There’s been plenty of handwringing among Beltway school reformers and others in education policy circles about the swift and sudden transition taking place over at Education Sector. The think tank cofounded by Andy Rotherham and Thomas Toch was the go-to outfit for centrist Democrat school reformers until last month, when a series of departures — including that of digital education guru Bill Tucker, and then-Executive Director Richard Lee Colvin (the former Hechinger Institute boss who had led the organization into a renaissance of sorts with reports and discussions about such issues as using school inspectors as part of accountability efforts) — effectively put it into standstill. Although interim chief executive officer John Chubb is stabilizing Education Sector, this week’s departure of Kevin Carey (one of the most-thoughtful analysts on K-12, higher education, and the ever-intellectually disreputable Diane Ravitch) and the rest of the higher education policy team to New America Foundation has once again caused a lot of chatter about the organization’s direction (and, given the tumultuous turnover that occurred a few years earlier with the departures of Toch and Rotherham) what will it be doing. This Week in Education‘s Alexander Russo is already speculating that EdSector’s transition is a turn of sorts from centrist Democrat thinking to more-conservative leanings.

Yet a phone call your editor received this week from a mother anguished about her high school-aged son’s treatment in the school he attends (and his struggle to graduate) puts L’affaire Education Sector into perspective. As interesting as the activities at school reform think tanks may seem, it is a mere distraction from the real need for reformers — especially those in the Beltway — to move from simply offering up (and expounding upon) policy solutions to real action on the ground working with families and communities to transform American public education. In short, we need fewer think tanks and more action groups helping mothers like the one I talked to advance systemic reform.

One of the biggest issues that complicate the future success of the school reform movement is the struggle to ensure that reforms are sustained and take hold beyond the corridors if Capitol Hill and the nation’s statehouses. Reformers have largely succeeded beyond their small numbers, both because they have made the compelling and moral case for overhauling our traditional school systems and the institutions (including university schools of education) to reform-minded governors, policymakers, mayors and celebrities such as John Legend and Waiting for “Superman” director Davis Guggenheim. The fact that education traditionalists have found themselves unable to articulate a strong defense for their failed and amoral vision, especially amid the evidence of the woeful effects of traditional public education practices (and despite their vast arsenal of financial and manpower resources) has also helped.

Yet one can easily say that school reformers have succeeded largely in spite of their biggest weakness: A tendency to be more-concerned with working policymakers than with dealing with the very families and community organizations who make the difference between the success and failure of reform initiatives. Certainly a few Beltway and state legislature-oriented reformers do occasionally engage in activities outside of drafting position papers, advising politicians, and hosting confabs; the Thomas B. Fordham Institute’s work in authorizing charters is admirable (even if its track record on picking school operators who improve student achievement is, by its own admission, spotty at best). There’s also the work of grassroots-oriented outfits based out of D.C. such as the Center for Education Reform, which has worked tirelessly behind the scenes helping families and grassroots activists gain traction. But far too often, the think tank types aren’t getting their hands dirty on the ground where it counts.

Don’t get me wrong. Policy and action must certainly go hand-in-hand. One of the school reform movement’s greatest strengths is that it is as much one driven by intellectual curiosity as by a moral force that seeks to overhaul a system of public education that does little more than perpetuate academic (and sometimes, even physical and emotional) neglect and malpractice against children who deserve better. The conflicts among reformers about ideas and policies, along with the willingness to explore how other sectors have tackled human capital, training, and compensation issues, is one of the reasons why education traditionalists, shackled by their own anti-intellectualism, continue to find themselves on the wrong side of history. But as Bob Bowdon of Choice Media TV once noted, the school reform movement has too many Thomas Jeffersons who think things over and not enough Thomas Paines who challenge traditionalists rhetorically. More importantly, the movement lacks the kind of activist players — the Cesar Chavezes, David Keenes, James Farmers, and Diane Nashes — who can sustain action on the ground.

Certainly it is understandable. After all, as painful as policymaking can be from the perspective of developing ideas, building alliances, and hashing out compromises, it’s also rather easy. It is why some Beltway reformers, especially those in think tanks, can talk far too glibly about achievement gaps and ability-tracking without fully thinking through the consequences of their ideas. Working with communities and families, on the other hand, isn’t so easy. It requires lots of listening to concerns — especially since have met plenty of outsiders who have promised to do something and deliver even less — providing lots of resources (including time), and addressing issues not directly related to education such as childcare (a major concern for a single mother of two and the blue-collar middle class family next door). It also means moving on issues with lightning speed, something unfamiliar to think tanks in general, and being willing to overlook that the impromptu leader you’re supporting doesn’t have a Harvard degree and has no interest chatting about “partners” and other high-end speak. In short, working on the ground isn’t glamorous. Not at all.

Yet Beltway types fail to remember a few important things. For one, reforms won’t take hold without average families on the ground willing to support them. The flourishing of the nation’s charter schools, for example, is due not only to the high-quality schools and operators such as KIPP and Success Academy; it lies largely with the families and community groups, frustrated with failure mills perpetuating poverty in their neighborhoods, embracing those operators and pushing for new ones to come into their communities. It was the strong support of those families that helped Success (along with the Harlem Children’s Zone) thoroughly embarrass the American Federation of Teachers (and its New York City affiliate) along with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People after the two outfits attempted last year to effectively shut down the expansion of charters by ending New York City’s support of charters through the co-location of those schools with traditional district counterparts. It’s also a key reason why school voucher programs in Louisiana and Wisconsin have continued to garner political support for their expansion.

The second: The most-successful reform efforts were not spurred by policy pieces, but by mothers, fathers, storekeepers, and others outside of education whose drive, energy, and evangelism rallied fellow families to advance reform. If not for Virginia Walden Ford, D.C.’s reform efforts would have never gotten off the ground. The reform efforts pushed this year by Connecticut Gov. Dan Malloy wouldn’t have happened without the efforts of Gwen Samuel and what was then the State of Black CT Alliance for Parent Trigger laws and school governance councils aimed at addressing the Nutmeg State’s failure mills. Beltway reformers may craft policy, and institutional reformers who run charter schools may build systems. But without grassroots activists, the efforts of the former would be unsustainable.

The third reason lies with the fact that the AFT, along with the National Education Association and other education traditionalists, are still influential forces with the manpower (and dollars) available to beat back any reform. As seen in Alabama and Mississippi this year, simply having the support of policymakers isn’t enough. You need activists who make the case each and every day through their own personal testimonies and their righteous indignation over policies and practices that do little to nurture the geniuses and talents of young men and women.  And there are 51 million families (along with community outfits) waiting to join forces with Beltway reformers for this purpose.

And finally, there is the reality that there are far too many families who are struggling in dealing with school leaders and teachers in traditional districts who regard them and their children with little more than contempt. As Peter McDermott and Julia Johnson Rothenberg of the Sage Colleges have noted in their research on school engagement, urban and low-income parents often perceive schools to be unwelcoming and interactions with teachers to be “painful encounters”. This isn’t exactly limited to urban communities. First-generation middle-class families from black and Latino households in suburbia, and Native American families in the nation’s rural areas also find themselves battling against practices and even people who have little but disdain for the children they love and must entrust to American public education.

Consider for a moment, a mother who lives on a Cheyenne reservation in Montana with her son in high school. She finds herself each day pushing against principals and teachers who seem less-interested in providing her son the high-quality teaching and curricula he needs to succeed both on the reservation and in the outside world — especially at a time when unemployment rates for Native populations hovers around 15 percent for those over age 25 — and 39 percent for 16-to-24 year-olds like her son. The district’s English Language Learner program does little to help her son, who speaks fluent Cheyenne, the help he needed to master English he needs to navigate in the outside world outside of tribal communities. She deals with teachers who comment about how Native children aren’t capable of learning the way their non-Native counterparts can. She watches as laggard teachers who don’t belong in classrooms keep their jobs because state laws ban the use of student performance in evaluating teachers, allowing National Education Association locals to successfully defend them. And she talks to families who are annoyed with the district for informing them a month before graduation that their children don’t have enough credits to graduate on time; they watch the young men and women walk in cap-and-gown collecting meaningless paper.

Neither a white paper nor a streaming broadcast of a American Enterprise Institute event will do much for her immediate plight. While the ideas Beltway reformers develop can help spur the transformation of American public education, they will be of limited value without empowering mothers like her. She needs fellow parents, neighbors, and yes, even Beltway reformers, working alongside her to advance the kind of education that her son — and all children — need and should get.

One way to make this happens lies with think tanks evolving away from mere policy exercises into real action. There are some outfits, notably TNTP and centrist Democrat outfits such as Bellwether Education (which was co-founded by the aforementioned Rotherham), who are working on the ground with districts and operators on addressing the capacity challenges of advancing reform. There are also the growing group of players in the grassroots and political campaign arena such as Stand for Children (which is now working in Washington State on a referendum allowing for the expansion of charter schools), Democrats for Education Reform, Michelle Rhee’s StudentsFirst, and 50 CAN. And there are the emerging Parent Power groups that are challenging the status quo one parent at a time.

But we need more players in the activism and grassroots space. Think tanks such as Fordham (along with well-funded operations with education divisions such as the American Enterprise Institute) could easily put together advocacy units that provide the behind-the-scenes support for Parent Power groups and other grassroots-based reformers. One would suggest that Education Sector could use this transition as an opportunity to move from being a think tank to an action-oriented institution that works on the ground. And it need not be activism. Given the struggles families have in getting high-quality data to make smart decisions — especially in an age in which school choice will become the norm — Education Sector could move into the arena of offering useful information for families, either by teaming up with Parent Power groups such as the Connecticut Parents Union on providing “parent buses” and information centers, or doing it on their own through digital means.

Another solution lies with school reform philanthropists who pour plenty of dollars into think tanks in the first place. Certainly there are plenty of wealthy individuals who are pouring more into the activist side of the movement. But there’s no reason why the biggest foundations in school reform don’t do the same. The Walton Family Foundation has already shown its commitment to funding Parent Power groups on the ground. One would suggest that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundations, the Broad Foundation and the Joyce Foundation do the same.

No matter what the future holds for Education Sector, it is important for Beltway reformers to do less policy angling. Instead, they need to join arms with families and others in communities to ensure that the transformation of American public education remains a reality.