The Politics & Partisanship of the Education Reform Debate: Why Being ‘Right’ Isn’t Enough

I voted for President Barack Obama twice and pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton last fall. I also know Education Secretary Betsy DeVos and was one of the few folks to support her nomination.

I’ve worked with business groups in New York and moms and dads in New Jersey to raise the bar for our kids. I worked on New Jersey’s teacher evaluation framework and helped pass its tenure law TEACH NJ with the state’s teachers unions. I’ve supported public charter schools alongside the thousands of New York and New Jersey families whose children fill them.

I grew up in the same neighborhood Freddie Gray did in Baltimore, and I went to private school on a scholarship, so I also support vouchers and tax credits, fiercely.

All of this is to say I believe in education reform, in all its flavors, and I’ve worked with all sorts of people, from all walks of life and both political parties, to make it happen.

But there are some problems we face, right now, as people fighting for change in the education space. Problems of policy, politics, and partisanship.

Starting with this column, I’ll be spelling out these problems and offering some perspective on what ails our reform effort.

When I say we have a policy problem, that isn’t to say we don’t have smart people working hard to come up with brilliant solutions for what’s wrong with education in this country. Anyone who’s advocated for, or fought over, any of the more esoteric reforms we’ve championed recently knows we don’t have a dearth of well-educated, well-meaning people looking to change the world for the better.

It isn’t even to say that we have bad policy per se. When implemented well in a place like D.C., you can see teacher evaluation reform doing great things for everyone involved despite its lackluster impact elsewhere. Or take the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools’ guidelines for great authorizing of quality charter school laws. These frameworks have helped steer the first twenty-five years of the country’s charter school movement. They’ve given us schools that have been, in particular, of extraordinary benefit to low-income kids of color in cities where they have little choice and lots of underperforming schools.

The policy isn’t bad—but it has become unpopular. And we ignore the tarnished and shrinking halo above it at our own peril.

Look at accountability. Lots of us have supported the standards-and-assessments movement, which helped create the No Child Left Behind federal framework. It was imperfect, but its supporting pillars—test annually, report the results by subgroup, classify schools based on performance, and intervene when kids are being failed—were revolutionary. NCLB drew a line in the sand on school performance—maybe not a deep line, but a line nonetheless. A line that had not existed before.

The data alone sparked conversations in states like Connecticut, where school leaders blamed the achievement gap not on underperforming systems but on the overperforming white kids in them. Vital, hard-fought progress was made. And it became easier to make the case for more choice for underserved families, a compelling pretext that accelerated charter school growth in many urban centers.

These policies—which placed underserved families with few choices at the center—might have been the right ones. But we, as a community of reform, may have been the only people who found them popular, or who believed that the injustice of chronically underperforming urban school systems overflowing with black and brown kids was a compelling enough reason to implement them.

While “we” felt the system needed to be upended in a variety of ways, lots of folks—to be pointed, lots of college-educated white folks—didn’t. And our policy agenda has finally run into them, headfirst and at full speed.

Sure, standards and testing are crucial for the least-served kids, but affluent, liberal suburban whites don’t seem to think that’s the right fit for them. This policy mismatch gave us the opt-out movement, which threatens accountability as a whole. Sure, the science on value-added models for teacher evaluation tells us that teachers who drive growth on tests also improve a wide range of life outcomes for their students, but three million teachers (again, overwhelmingly white) didn’t seem to agree with that premise or the accountability built into it for “those kids.”

This mismatch for “progressive” educators—which conveniently aligned itself with anti-Obama sentiment fomented by the Tea Party on the right—gave us the blowback on Common Core. The close association of charter schools with both of these agendas has stoked anti-charter angst in places where, ironically, we have some of the nation’s highest-performing charter schools and networks. And all of this combined gave us the hands-off approach of the Every Student Succeeds Act, which is a great step back if you care about old-school accountability and the federal backstop on performance.

We can keep doubling down on these things, or we can revisit them and get some religion. I like to point to a few schools in New York’s Success Academy network—the affluent Upper West and Cobble Hill among them—as a possible evolution of our policy approach. Not only do these schools, ironically, make the network more diverse, they expose charter schools to people who might otherwise never experience them. If you stick to the premise of solely closing achievement gaps, you might have a blind spot for the positive policy and political implications of a move like this.

My friend Chris Cerf, the superintendent in Newark and a recovering commissioner of education in New Jersey, likes to say, “You can be right, or you can be married.” Like the best humor, there is always a note of truth in it. So there is this lesson as well: We can be right and alone, or we can change our behavior in a way that allows us to stay married to the levers of power that help us change the way education is delivered in America. Levers that allow us to bring a better country into existence for all kids as well.

This is what is at stake.

— Derrell Bradford

Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, and the executive director of its New York branch, NYCAN, with more than fourteen years working in education reform policy and advocacy.

This post originally appeared in The 74 and in slightly different form in Flypaper. This is the first essay of a three-part series that examines the major challenges facing education reformers. The author adapted these essays from his keynote address at the Yale School of Management’s Education Leadership Conference in April.

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