Hittin’ the Road with Rev. Al and Newt

Politics, and education reform, do indeed make strange bedfellows.  When the Education Equality Project launched last year, many were left scratching their heads with regard to the Rev. Al Sharpton and NYC Schools Chancellor Joel Klein teaming up to improve the quality and results of our nation’s public schools.  Since then, their list of signatories reads like a who’s who in both Democratic politics and education reform circles, including many leading urban mayors and superintendents.

Earlier this year, they made a little extra room in the EEP bed for former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has joined with them.  Gingrich has become a leading voice for EEP these days, focusing on the need to improve and the perils of the current mediocrity of American education and the dangers of an achievement gap that just doesn’t seem to want to budge.  It is quite ironic when one remembers that back in the mid-1990s GIngrich was the architect that called for the elimination of the U.S. Department of Education, demanding that K-12 decisions should be made by localities.  Now he is rallying reform through a national microphone with a federalist approach.
When EEP was first established last year, the then CEO of Chicago Public Schools was also a signatory.  Showing he was open to all good approaches to school improvement, Arne Duncan also signed onto the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education Initiative.  While EEP and BBA couldn’t be more different (in desired outcomes, measurements to track those outcomes, and general philosophical approaches to education and education reform), Duncan joined a deep list of practitioners and policymakers that decided to hedge their bets and sign onto both, simply saying we need to improve, and they will support whatever gets us there.
With today’s announcement out of the U.S. Department of Education, it looks like we can see where EdSec Duncan’s true heart lies.  This afternoon, Duncan will be a guest on the Al Sharpton Show radio show.  He will be joined by the brains behind the 1994 Republican Revolution, Gingrich.  The three will be speaking to their plans to take a joint road trip, visiting schools in Philadelphia, Baltimore, and New Orleans to talk school reform.  ED is also planning at least one similar stop in a rural community for the same purpose. 
The tour should come as a shock to no one.  EEP has been an active voice promoting the Administration’s education policies, with their most recent white paper on teacher accountability reading like a cover tribute to the Race to the Top provisions.  EEP also has the added benefit of being the current Gates Foundation advocacy banner holder, having assumed Ed in 08/Stronger American Schools’ infrastructure and support.
Eduflack finds the stops along the Strange Bedfellows tour to be curious choices.  Baltimore shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, with the EdSec having just been up in Charm City praising school district leadership for turning around the district and helping it shed the state takeover label.  But that’s just it.  ED just made a big deal of Baltimore, so much so that the superintendent is now stating that they are the national model for urban school transformation.  We have to go back to the oldies but goodies already?  There are no other good urban “success stories” to promote?  
Then we move onto the City of Brotherly Love.  We have not heard Philly mentioned as a “reform” city since Paul Vallas left there years ago.  Current superintendent Arlene Ackerman is an EEP signatory, but her activities in DC and San Francisco speak far more to a BBAer.  Setting aside the city’s relatively stagnant test scores, Philadelphia is also a strong union city, with union members likely not to thrilled with the idea of merit pay and linking their assessment with the academic achievement of their students.  Things could get interesting in a city that once pelted snowballs at Santa.
And speaking of Vallas, we move to the Big Easy.  New Orleans makes the most sense, as it is an incubator for any and all reform that comes around (much as Chicago was during Duncan’s tenure).  They love them some charters down in New Orleans, and have embraced alternative certification, TFA, and New Leaders for New Schools.  And now that Vallas is setting aside his Illinois political dreams, Louisiana has a strong superintendent with a track record of innovations and student improvement.  But its test scores are far from catching up to its promise.
It helps that both Pennsylvania and Louisiana are on the short list of RttT states, standing as two of the 15 receiving technical assistance and $250,000 checks from the Gates Foundation to help with their RttT application preparation.   If anything, Gates understands the value of working across platforms, and linking their grantmaking with EEP rhetoric and RttT only strengthens their hand in the long term.
But the choices do leave me scratching my head a little.  No room to share a little love for Michelle’s work down in DC or for the progress made in Boston over the past decade?  No hat tip to the great work Beverly Hall and the work she has done down in Atlanta?  No show of confidence for the bold reforms that Robert Bobb is trying to put into place up in Detroit?  No continued love for Broad Prize winners Long Beach Unified in California or Brownsville (TX) Public Schools?  What about Houston, the birthplace of KIPP?  Not even a rolling stop in New York City?  Nothing for aspiring cities like Indianapolis, Charlotte-Mecklenberg, Clark County (NV), Cleveland, Austin, or Portland?  
Yes, all questions that are rattling around in my noggin.  But they are pushed aside by a bigger question.  Day after day, we witness the escalation in rhetorical sparring happening around the country over proposed healthcare reforms.  We see staunch advocates for both sides offering their sweat and tears (with many looking to draw some blood as well).  Will these whistlestops serve as a kumbaya moment for all involved, with conservatives and liberals, Republicans and Democrats, reformers and the status quoers joining together to fight the good fight for the “sake of the children?”  Or will that loyal opposition we know is out there start organizing and have their voices heard?  Will we see teachers fighting to protect their tenure?  Will we hear from those local controllers who want to return all accountability and assessment to a citizen school board and keep the feds out of their classrooms?  Will we witness concerned parents and community activists stand up for the “whole child” and profess there is more to education that just reading and math, and we need a host of qualitative measures and a greater emphasis on the arts and the social development of the child?  Will the home schoolers demand that school choice include more than just charter schools?
Or will we simply have more of the same, with everyone just hoping that they will have a chair when the music stops playing?  Since Eduflack’s rant in search of the “loyal opposition” earlier this week, I’ve heard from some that they are quietly organizing or silently twisting arms behind close doors to try and influence which tune we’ll be playing as we start walking the ESEA reauthorization circle.  Is that true, or are those who are quietly grumbling into their pillows at night simply hoping beyond hope that Holding Out for a Hero is going to start blasting through those ed reform speakers?
Am I trying to instigate an education reform fight?  Maybe.  But maybe I also think that these proposed reforms can only improve and get stronger if we force them to withstand public scrutiny.
 I too want to see these proposals succeed, but I also know that if support is merely on the surface, real change will never take hold once good ideas are moved into status quo implementation and decisions are made that leave many states and districts in the cold when it comes to new innovation money.  Are we playing for the love of the game, or will pay to play take effect, with SEAs and LEAs quickly losing interest when there isn’t a U.S. Treasury check there to reward their “loyalty?”

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