Let’s Build a Modern Reform Coalition

Note: This is part of a forum on Education Reform’s Race Debate.

The bipartisan coalition for education reform has been showing signs of wear and tear for years. To understand the state of the coalition today, it’s instructive to look back at our origin story, track the shifting political tides, and reflect on the role of reform—then, and now.

ednext-oct16-forum-img01The early reform coalition took shape around 20 years ago, with shared goals of increasing economic competitiveness and addressing achievement gaps among low-income, black, and Latino students. It initially focused mainly on choice—mostly through expanding charter schools—and accountability, mostly through implementing the No Child Left Behind Act. These ideas enjoyed broad support from conservatives, centrists, and liberals, who took leadership roles in charters, education nonprofits, and the foundations that supported them.

By the mid-2000s, many of these reformers were migrating to district, state, and federal leadership roles. They brought with them the same missionary zeal that helped them succeed at the innovative edge as they became superintendents, state education chiefs, and staff members at the federal Department of Education. Seduced by the desire for rapid change at scale, they sought to alter longstanding, fundamental arrangements through sweeping top-down policy fixes. Chief among these were common standards and the assessments to go with them, and increased teacher accountability through new evaluation systems that included student test scores.

Then came the backlash, from two fronts. On the left, the confluence of these initiatives helped galvanize disparate anti-reform groups into a more organized force. On the right, the Obama administration’s role in helping accelerate state adoption of these policies by prioritizing them in big competitive grant programs weakened their appeal among Republican governors and lawmakers, many of whom withdrew their support from the solutions they had helped create. The bipartisan consensus that had been knit together in the 1990s was basically in tatters by 2014.

During this same period, high-performing urban charters grew rapidly and produced exceptional gains in test scores and college enrollment rates for black and Latino students. As the sector matured, leaders became focused on things they thought they should and could do better. Many charters broadened their instructional models to include social-emotional development and efforts to boost college completion. Others began using blended instruction to personalize student learning. Most worked to recruit more black and Latino educators to better reflect the race and ethnicity of their students. They took seriously the critique that education reform had too often been done “to” rather than “with” communities, and looked for better ways to meaningfully engage families.

Even so, weak governance and poor performance in places like Ohio and among virtual charters in several states created headwinds for the whole enterprise. The 2016 Democratic Party platform includes a call to halt charter growth all over the country, as do official policy demands by the N.A.A.C.P. and Movement for Black Lives (M4BL). Even though Massachusetts boasts the nation’s highest-performing charter schools, their growth is stalled pending the results of a ballot initiative this November. If passed, this would lift arbitrary caps on funding and allow more charter schools to open, but it has strong opposition funded by state and national teachers unions.

Within this context, a new generation of education reformers is emerging. They care as much about improving academic outcomes as any who came before. They lead charter schools, are trying to improve teaching, and are working to help more students persist in college. And they are more racially and ethnically diverse. This has been universally hailed as a good, even necessary development.

As these new leaders look around at the big accomplishments, partial wins, and outright losses of the last several years, they are also pushing those of us who have been around for a while to pay more attention to other issues that affect the families who choose our charters and attend the district schools we’re aiming to “fix.” They don’t agree with the N.A.A.C.P.’s call for a charter moratorium, nor are they surprised by it. A number of them have affiliations with Black Lives Matter and with charter schools and Teach For America, which the M4BL policy brief aims to obliterate. While they disagree with M4BL’s education views, they agree with them on other issues such as policing and criminal justice reform.

These new leaders are not monolithic; they agree with each other on some strategies and tactics and disagree about others. They surely aren’t right about everything, but neither were earlier generations of reformers.

Where do we go from here? The bipartisan coalition that drove nearly 20 years of change to education policy and practice is out of date. Today’s context and issues are different. Our politics are different. And while it’s true that the sharper focus on racial equity among many reformers has highlighted this condition, it didn’t cause it.

Rather than trying to instruct the new generation about how great things used to be and how wrong they are, let’s create a modern coalition based on shared values and interests. Let’s pick a few things to tackle, and agree to disagree about everything else. Let’s resist assigning the very worst motive we can think of to other reformers. And let’s stop caricaturing each other’s views and actions like snarky cable news pundits.

More listening, less name-calling, fewer litmus tests. Let’s get to work.

Stacey Childress is the chief executive officer of NewSchools Venture Fund.

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