Education Reformers Decry and Defend New Factions – An Ongoing Debate

In May, 2016, a meeting hosted by the New Schools Venture Fund has prompted a debate within the ranks of the education reform community. The discussion was initiated by Robert Pondiscio of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

That original blog post, and responses to it, appear below.

The Left’s Drive to Push Conservatives Out of Education Reform

By Robert Pondiscio

Posted May 25, 2016

At the opening plenary session of the New Schools Venture Fund meeting in San Francisco earlier this month, CEO Stacy Childress promised attendees that the meeting was going to “push” them to explore issues of race, equity, and education. For some, it was a face push. The session featured a panel discussion between a top Teach For America executive active in the Black Lives Matter movement, an activist concerned with the plight of undocumented youth, and a USC sociology professor who brought half of the audience to its feet with a remark (as paraphrased by someone in the room) that “the story of America is the story of progressive social movements, government, affirmative action, the GI bill, and Obamacare.”

“There were moments when I wondered, ‘Are we going to talk about anything but personal narratives and how terrible structural racism is?’” asked this attendee, a senior executive at a national education nonprofit. “When are we going to talk about education?”

A few days later, a piece ran in Education Post with the headline “How an Elite Education Reform Conference Felt More Like a #BlackLivesMatter Rally.” It was a compliment, not a complaint.

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.

For more information, see The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

Let’s Get to Work: A Response to Robert Pondiscio

By Stacey Childress

Posted May 26, 2016

“Any group that only associates with like-minded people is susceptible to becoming extreme, inflexible, self-righteous, and losing its ability to see its own weaknesses.”

This is the organizing idea in Robert Pondiscio’s Gadfly blog from May 25th, “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform.”

At NewSchools, we actually agree with this quote, but not with Robert’s premise that we’re actively trying to quash conservative viewpoints. I’ll offer two rebuttals to this, and then address a few other things in his piece.

First, an explicit goal for our Summit is to identify complex, even difficult, issues facing education reformers, ones being discussed throughout the year in smaller rooms and on social media, and to put them front and center at our Summit. Ideally with a range of views across the political and philosophical spectra. Just like our overall invitation list, this year’s speaker and presenter invitations for plenary and breakout sessions included center-right, conservative, and libertarian folks. Our success rate in attracting them was near zero.

At the top of our wish list was a lunchtime plenary debate between a prominent conservative thinker and progressive leader on a range of issues (immigration, the economy, and yes, education). My hope was to build the session around Arthur Brooks, but he had a commitment in Europe on May 11th. I tried a number of other avenues — think tank leaders, television pundits, sitting and former national elected leaders. Unable to land a well-known conservative thinker for the session, I eventually and reluctantly gave up on the concept. It’s worth noting that conservative think tanks Fordham and AEI each had education events in DC on the same day. Many (but not all) who declined our invitations cited this reason.

For more information see NewSchools Venture Fund.

Who’s Responsible for the Technocratic Takeover of Ed Reform?

By Jay P. Greene

Posted May 26, 2016

Robert Pondiscio has written a very important piece about the current state of the education reform movement.  He correctly notes that the previously diverse coalition leading ed reform is breaking down and he accuses the Left of taking over.  I’d modify his argument only slightly to note that the real divide in ed reform is not between Right and Left, but between Technocrats and those favoring more decentralized reforms. The danger is not just that Social Justice Warriors have seized control of ed reform, but that they are perfectly content to advocate no end of faux-scientific management and top-down regulation to impose their preferences.

Robert is not completely original in noting this hostile takeover.  I’ve been decrying the rise of the Petty Little Dictator Disorder for quite some time.  And Rick Hess warned last year about the wheels coming off of the old ed reform coalition.  However, the fact that the ever-conciliatory Fordham Foundation is declaring the Ed Reform Civil War seems to make it official.

In this post I’d like to talk a little about how we got to this point.  I blame the big ed reform foundations for facilitating this Technocratic/Social Justice Warrior takeover. An entire industry of ed reform activists has been created by foundation dollars.  They populate a host of organizations with a variety of banal names; few of which would exist if foundations didn’t pay their salaries.

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.

For more information, see Jay P. Greene’s Blog.

An Open Letter

By Justin C. Cohen

Posted May 26, 2016

The education reform coalition has a problem. Unlike other historical movements dedicated to the urgent betterment of social conditions, the most prominent leadership and voices of the school improvement coalition have not been representative of the communities that the effort hopes to serve. The leaders of reform organizations are mostly white, and mostly from backgrounds of relative privilege, creating a stark contrast with the communities, and leaders, of color that demand rapid improvements in their schools.

Those of us signing this letter are some of those white leaders. 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. A movement of innovators and technocrats will never have the intellectual and moral power of a movement created by, and led by, the communities most affected by inadequate public schooling. And while there is an important role for allies to play in advancing the work of school improvement for poor students and students of color, an unrepresentative group will lack the critical insight and creativity that diversity and inclusivity bring to addressing complex problems.

Despite our own mistakes, we have been heartened by recent course corrections within the reform community. When some major organizations in education reform, including New Schools Venture Fund, began to publicly embrace the need to not just diversify the leadership in the field, but also to ensure that the voices of people of color were centered in the reform conversation, we celebrated the shift in emphasis. That’s why we were so baffled by Robert Pondiscio’s article on the Fordham Institute website yesterday, which suggests a coalition problem that we don’t think needs to exist. In the piece, Pondiscio cites a string of anonymous “conservative education reformers” who are dissatisfied with the “increasing dominance of social justice warriors in education reform and the marginalization of dissenting views.” Pondiscio frames this tension as one of right versus left, or in his words, free market enthusiasts vs. social justice warriors.

For more information, see Justin C. Cohen.

Stacey Childress Misses the Point

By Jay P. Greene

Posted May 27, 2016

Stacey Childress, the head of New Schools Venture Fund, whose conference sparked the current row over the Left/Technocratic takeover of the ed reform movement, penned a reply to Robert Pondiscio.  While Stacey deserves credit for the level-headed nature of her response, which stands in stark contrast to much of the reaction Robert has received elsewhere, she unfortunately misses the point of Robert’s piece.  Robert is not questioning the desirability of diversity in the ed reform movement.  To the contrary, he is expressing concern about the development of a new Left/Technocratic orthodoxy in the movement that would, among other things, harm the political prospects of maintaining support from state Republicans who have and will continue to be essential for passing and implementing reform policies.

Stacey denies the charge.  She argues that it promotes rather than hinders diversity to have a panel discussing other important “social movements”:

The purpose of the session was to learn more about movements in general and hear directly from some people who are part of a couple of them…. Yes, the session included Black and Latino leaders working in ed reform (TFA alums and staff) who also are part of current social movements they view as intertwined with urban education issues.

Her reply reveals the problem. Let’s leave aside the fact that neither Robert nor I are concerned solely with that panel.  Frankly, I found Arne Duncan to be the most insufferable speaker at the Summit.  When asked to describe his three greatest failures as Secretary, he listed his failure to convince Republicans to spend more on pre-K, his inability to get Republicans to solve problems for undocumented college students, and the refusal of Republicans to adopt new gun control legislation following Sandy Hook.  Notice that all of his greatest failures were his inability to get Republicans to do the right things.  And notice that none of these are even K-12 issues.  And as a prime example of groupthink, Duncan was being interviewed by his former deputy, Jim Shelton.

For more information, see Jay P. Greene’s Blog.

Social Justice, Education Reform and How This Whole Left-Right Feud Is Missing the Point

By Derrell Bradford

Posted May 31, 2016

You can only watch a dragon eat its tail for so long before you feel compelled to intervene.

As I’ve watched the education community react to Robert Pondiscio’s argument that the left is driving conservatives out of education reform, I’ve been increasingly frustrated to see so many people I like and respect (from Marilyn Rhames to Justin Cohen, Chris Stewart and Jay Greene) take aim at one another. I’m also convinced that the teachers unions are all having a good laugh at us while we play this verbal game of The Dozens amongst ourselves and in public.

At the center of this conflict: A dividing line being drawn between “Markets” and “Equity” as principles driving change in our schools. These two themes are both found in the underlying conflict of Pondiscio’s piece about the contrast between market or conservative solutions like school choice as great equalizers, and the power of a movement like Black Lives Matter, with which the more progressive, social justice wing of the reform movement identifies.

I believe Pondiscio’s piece only featured Black Lives Matter and the agenda of this year’s New Schools Venture Fund Summit (which I attended) as a proxy for capturing the changing view and face of the education reform movement. But using Black Lives Matter as the focal point charged and changed the exchange — and sparked a circular firing squad as commentators staked their ground and pious bullets filled the air.

For more information, see The 74.

Education Reform Advocacy Is About Addition Not Subtraction

By Martín Pérez

Posted May 31, 2016

Last week a long-simmering debate about which kinds of diversity—ideological, political, socioeconomic, racial or ethnic—should matter most in our education reform community boiled over into public view.

This debate comes at an interesting time in my life because I am in the middle of a year-long leadership development program—50CAN’s Education Advocacy Fellowship—which was created to provide an on-ramp for more people to serve as education reform leaders. This experience has led me to realize something so simple it’s perhaps overlooked in all the back and forth in this debate:

There is more than enough work to go around.

It is exactly because of the scale and complexity of the challenges we face, and the numerous gaps left unfilled, that increasingly the best work in education advocacy is being carried out by coalitions that span the traditional divides.

For more information, see Education Post.

Race Is a Red Herring in the Battle for Better Schools

By Jeanne Allen

Posted June 2, 2016

Howard Fuller’s famous, inaugural “Change the Complexion of the Room” speech was delivered on the occasion of the Center for Education Reform’s (CER) fifth anniversary. I had invited Howard precisely because I thought he’d “school” the growing education reform movement about why they should pay much more attention to recruiting black leaders to be partners in the education reform movement

That speech would also launch the Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO). Howard wouldn’t mind me saying that I introduced him to a few of BAEO’s original board members (including Pennsylvania State Representative Dwight Evans, who was one of the many people of color I had helped to forge new, bold coalitions of strange bedfellows that would create the nation’s first charter school and school choice laws).

The center also had late Wisconsin State Representative Annette “Polly” Williams on its founding board. Throughout its twenty-two-year history, CER has always looked to people of varying ideologies and race for board and staff leadership—people like Donald Hense, Kevin Chavous, and David Hardy. Our board members also lean more left than right. Only one-third would actually consider themselves politically conservative (I’m one of them.) After the hanging chads, when Bush v. Gore had finally been decided at the Supreme Court, our two most senior staffers arrived the next day with black armbands. We were respectful of their loss, and we went back to business. One is still a leader in our space.

Why am I bragging about my diversity pedigree? In light of surprising attacks on Robert Pondiscio’s attempt to challenge a growing orthodoxy reflected in recent reform events and pronouncements, I wanted to get my qualifications out of the way before someone might consider responding to me as some did to him—with attacks on my values, my commitment to justice, and my heart.

Those responses to Robert’s piece are curious. While I’m gratified that those who consider themselves part of the education reform “ecosystem” are debating it so seriously, I’m alarmed at those—like Chris Stewart—who have dismissed his writing as the reaction of a white guy faced with losing his patriarchal place in history. Indeed, his reaction makes Robert’s point precisely—that a focus on race as the primary issue we must address is simply divisive.

For more information, see The Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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