Reforming Education Reform

Earlier this week, the Fordham Institute’s Robert Pondiscio wrote of “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform.” As Pondiscio notes:

Like the proverbial frog in a pot, education reformers on the political right find themselves coming to a slow boil in the cauldron of social justice activism. At meetings like New Schools Venture Fund and Pahara (a leadership development program run by the Aspen Institute), conservative reformers report feeling unwelcome, uncomfortable, and cowed into silence. There is an unmistakable and increasingly aggressive orthodoxy in mainstream education reform thought regarding issues of race, class, and gender. And it does not include conservative ideas.

The gauntlet has been thrown down. In response, Justin Cohen and a number of self-described white education reform leaders offered in an open letter:

We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change.

As a recovering “white education reform leader,” I’ve actually spent a far amount of time thinking about these very issues over the past three or four years. On the specific issue, Pondiscio is correct in one important regard. Education reform is stronger when it has all political views and all ideological perspectives on the team. For every one of the anonymous conservatives he quotes in his piece, there also needs to be reformers coming from the Democrats for Education Reform side and the social justice community.

But the point Cohen makes, and it is a point that was first and strongly stoked by Leading Educators’ Jonas Chartock on his Facebook page soon after the Pondiscio piece was published, is that education reform needs to be about far more than the market-driven solutions Pondiscio writes about. It can’t be about conservatives and the wealthy funders supporting the “cause” feeling uncomfortable. It needs to be about the kids and communities that are yearning for such a solution.

During my reform days, I described this as the hearts versus minds phenomenon. Too many ed reformers are focused on the latter, believing that if one dazzles with facts and figures, and shows strong enough Excel spreadsheets of data to those resisting, that reform will happen. The data-driven, market-focused approach to reform leaves many focused on the operational and systemic sides of school improvement. We argue about school structure, and why a school should be chartered and how it should be stripped of the teachers’ unions. We call for stronger teacher evaluation tied to student test scores. We use the term equity mainly when tied to the concept of school funding, largely when it comes to comparing traditional public schools to charters. We try to position ourselves as the smartest people in the room, believing that if we use enough of that data, even the strongest of opponents will have to come to his or her senses and see our way is the only way.

But school improvement isn’t that simple, and it certainly isn’t that clean. Ultimately, the theory of change is about very real children, families, and communities, and not about columns and rows in a spreadsheet. It’s about taking financial resources from already under-resources public schools to give them to charters who had previously promised to deliver a better education for fewer dollars. It’s about attacking teachers unions, while trying to enlist parents who themselves are in labor unions and trying to convince good teachers to go to the very schools we’ve labeled as failing and hopeless. And its about believing stronger numbers and market-driven solutions can wipe away generations of institutional racism and inequities, even when we may use the term “urban” students because we are uncomfortable talking specifically about Black and brown kids.

In acknowledging their own shortcomings, Cohen et al (and I’d throw Eduflack on that list as well), admit that, as reformers, we have failed the families and communities we have purported to be fighting for. While reform has helped provide safer learning environments for many kids, and has provided greater educational opportunities for those involved, it at best mitigates some of the social obstacles so many face today. To believe that improved school opportunities for some addresses the problems of poverty and racism for far more is a line of thinking that none of us can actual subscribe to.

When I was leading a state-based education reform organization, I worked hard with the leaders of local churches to ensure their voices were heard in the legislative debate. One weekend, on the Saturday before Easter, I was in the basement of a particular church, talking to a group of pastors. As we were talking about next steps, the Bishop present turned to me and said, “You know what your problem is, you’re white.” And he was absolutely correct. No matter all that I knew, no matter how much data I came armed with,  no matter how convincing and eloquent I might be, it was far easier for me to talk it than it was to live it. I would never experience what the parents and kids I was advocating for experience on a daily basis.

After that gathering, the pastors asked what I wanted from them. I went in prepared to tell them I needed their help to advocate for my agenda. But after having spent that morning listening to their concerns, my response was quite different. I told them something like, “It would be presumptuous of me to tell you what is best for your congregants. So I’m not going to do that. I would just ask that you get involved. Have your voices heard. While I’d love for those voices to agree with me, it is far more important that you be a part of this process.”

And they were. In united voice, a voice last heard in the state during the fair housing debates a few decades prior, those pastors and their congregants made clear what was the best path for education in the state. And change happened as a result.

My proudest moment from that time was being witness to those pastors and the leadership they displayed.

Looking back on that time, I wish I had done more to demonstrate the equity and understanding I often preached. I wish I had been stronger, particularly about how we built our movement. I wish I had focused more on the people and the hearts of the community, and less on the data and trying to be the smartest in the room. And I wish I could pretend that racism and poverty were something that could be eliminated by a bill signing or an ad campaign.

Chartock, Cohen, and others have engaged in an important discussion, and one that needs to continue. Until the reform community is clear on WHY it is advocating reform, what it hopes to achieve, and who it serves, we can bring the true change we are seeking. I applaud them for publicly stating what many of us have been telling ourselves for years.

Now what can I do?

6 thoughts on “Reforming Education Reform

  1. I have spent my life working in traditional public schools. For the past 15 years I have done the Lord’s work in seeing that all those children placed under my care were educated in clean, first rate facilities by teachers who cared about them as human beings. I have hired all colors of teachers and support staff. It is a no brainier, however, that the staff should reflect the community it serves. That said, quality education does not come from a charter, nor a philanthropist/self serving hedge funder operator’s wallet. It can not be done through simple privatization and absurd teacher evaluation systems.

    It comes from the leadership, vision and hard work of a principal who can motivate the staff, parents and the community and be able to hire quality folks, fire when necessary and always seek to make things better. That takes building trust and earning the respect of the community which takes a unique set of skills. It also takes a match. Like marriages, some principal-school matches don’t work. I don’t believe race is even among the the biggest challenges we confront. I believe all people want what’s best for their children and while it’s nice to hire a teacher/ principal whose background matches the community, a real leader and superior educator will be welcomed by most. There will always be those extremists in any community white, black or in between, who refuse to accept “outsiders” or demand one of their own regardless of quality. That is where leadership comes in. You need backbone and the stomach to stand up and go on to make change. Being able to stand up to the ugliness and show results will win over the vast majority. Being able to serve in such a capacity is an honor and enjoying such success it is the most rewarding feeling in the world.

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