If you are, as my colleague, Steve Peha, still disappointed in former D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee for not sticking it out after her patron was ousted as Chocolate City’s mayor, you will certainly have high hopes for her newly-launched Students First initiative. And if you are a general fan of work, as this editor is, you can’t help but support the initiative’s goals of rallying parents and community members to embrace and demand reform America’s teaching corps — and ensure that every student is given high-quality instruction.
At the same time, Students First is in some ways, less than satisfying. Why? Because Rhee’s initiative still doesn’t hit the sweet spot when it comes to school reform: Merging policy savvy with hard-core, take-it-to-the-streets activism and entrepreneurial (and operational) drive.
Right now, there is a divide of sorts within the school reform movement between the Beltway reformers (who spend plenty of time on policymaking and working the halls of Congress and statehouses), the grassroots activists (who do the tough work of rallying support door by door) and charter school operators and reformers working in state agencies and school districts (who put ideas into practice). While the three sides share the same goals and concern for reforming education so that every child can write their own story, they don’t see eye-to-eye when it comes to getting things done. More often than not, the three parties often fail to understand the shortcomings of their own approaches and the importance of the work their colleagues are doing.
The biggest offenders are the Beltway-based reformers. As seen in the reaction earlier this year from big-named players such as Rick Hess to the Los Angeles Times’ special report on the low quality teachers in L.A. Unified schools, the Beltway reformers seem to prefer bloodless talk about reform than taking the steps to make reform a reality (including publicly naming laggard teachers and the institutional leaders who protect them). Beltway reformers are also more comfortable with theory and policy than making things work and rough public battles with teachers unions and other defenders of traditional public education. They fail to understand the key lesson of every reformer, activist and revolutionary of any sort: You don’t accomplish anything without afflicting the comfortable within the status quo.
This problem extends beyond the sparring matches. Beltway reformers fail to understand that it takes more than policy to make reforms work. Save for a few outfits such as the Thomas B. Fordham Institute (which actually authorizes charter schools), most are unwilling to do the unglamorous, difficult task of working with families and communities — from listening to concerns, providing time and other resources, and dealing with the messiness of families (many of which are struggling with a litany of other issues) — in order to make reforms a reality. Although organizations such as Democrats for Education Reform are now playing more-prominent roles in political campaigns, they haven’t mastered the brutal art of election politics; so they end up conceding ground to teachers unions and other status quo defenders.
At the same time, grassroots activists and school reformers on the ground fail to understand the importance of policymaking, which often includes winning over politicians with carefully-worded jargon, working those legislative committee rooms, and crafting legislation that achieves the politically possible. As important as their shock troop work is to winning reform on the ground, they must still understand that the ground game is one part of the war over reforming American public education.
As for charter school operators and in-district reformers? Their problem lies in the fact that they are often too focused on operations and mission than on thinking about how their work can help make the case for reform. More-importantly, as Rhee herself admitted in October in a Wall Street Journal she co-wrote with her former boss, Adrian Fenty, reform-minded operators don’t always realize the importance explaining to community members how their efforts will improve the quality of education for their kids. Nor do they dare to actually question their opponents within traditional public education on their essential anti-intellectualism and misunderstanding of such matters as economics and management theory. The operators can certainly teach the ed school profs and the teachers union bosses a few things about what the real world actually looks like.
Yet all three groups are important to making school reform a reality. Working together, they temper each other’s excesses, force one another to consider flaws in thinking, and inform each other’s work. The school reform movement needs thinking activists, men and women who both know how to work the corridors of power and get their hands dirty in the trenches, skilled at policymaking, bomb-throwing and implementing all at once. This need is why Dropout Nation discusses both policy and practice; they all must come together in a continuum of actions in order to foster a revolution (and not an evolution) in public education. Reformers can’t just stay in the Beltway , work the streets or operate schools; they must get involved in all three areas.
Rhee has shown success in the policy wonk and school operations arenas; she has also displayed her flaws in rallying grassroots support. Students First offers her an opportunity to get her hands dirty in all three areas, learn from her mistakes, and put some of the lessons she has learned into practice. And she can show all three groups within the school reform movement how to not be limited by their respective perspectives.