Heather Harding

Heather Harding

Heather Harding oversees Teach For America’s partnership work in policy, research, community engagement, and special initiatives. She has held numerous practitioner roles in organizations including the Boston Plan for Excellence, Citizen Schools, the Annenberg Institute for School Reform, and KIPP. Heather began her career as a Teach For America corps member in rural North Carolina and went on to lead the organization’s Eastern North Carolina site in the mid-1990s. She holds master's and doctoral degrees in education policy from the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where her dissertation documented the work of four successful white urban middle-school teachers. Heather attended the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University and retains her love of investigative research and artful writing. She lives in Washington, D.C., and does karaoke whenever she can, at home with her husband and two kids or at her neighborhood bar.

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Heather Harding will be leading a session on “Economically and Racially Diverse Schools” at Teach For America’s inaugural Alumni Awards and Educators Conference in Detroit on July 18, 2013. The conference gathers alumni teachers, school leaders and school systems leaders from across the country fora day of networking and professional development. Travel stipends are available. Alumni educators: register today.

Could it be that the Brown-era goals of school integration will come back in full force, now that small groups of urban middle-class parents are refusing to decamp to the suburbs? Until very recently, it seemed that only the Civil Rights Project and a few scattered independent schools considered the explicit goal of racial integration. Although at least one charter-management organization had begun to lay the groundwork for offering parents a “choice” school where racial and class integration is an important feature, more readily, we heard a school-reform dialogue that accepted de facto segregation as long as the goal was an equal quality of educational experience.

Photo by Ske via Wikimedia Commons

I’ve been bothered lately by the use of the term “so-called reformers.” Who decided that it was necessary to police the use of the word “reform,” and why and how do some people get legitimate claim while others are “fake”?

My decision to jump in the fray stems from NYU’s Dr. Pedro Noguera, who has replaced Diane Ravitch on the popular Education Week blog Bridging Differences. I had the pleasure of being taught by Dr. Noguera in 2000, when he first came to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, and the opportunity to serve as his teaching assistant for a couple of semesters after that. I always aspire to integrate theory, knowledge, and common sense like he can into my own public presentations. But his use of the term “so-called reformers” during an appearance on MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry show landed like a terrible insult. I worried that the term might somehow apply to me, but I wasn’t sure how my credibility or that of others was being called into question.

Dr. Noguera repeated the term in his recent post “A Call to Reclaim the Banner of Reform.” The title speaks volumes. It leads me to assume that he believes current reforms are wrongheaded and not reforms at all. But reform is not about a specific, definitive agenda. The content of reform often shifts—which is why we talk about it as coming in waves and associate it with different generations. Reform agendas may clash, but reform itself is ever-changing.

Photo by Clyde Robinson via WikiCommons

So Joel Klein grew up in public housing but that doesn’t qualify him as poor in the ways we now understand public housing as code for poverty-striken? Hmmmm. And because his experience didn’t neatly fit some current definition of “dysfunctional home we typically associate with the truly disadvantaged” poverty, his narrative about the impact of teachers on his life trajectory fails as advocacy for teacher quality and effectiveness because it’s a “misleading” “sleight of hand”? I just can’t buy this.

I have two objections and a short personal story.

First, the role of social class on educational attainment and learning is far more complicated than we are currently allowing for in the education-reform debate. Second, the story of educator impact is universal, and teacher effectiveness is central to all of our work no matter what side of the current debate we find ourselves on as individuals.

When our family moved to D.C., I had trouble at first finding the childcare situation I wanted. A friend told me about a small charter pre-school that accepted two-year-olds and practiced full inclusion, educating children with special needs within the general classroom. I’d only considered charters in the abstract before, but I jumped at the chance to sign Alan up for the school’s admissions lottery. I was convinced that this school would offer my typically developing two-and-a-half-year-old a more individualized educational experience.

Alan won a spot, and I was delighted to find a deeplycommitted principal and well-trained staff members. And so I took my son to his first day of school, and at the door to his new classroom, I met…a Teach For America alumna.

Alan and Ms. Laura, his TFA alum teacher. Photo courtsey of Heather Harding.

First and foremost, I’m a working mother of two young children. This role looms large in shaping my current perspective on education. It is interwoven with my experience growing up in low-income circumstances—as a little black girl in a small Midwestern town whose trajectory was changed via entry to a gifted program in third grade.

TFA's Heather Harding and her family.

Heather Harding with her family. Photo by Satsun Photography.

My six-year-old son has been attending charter schools in Washington D.C. since he was two years old. I want several things in a school for him: quality instruction, a balanced and enriched curriculum, racially and socioeconomically diverse classmates, and safety. I want much the same for my three-year-old daughter, who will join her brother at school in the fall, but I have to admit that I worry a little bit more about my son given his “dreaded” status as a black boy in the US education system.

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We believe education is the most pressing issue facing our nation. On Pass the Chalk, we'll share our takes on the issues of the day, join the online conversation about education, and tell stories from classrooms, schools, and communities around the nation.

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