The other day, I was at a professional development at an elementary school near mine on the south side of Chicago. I'm a Social-Emotional Lead at my school, so once a month, we go to a different school in the Network and learn from our peers about what works in their schools. We always start the meeting with a walk-through of the school, looking for inspirational new ideas.
As we walked around this school, we entered a classroom and one colleague noted, "Oh! I love the curtains!" Another answered, "Oh, that's an AUSL thing, I bet this teacher was AUSL."
[For those readers outside Chicago, AUSL stands for the Academy of Urban School Leadership. It's a private turnaround company which our unelected school board now gives every single turnaround contract to. I'm sure that monopoly has nothing to do with the direct links of our former school board president and Chief Administrative Officer who both worked for AUSL before coming to high positions inside CPS. But hey, we're used to serious and unabashedly open corruption in our city, right Chicago?]
This remark really got me thinking. How are curtains an AUSL thing? Apparently, this private turnaround company mandates curtains in every classroom. Mandates them. They also mandate things like having plants, couches, and rugs.
I have nothing against curtains and plants in a classroom. In fact, teachers have been adding touches like that probably since forever. But what started to bother me was that AUSL was copying something they thought was good and forcing it in every classroom, which completely negates the purpose of those darn curtains: to create a homey positive environment for kids. AUSL, like so many reformy groups, completely misses the point about what makes a positive atmosphere. It's not the curtains, it's the teacher who uses little touches like curtains to foster positive relationships with students.
And AUSL is not known for it's positive teaching environments. In fact, what they are most known for is oppressive environments where students are carefully policed and pushed out and teachers are given huge workloads with little autonomy or joy.
Does AUSL somehow believe that putting up curtains is going to negate the effect of draconian relationship-destroying discipline policies? Will teachers be more likely to create deep, positive relationships with kids under strict surveillance and long lists of "non-negotiable" mandates? And how does AUSL's policy of firing at least half of the staff when they take over a building affect kids' trust in the adults in the school? You cannot build strong relationships on a foundation of intentional chaos.
Of course AUSL is not about relationships. But neoliberal edreform is all about image. If you walk into an AUSL classroom, you might think it's a beautiful place. Just don't stick around long enough observe a child being berated and ultimately pushed out of the school. Don't watch the primarily new, young teachers be beaten down daily with mandates and heavy work loads. Ignore the hyper-focus on tests scores or the inhumane "data walls" put up next to those curtains.
AUSL fakes relationships. They go through the motions of creating positive environments while stifling the actual autonomy, creativity, and joy that is necessary to build those relationships.
Like so much else in edreform, AUSL is a phony.