classroom computer hard drive, small classroom libraries for some of the English teachers, as well as all the other supplies that teachers accumulate over the years, and then moving them (without help, of course) to another room, and, often enough, to another floor in the school building. Some teachers even moved furniture, like old wooden desks they’d been using for years and to which they’d grown attached. This was going to spur innovation and shake us out of complacency, of course.

What it actually did was something quite different. It made us feel small and powerless. I guess teachers were starting to feel too respected in Chicago. It was time to take us down a peg or two and put us where we belonged (and where a lot the general public felt we deserved to be): right next to overpaid babysitters. It made many of us feel uneasy and uncertain—like we were dealing with a leader that was capable of doing anything at any moment, rationality be damned. If even the smallest things, things that once seemed the most stable (like where to go each morning when you arrived at school), could be taken away or changed on a whim, then what could we count on? One story I heard from another teacher was that the new principal wanted us to understand that this wasn’t our school and these weren’t our rooms. She was trying to rattle us a bit, it seemed, perhaps make us feel the way real employees feel: easily replaceable and of little value. More importantly, maybe, she wanted us to know she was in charge: that she could disrupt and disorganize our lives.

But if we weren’t part of this school (the one where we were taught our students), then what, exactly, were we a part of? Many of us wondered how this strategy was going to help improve instruction, school culture, or morale? This was a tough school on Chicago’s South Side, and teachers and students faced some serious challenges every day. Now they also had a principal that seemed unpredictable and hostile toward teachers. Sadly, this is the sort of thing that passes for reform in many schools today.

It’s hard to imagine how someone came to believe in the idea that having teachers lug their teaching materials from one classroom to another was going to set the conditions for innovation and creativity in our school. This was going to be the catalyst for a spike in inventive and engaging instruction? Of course, creating positive change may never have been the intention behind the new policy. But, we’ll never know for sure. We never got an explanation about the new policy.

Yet, this type of top-down mandate cloaked in the scientific sounding rhetoric of “best practices” is an all-too-common example of what reform looks like in our schools. This is what happens when we try to translate ideas that originate in a for-profit business environment (often ideas that are neither good nor new to begin with) for our work in schools.

I have often wondered what might have happened had the new principal simply asked teachers and students what they thought could be done to improve school culture, encourage creativity, and spur innovation. Maybe room swaps would have been on the list, maybe not. But whatever made this hypothetical list could have been the starting point for more organic forms of creative disruption—of the kind that teachers, students, and community members plan, design, and implement.

But education reformers rarely consult those most affected by their reforms. Instead, we hear angry public appeals for harsher punishments of students and harder tests and more of them. Fire bad teachers. Raise standards. Test more. Raise scores. Hold parents responsible. Eliminate collective bargaining. Blame the teachers. Blame the community. Blame the students. Blame the parents. In our data-obsessed culture, it’s interesting to note that a comprehensive body of data to support these ideas does not exist. There’s nothing that definitely shows that firing teachers, raising standards, or introducing high-stakes accountability actually helps students or communities do better.

Yet, this is the common language of school reform today. It’s like a wheel of misfortune that stops each week on a different scapegoat, depending on who is doing the blaming and why. But these aren’t just bad ideas. These are ideas that fundamentally misunderstand the problem they are purportedly trying to solve. To make matters worse, these bad ideas drive many of the reforms that Ravitch references above, from No Child Left Behind to Race to the Top.

These kinds of knee jerk responses (what we might call common sense thinking) guide much of the public debate about schools. Anyone who has been in our public schools and spent any time being a teacher and thinking about the work of teaching knows how wrong-headed these ideas are for our children. No one I know doing the actual work of education in our pubic schools thinks these are good ideas.

The example I gave above—the one about moving teachers around from one classroom to the next—perfectly captures the spirit of the new reform movement: it was imported to our school and mandated by someone outside our school community; it was implemented by someone who saw themselves as a manager, rather than an educator; it demoralized and disempowered teachers; it appeared to the casual observer like something new was being done in the school; it tried to solve a complex problem with a one-size-fits-all solution; it ended up being an empty exercise that did more harm than good.

Our schools are awash in the rhetoric of innovation and reform, yet we hardly see any of it in practice. Like democracy, these are concepts we talk a lot about in schools, but don’t seem willing to put into practice. Instead, what happens is that many of our classrooms are reduced to test preparation sites where the only thing that counts is your score on a standardized test. Children and adults, students and teachers, are reduced to a number.

In fact, none of the common sense suggestions that are being promoted today as part of a well-funded, largely conservative reform movement do anything to support creativity or innovation in schools, not to mention help create healthy and sustainable communities. This is one of the reasons that Ravitch critiques them, of course. But it’s also important to understand that the current top-down reform movement, as Ravitch and others have noted, is not about helping our students, or our teachers, or our most underserved communities. If it’s about equity at all, then it’s sorely misguided. To use Ravitch’s phrase, this is a movement that can be best described as “failure by design.” At its core, this movement is about dismantling teacher unions and destroying public education.

When it comes to creative disruption in our schools, though, I disagree with Ravitch. I understand that there’s a place and a time for stability in school; I understand that teachers and students need a space where they can think for themselves about their lives and decide what to learn and what to do. But now is not the time to dutifully follow the mandates in order to preserve some sense of stability and calm. It’s precisely because of the current instability in our schools that we have an opportunity to turn the tables on these reformers. By creating more disruptions, more chaos, and more upheaval, we can reset the reform agenda.

And, this is the lesson of Alinsky. He reminds us that disorganizing communities can be a powerful tool; it’s exactly what so-called reformers like Arne Duncan, David Coleman, Michelle Rhee, and Joel Kline have been doing to teachers across the country. These people are disorganizing our schools and communities. They are running actions against us in order to make us feel powerless and disorganized. And, what’s worse, it isn’t just another empty exercise: this is real. They’re trying to change education forever. They want to hijack and narrow the curriculum. They want to give away public education to private corporations. They want to debase and deskill the profession of teaching. And, they want to reduce education to a test score.

We can change this. Now is the time to organize and occupy our schools in order to disrupt and destabilize current reform efforts. We can go on the offensive—one grounded in creative disruptions that we design and produce. We can construct our own chaos and upheaval in ways that compel education reformers to stop what they’re doing and start listening to the people most affected by their decisions. And, as Diane Nash reminds us, we can opt out; we can refuse to participate in our own oppression.

Only after we create enough disruption can we (students, teachers, parents, and community members) then demand the right to develop our own standards: ones that best address the needs, desires and aspirations of our communities, rather than the desires and aspirations of corporations and private foundations. Only then can we create stable schools that foster creativity and innovation, rather than conformity and obedience. Only then can we create schools that take as their starting point that building great schools and communities are reciprocal projects, not separate ones.

All students deserve to live in healthy and sustainable communities with a well-resourced school that hires the best possible teachers. Raising standards and giving more tests will not make that happen.

We need to give our teachers and students the right to ask questions about their lives and to build curriculum around the things that matter most to them.

And, that’s what I’d call real education reform.



  1. As we keep responding to the criticism of public school teachers and their unions and pensions, I see little about the teachers in charter schools, many of whom are unqualified, untrained, and not accountable to any particular teaching curriculum or tests. If I’m wrong, I’d like to know. But the corporate, charter-loving media never talks about the so-called teachers in charter schools (I’m sure there are some that are good ones),what they’re training requirements are and from what universitiies, what they’re held accountable for, what they’re paid, what their curriculum is, what benefits they have, why they receive tax dollars that we hypothetically don’t have for public schools, what hours they work, what the CEO’s are earning, All the public hears is how bad the unions are, how overpaid the teachers are, how the teachers must be fired if their students don’t past Common Core standards. This is all blatant right-wing, libertarian, and privatizers’ propaganda–nothing more. Should public schools be improved–of course–can the teachers do it all–of course not. That’s why we need excellent public schools from pre-school through college and community after school programs–keeping our most vulnerable off the streets–unless their intent is to leave a good percent of our children out of the system and remain in poverty the rest of their lives–hmmm, I wonder–could that be it? And I’ll add one more thought–when we have our conflagrations all over the world, it seems the military heads right for the high school parking lots in our most dysfuncitonal uneducated neighborhoods to recruit students for the army, an army you can be sure the charter school owners’ kids are not enlisted in, making promises they never keep. We can tie up all of these things to those at the top who love their plutocracy.

    1. Great points. I agree that more needs to be said about what charter schools are actually doing. I’ve visited a handful of charters in Chicago and what struck me was just how ordinary they seemed. What I mean is that these schools seemed to be organized exactly the same way as any other school you might visit in Chicago, only with no union representation and the ability to remove students that don’t fall into line. Don’t get me wrong, the teachers with whom I worked were dedicate to their students, and they worked hard. But, regardless of how good the teachers are in our schools, nothing much will change if we continue to do school the way it’s always been done. Charters are pitched as alternatives to regular public schools (i.e., neighborhood kids now have a “choice” about where to go to school), but what I saw was hardly an innovative approach to the challenges we face in our most underserved communities. Charters schools (or any other schools, for that matter) will only be true alternatives if they allow teachers, students, parents, and other community advocates to make decisions about what to learn; teachers and students need to be given the choice and the support to try to solve the problems they identify in their communities. Schools should be spaces where we work together toward solutions to the challenges we find most pressing, rather than test preparation centers. And, yes, you’re right about the military. I believe Chicago leads the nation in military schools. The sad thing is that these schools run by the military are seen as a real alternative (i.e, often the only one) for many Chicago kids and their families.

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