By the Company It Keeps: Marc Porter Magee

Marc Porter Magee came to public fame as COO of arguably the most successful state-based education-reform advocacy organization of recent times, ConnCAN. Thanks to Marc’s leadership of its research and communications operations, that group was able to cause a major ruckus in an edu-complacent state with a huge achievement gap. Not only did Connecticut start talking differently about reform, it ultimately changed a number of its policies in big ways.

Marc soon had the brilliant idea of trying to scale ConnCAN’s success using the same mindset as the leaders of the first highly successful charter schools: We have one great entity, so let’s see if we can replicate its model to reach an even larger audience. The result was 50CAN, a nonprofit research-and-advocacy organization with a growing number of highly effective state affiliates modeled on ConnCAN.

Marc serves as 50CAN’s founder and president. Strike up a conversation with him and you’ll quickly see how he’s been so successful. First, he’s smart as the dickens—he holds a PhD in sociology from Duke, cut his teeth doing D.C.-based think-tank work, and has a Mississippi-wide breadth of interests. Second, he’s an extremely creative organizational leader; I learn gobs by picking his brain about staffing, managing, setting goals, starting new chapters, and more.

Lastly, and most importantly, Marc’s a genuinely great person. He’s friendly, approachable, and, despite his many talents, self-effacing. He’s often the sharpest guy in the room, but he’s loath to let on.

Our field is very fortunate to have someone like Marc carefully studying America’s education challenges; crafting new policies and advocacy strategies; and engaging families, communities, and policymakers.

Ladies and gentlemen: Marc Porter Magee.

The education-reform advocacy space is quite crowded. What’s 50CAN’s niche, and what knowledge, skills, and/or beliefs make you well suited to lead it?

I think “crowded” is a funny way of describing having more friends and allies. I would say the space is “growing.” You almost never hear anyone describe the advocacy space of traditional stakeholder groups as “crowded.” We simply say: they are really, really powerful.

Back in 2005, when ConnCAN was the only advocacy group fighting for education reform in Connecticut, it was downright lonely. Now 50CAN has the opportunity to partner in each of our states within a constellation of groups and set our sights on more than just a handful of policy wins. We are fighting for a new era of public education—one in which every child gets a great education. Reaching that goal will take many more groups working together in states across the country and over a long period of time.

As for 50CAN’s niche, we are passionate about growing leaders within the states and providing them with the policy and advocacy support they need to get results for kids. We believe that education is local and we understand that we will never achieve widespread changes without the support of local educators and leaders—those who know the landscape, who see the challenges for what they are, and who can tailor policy principles to meet local needs. These local leaders work together on annual advocacy campaigns to make sure that transforming our public schools is at the top of everyone’s agenda and on long-term policy blueprints to ensure that these annual victories add up to a better education for all kids.

That was our theory of change back in 2005 at ConnCAN, and it remains at the center of everything we do today.

I like to think of 50CAN as the CMO analogue for advocacy groups: You helped lead a highly successful, single-site venture (ConnCAN), and now you’re trying to replicate it. What have you adopted from the CMO/charter replication model? What have you had to create from scratch for the 50CAN effort?

One area where we looked to the CMO experience was around organizational structure. We wound up focusing specifically on better understanding the differences between KIPP and Achievement First, two of the nation’s most successful CMOs. KIPP is an affiliate network, where individual schools are autonomous. Achievement First is a branch network, where all schools are part of a larger system.

We agonized over which model to use when building 50CAN, and we ultimately concluded that if we could centralize certain functions nationally—like operations and website development—we could free our state leaders to get out of the office and be true partners in the community. That approach is paying off.

Making it work, however, requires a lot of effort. When you’re no longer crammed together in a small office, you have to be incredibly deliberate about planning, communications and culture. And it puts a huge premium on the quality of the people you are able to attract.

You know my theory: Urban districts are irreparably broken and must be replaced as the delivery system for public education in America’s cities. What’s your take? How does 50CAN’s agenda reflect your views on the prospects of the urban district?

I’m kicking off 50CAN’s “Summer Session” blog series in July with a few posts on your book, so I don’t want to give it all away. But I’ll give you a preview.

When we talk about replacing something, it’s important that we say more than what we don’t like. We need to be really clear about what is working so we don’t wind up going backward when we build something new.

For all the frustrations we experience in working with urban school districts, we should begin our work by recognizing the incredibly positive role those districts have played in transforming America from a country in the 1870s where only one in two students had the opportunity to attend school—usually just until eighth grade—and 80 percent of people of color where illiterate, to an America where K-12 education is the norm, and for much of the 20th century our education system powered the strongest economy in the world.

Acknowledging that value helps us then see the real problem we need to solve. It’s not that our urban schools and traditional districts are “failing.” It’s that our traditional approach to education plateaued around the 1970s, and we’ve struggled to make meaningful progress since then. We’re frozen in place, and the areas of the country that were the furthest behind 40 years ago are still behind today. That’s a classic “first wave” problem. You get a huge boost when you universalize a public service. We created a mechanism to standardize and professionalize education, and to make sure that almost every child attended school. And our entire nation benefited enormously from that approach over a 100-year period.

In order to generate a second wave, we have the much harder challenge of providing that service of public education in a high-quality way and at scale. It’s a lot harder because universal mandates can’t compel excellence. Instead, you have to create the conditions for excellence to emerge and then patiently help grow examples of success. It’s an education garden, not an education factory. “Seeding and weeding” is a foreign concept to many education leaders and we have struggled as a country to get out of the old ways of thinking.

I’m not sure we know yet whether the traditional district structure can make the leap to excellence. We should experiment in the states with a number of governance arrangements, leverage these laboratories of democracy, and see what works. It’s hard to imagine that the current top-down, central-office-knows-best model is going to make it out of this phase of experimentation but that doesn’t mean we have figured out exactly what should replace it yet.

Earlier in your career you worked for the Progressive Policy Institute, the think tank that tried to create policies for the “new” Democratic Party. What lessons about politics and policy did you learn from that tour of duty? Anything applicable for Republicans hoping to regain the White House in 2016?

I think there were three key things that helped make PPI so successful.

First, we had great people. My boss Will Marshall, together with Democratic Leadership Council President Bruce Reed, had assembled an incredible team: Sara Mead, Andy Rotherham, Ed Kilgore, Rob Atkinson, Ed Gresser, Steven Nider, Sarah Bianchi, Dave Kendall, Anne Kim and, of course, my wife Kathleen.

Second, we were given the charge of breaking up the old ways of thinking in the Democratic Party. We would try to spark our imaginations by asking: How could we solve conservative problems with liberal means, and liberal problems with conservative means? And we were free to follow those ideas as far as we could take them.

Third, we had political relevance baked right in from the beginning. There was always a healthy tension between the PPI side (policy) and the DLC side (politics). The DLC helped ground us in the strategies needed to winning elections, while we strived to concoct ideas that were intellectually rigorous and would solve old problems in new ways. You need to have both.

You’re the husband of a highly talented wife with a great career, and you’re the dad to three young kids. Finding balance must be terribly challenging. Based on your experience, what advice would you give to younger men and women hoping to have successful careers and family lives?

When we first had kids, Kathleen and I used to joke that people who already had kids were engaged in a conspiracy to avoid saying how challenging it really was.

I’m not sure I’m in any position to offer advice. It’s hard, and I struggle with it every day. I’m also lucky to have a lot of support. My main advice would be to set your expectations appropriately.

We don’t sleep much, which can make us grouchy, and we’re always buried in a sea of laundry. We almost always forget to pick up the milk. Last year we forgot to pay the water bill, missed the many notices they sent us and ended up one night with the water shut off and rushing out to the store to buy jugs so we could fill the tub and give the kids a bath.

That it works at all is because of a great deal of good fortune. Kathleen and I both have jobs that afford us a lot of flexibility, so we can juggle the different responsibilities. And Kathleen was able to scale back and work part time while our kids are young. Finally, Kathleen’s parents live four miles away and provide “grandma and gramps camp” several days a week. The combination has allowed us to be the ones who pick the kids up at camp and drop them off at school, and it’s ensured that one of us is always at tee-ball or ballet.

The real challenge, however, is not just physically being present but also mentally. Work is so 24/7, it’s hard to shut it off. I’m not sure I have figured that out.

You’re a big admirer of Nelson Mandela. What sets him apart in your mind? Are there any other leaders that you’ve learned a great deal from or try to emulate?

There is so much negative leadership in the world, so many people who rise to prominence and power by tapping into our most base instincts. Nelson Mandela represents the opposite of that. He never wavered in his belief that there was a better way forward for South Africa. Even in his darkest hours, he was looking ahead, building the ties across communities that would form the foundation for a new nation when his cause prevailed.

During his 27 years in prison, he also focused on his own education. If he and his fellow prisoners would eventually become the leaders of South Africa, he reasoned, they had better be well educated. So they organized their own classes while they were in jail. He once said, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”

As for other leaders—I try to learn as much as I can from the pioneering minds around me. One of the highlights of running 50CAN is getting to work with incredible local leaders in states across the country, so I’m gaining insight, wisdom and inspiration on regular basis from people working to make sure their home states live up to their ideals.

You’re teaching your kids about the Star Wars series. All these years later, what continues to draw you to those stories? Is it the intellectual aspects, the Joseph Campbell–monomyth elements? Or are you just from the shoot’em-up, Boba Fett-is-AWESOME school of thought?

Ummmm …. well, my son Benjamin came home from school one day talking about Jedis and their “life savers.” And I thought: “Finally, a problem I can solve!” So I pulled out the DVD and they were mesmerized.

The original trilogy is a pretty magical thing. I’ll chalk it up to “art through adversity.” Somehow everything just fell into place and George Lucas created a modern myth that transports you to a different world.

I like to think that watching Star Wars with your kids and having light saber duels in the yard is the reward for all those 5 a.m. wake-ups. The next step is when my kids are old enough to appreciate Red Letter Media’s critique of Episode’s I-III, but that is a few years off.

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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