Rainy Day Musings on the State of Education Reform

The national education reform movement, like all social movement eventually do, is looking inward these days. Jay Greene in particular offers a strong critique of education reformers:

“So, we now have a giant industry of foundation-paid reformers staffed mostly by young, enthusiastic, and bright-but-lacking-in-wisdom, idealists.  It should come as no surprise that the profile of those who staff the ed reform industry tilts heavily toward the profile of Social Justice Warriors.  Their high education levels, lack of wisdom, and boundless self-confidence inclines them strongly toward Technocracy.”

My favorite paragraph skewers what I like to call the “meeting-class:”

Instead, they have meeting after meeting at which they sit around and dream about how other people should live their lives.  They develop plans, systems, and metrics, to guide, nudge, or force others to do the “right things,” typically from DC or other distant locations  And they have no doubts about what those right things are nor do they lack confidence in their ability to measure those good outcomes or to devise plans and systems for ensuring them.

I do not agree with everything Greene or Pondiscio write, but it did get me thinking about my time working on education reform in Wisconsin. I was very lucky to be part of a very effective organization with a very effective president. Why was the organization effective?

  • My boss set the tone and was capable of delegating tasks, developing work plans, and holding people accountable for progress (or lack thereof). In other words, my boss managed both internal and external audiences. Too many (in my opinion) reform organizations have leadership that is overly focused on external audiences.
  • We created things. Output, output, output. In policy work hanging around the capitol and meeting with legislators and media is kind of exciting. But much of the real work gets done in windowless basement offices (at least in my case). It is extraordinarily hard to pass meaningful legislation, so a reform organization must add value beyond passing legislation. This can be research, implementation work, etc. But it must be something.
  • We did not chase money. Ok, we did, but only if the strings attached were consistent with our goals and mission. The trendy reforms come and go, and constantly shifting your mission to the reform of the day will not yield long-term results.
  • We made enemies. I admit to struggling on this front, I try to be a consensus builder because it is where I am most comfortable. But, when advocating for a meaningful education reform consensus is impossible. Consensus likely means a bad bill.
  • We were truly non-partisan. In my opinion an effective advocate should be asking the question, how do I get more legislative support for this policy? If you are asking how do I get more Democrats involved or how do I get more Republicans involved, you are setting yourself for instability, and risk becoming an advocate for a political party rather than a cause. It used to drive my crazy when I’d read press releases or statements touting pro-reform majorities after elections. Yes, policy work and politics are related, but when that line gets blurred watch out.
  • We were specific. We read legislation. We articulated exactly what we wanted to accomplish. We mapped out how to get there. We let perfect be the enemy of the good. I know this frustrated people, but it is what separates an issue-advocate from a politician.

This is not to say everything we did worked, or was even a good idea! But we were an effective organization with a clear mission, culture, and leadership structure. I am biased as a public administration scholar, but I do not think the issues in the education reform movement are a result of social justice warriors, foundations wasting money, or a willingness to embrace regulation. No, in my opinion the issue is the paucity of well-developed truly non-partisan organizations. The time and financial commitment (including operating expenses) needed to develop an organization, and the stubbornness required to stay truly non-partisan, is too often just not there.

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