Reform Leaders: You’re Fired

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

Why isn’t Marilyn Anderson Rhames running Education Post?

ednext-oct16-forum-img01When I published a piece earlier this year about the tense estrangement between conservative education reformers and the movement’s increasingly dominant social justice wing, it did not sit well with members of the latter group, including Rhames, who penned a response on Education Post titled, “An Open Letter to White Conservative Education Reformers.” It was clear and pointed, yet leavened with humor, and it went viral. Rhames clearly gets this medium. She’s a major talent.

Education Post’s mission is to “elevate the voices of families and teachers” and “connect them to honest, classroom-focused conversations about our schools.” It seeks to be education reform’s digital town crier. Given the N.A.A.C.P.’s recent call for a charter school moratorium, and the wholesale rejection of all things ed reform by the Movement for Black Lives coalition, there may be no more urgent mission. Reform is clearly failing to win hearts and minds among communities of color.

If I was launching something like Education Post, my search for someone to lead it would begin with Rhames. It would probably end there, too. Her resume is stellar. She’s a Chicago charter schoolteacher, a mother, and the founder of a faith-based nonprofit; she’s also been an award-winning blogger for Education Week, and a reporter for People, Time, and a pair of major daily papers. She holds one master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University and another in education. As a woman of color, teacher, mom, seasoned journalist, and a talented and personally invested ed reform voice, she would bring to the job a skillset and a moral authority few others could match.

The founder and leader of Education Post is Peter Cunningham, who was an assistant secretary for communication at the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan, with whom he also served when Duncan ran Chicago Public Schools a decade ago. Cunningham has worked in PR, politics, and for small weekly newspapers but never, to my knowledge, as a teacher. He’s also a middle-aged white man. He is, in the argot of social justice thought, deeply privileged. This is not a criticism of Cunningham, a charming and affable fellow who keeps Education Post timely and topical and keeps everyone in ed reform honest, including me. But if Education Post is serious about “elevating the voices” of the communities it serves, at some point it should be run—should it not?—by someone representative of those communities.

What about now? What about right now? What about Marilyn Anderson Rhames?

I ask this not to be mischievous, but to call the question and settle one of ed reform’s most sensitive debates. When I published my now-infamous piece earlier this year, it prompted, in addition to Rhames’ piece and others, an “open letter” signed by 170 “white education leaders” (including, not incidentally, much of the staff of Education Post) who took serious exception to my critique and lamented reform’s failure to put people of color in leadership positions.

“The education reform coalition has a problem,” the letter started. “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.”

All true, but this elides an awkward truth. Closing the achievement gap will take decades. Closing the leadership gap can be done this afternoon. All it takes is for the “white, privileged leaders” who signed the letter to recruit a person of color and step aside. The right person, like Rhames, might already be on staff, already contributing to the movement as a foot soldier or subordinate but not occupying a position of leadership or authority.

My paramount concern, almost completely unaddressed in the outsized reaction to my piece, remains that a militant leftward tilt in education reform endangers the longstanding bipartisan political support that has long fueled the movement. Neither do I believe that the only children poorly served by their schools are from families of color. But it makes little sense to bemoan “the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white.” This is, as Teach For America likes to tell its corps members, within your locus of control. Those who signed the “open letter” may believe they are standing on principle. But if their theory of change rests on diversifying leadership, they are mostly standing in the way.

I invite those leaders to step aside for the greater good. No more open letters. No more manifestos. No more virtue signaling on Twitter. Either you are serious about the need to diversify the leadership of the reform movement, or you are not. It simply will not do to congratulate yourselves for being “brave leaders” and cluck earnestly at conferences about the need for education reform to “look like the communities it serves” year after year, while blocking exactly those people from the positions you insist they deserve.

To be clear, I continue to question whether the ed reform movement at large is properly viewed as a race-focused “social justice” movement or a broad school improvement initiative benefitting all children, thereby serving social justice ends. But let’s not quibble. If diversity of leadership is integral to your theory of change, why not practice within your organizations? And why not do it now?

Our infant nation survived George Washington relinquishing power and returning to his fields at Mount Vernon. Ed reform will survive without its current cadre of self-flagellating white leaders.

What – what exactly – is stopping you?

Robert Pondiscio is senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.

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