Lessons Learned from Ed in 08

Paraphrasing from Major League’s legendary Harry Doyle, in case you haven’t noticed, and judging by the attention we haven’t, Strong American Schools has managed to win a few ball games, at least according to SAS.

Two years ago, the Gates and Broad Foundations announced a $60 million initiative designed to make education a major focus of the 2008 presidential campaigns.  Launched under the dual banner of the parent Strong American Schools organization and its Ed in 08 campaign, SAS issued a simple goal — “Use the presidential race to highlight the crisis in American public schools.”
It did so by issuing three key “pillars:” 1) common education standards; 2) an effective teacher in every classroom; and 3) extended learning time for students.
Yesterday, SAS offered up its summary report on the success of its two-year effort tilting at educational windmills.  After both the Democratic and Republic primaries showed little interest in education issues, and then as the bottom fell out of the economy during the general election, SAS never quite got the traction and influence it sought.  Then again, neither did similar efforts to highlight the crisis in healthcare, the environment, and a host of other issues.
None of us are foolish enough to believe that the 2008 presidential campaign was decided (or even debated) on education issues.  Both sides offered up comprehensive education plans.  Eduflack summarized the two here last fall.  Good ideas across the P-16 education continuum.  Now President Obama is being held accountable for promises on preK, teacher quality, incentive pay, and affordable college.  He’s also raised the ante by throwing a spotlight on STEM education, charter schools, and increasing the number of college graduates by 2020.
So what impact did Ed in 08 have on the current state of educational affairs?  How has ARRA and the presidential budget been shaped by the tens of millions of dollars spent by Ed in 08?  Honestly, we still don’t know.  When we look at the SAS successes, they don’t crosswalk cleanly with current policy or promises such as common standards.
According to Strong American Schools, its accomplishments were many, including:
* Obama supported (and continues to support) all three of the campaign’s policy pillars.  John McCain supported two.
* Ed in 08 had “significant input” on the education efforts of John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, Mitt Romney, and Rudy Giuliani.
* Changed the debate on performance pay
* Made education a bipartisan issue
* Produced more than 150 pages of research and policy materials
* Created an 86-page Policy Toolkit
* Commemorated the 25th anniversary of A Nation at Risk with a research update
* Published an examination of the cost of college remediation
* Created a network of 200 organizers and advisors across the country
* Received thousands of media hits
* Used the Internet and other new media tools to engage the public
These “wins” are a mixed bag.  Some are clearly process issues.  Some are stretches (did Ed in 08 change the debate on performance pay, or was that the result of a combination of programs such as Denver’s ProComp and Obama taking a tough stand on incentive pay early in the process?).  Some are just puzzling, such as education being a bipartisan issue (both sides have made education an issue for decades, they just do so from different perspectives).  
What is most interesting in the SAS summary report is the explanation of the obstacles, those challenges that prevented Ed in 08 from achieving its bold objectives.  These challenges include:
* Structure, as a not-for-profit, some activities were restricted, including claims that staff members could not take a position on any legislation, could not directly question candidates, nor could compare candidates’ platforms to SAS recommendations
* The media, and its failure to cover a sustained debate on education and its inability to “push policymakers to consider the failures of our current education system”
* The teachers unions, protecting “the interests of their members” even if it conflicted with reforms
As for structure, wasn’t it up to Broad and Gates to establish the most effective structure possible to achieve the goal?  If SAS was structurally prohibited from advocating for specific policies and holding candidates accountable, shouldn’t it have been built to allow for true advocacy?  Why build a ship that we can’t sail?
As for the media, did we really see the role of media, particularly that of the education media, to “push policymakers?”  If Ed in 08 can’t advocate an agenda, did we really expect reporters to do so?
And as for the unions, did we expect them to do anything other than protect their constituency, the group they are created to protect?
SAS should be given credit for better organizing new media and social networking outlets around education issues.  Their blogger summit in the spring of 2008 is but one example of this.  The drumbeat picked up by Richard Whitmire and others to keep the spotlight on education issues is another.  So there are successes.
More importantly, though, SAS has helped provide a blueprint that future advocacy efforts can learn from.  As part of its final report, SAS is handing the baton off to the Education Equality Project, looking to Joel Klein, Al Sharpton, and company to carry the torch on the issues of standards, teacher quality, and extended learning.  It could have also claimed credit for the current common standards movement, as Roy Romer’s clarion call for national standards and how to get there looks dangerously similar to what NGA, CCSSO, and other are engaging in right now.
So as groups like EEP, Broader and Bolder, Opportunity to Learn, Extended Day, and others look to build advocacy efforts around national education policy, reauthorization, and related issues, they should look closely at SAS.  What can they build on and improve?  What can they learn from and avoid?  What can they throw cold water on?  What can they aspire to?  What’s possible?  What’s a pipe dream?  
Personally, I think SAS was a good idea that was never fully realized.  It didn’t live up to the hype nor to the potential.  But that doesn’t it mean it couldn’t.  The model can work, with the right tweaks and the proper attention. Education advocacy is a must these days.  For all those looking to get in the game, let’s take a close look at Strong American Schools, learning from its forward steps and its missteps.  Rather than starting new each and every day, we need to build on those that come before us.  That’s the only way that real, lasting educational improvement can come.

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