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Welcome aboard

rollercoasterDear Michelle,

Welcome to the other side. We need your help. And we need new champions. Learning to tell the difference is an art, though, not a science.

This is the place where – in order to make good calls that benefit reform – you have to distinguish incessantly between what someone says they believe and what they truly will do. We at CER do not spend money on politics, but we do spend our time and energy on educating and activating people to do the right thing. Oh sure, reform is very much in vogue right now, and hundreds of people will crowd a ballroom to hear someone speak. They will applaud and nod approvingly at every word said in defense of students, and in support of a fight to change the status quo for good. Then they will go back to their states and communities and say things like the following, which we’ve heard for 17 years, as if a 45 were scratched so it keeps repeating…

“Of course we have to shut down failing schools. But we have to think carefully about the impact.”

“Oh I support school choice, but we don’t have very bad schools in my district.”

“I support school choice as long as there is a level playing field.”

“Of course I’m a supporter of charter schools. It’s just that having another authorizer is unconstitutional.”

“Our unions are the strongest in the country.”

“We have to focus on the 98% of students in the system not the 2% outside.”

“I support linking teacher performance to student test scores. The devil is in the details.”

Such statements come from people who indeed believe in reform – like most believe in Christmas – but whether they live and breath it and promote and act it is a whole different story.

We’ve learned the hard way that those who say they support school choice – and thus garner the support and accolades of many admiring reformers – either don’t fight hard enough or decide not to expend political capital to make it happen.

There was the senior U.S. Senator who was asked to twist the arm of an allegedly enlightened and new junior U.S. Senator over the DC school choice bill, who told us he doesn’t like to operate that way. Operate that way? Yes, apparently brass tacks and horse-trading with his colleagues was not his way, but both are recognized as champions nonetheless.

There are several states whose so-called reform leaders boast of winning ‘Race to the Top’ monies because of their bold new performance pay systems for teachers and data systems, which it turns out are not very bold, nor consequential. We said that when they were applying and were called sour pusses. Turns out we were right. States with RtTT monies are adopting conventional professional development requirements and imposing those on school districts in exchange for money, calling it performance based and taking a bow. Geez.

We have Governors who embraced strong charter laws but get caught up in the new hype that “not all charters succeed”, so they stop pushing. In reality most do succeed if you ignore the bad, self-aggrandized data from some think tanks. Millions are being served, millions more could be, and when we have strong, non-school board authorizers, charters excel. But those are technical issues some find difficult to talk about in public. It’s easier to grab a major newspaper headline and not ask about the truth. If you are a charter supporter today and stand from the rooftops and call for closing bad schools you feel objective, less controversial. It also means you’re a fool. Charters that don’t work are highly clustered in states with bad data systems and bad authorizers. Thankfully, that’s not the majority. Why would you stand up to sell and issue that works for most kids but preface with a comment that it’s not the answer? Unbelievable.

We have more public support for choice and accountability than ever before, but we learn yet again today that even our most advanced students are barely below average in math and science, while our most needy students are failing miserably, still.

Michelle, you are right. We have to fight. We cannot, however, succeed if we fight along side our friends who think conflict is bad, and who praise the baby steps, feigning ignorance about what really works.

At CER, we’ve criticized Rs and we’ve criticized Ds. We’ve criticized people who others praise as reformers for boasting a model that still barely scratches the surface. We seek the whole loaf, but we’ll settle for half only after we’ve given it our all. Most, sadly, start with negotiation and end up, well, with little.

You knew better when you ran the system in the District than to start from a point of weakness. Similarly, in your new endeavor, there are three major things you must remember:

1) THE ARMY IS SMALLER THAN IT MAY APPEAR. Yes, reform has made progress, but we’ve not grown an army. Not all people who espouse reform, show up at a conference, speak at a trusted group’s meeting or even boast of their pedigree are indeed reformers. While we can use their support and encouragement, their cheerleading and tweeting, recognize that there are few battle ready activists who will have serious impact on outcomes, without additional firepower, which leads to…

2) POLITICIANS OFTEN MISS OR FAKE REFORM. Ask anyone who’s been a legislator and learned hard way – his colleagues talk a great game but either don’t get it or don’t buy it. The reform movement also seems to have a very low bar for endorsing people. “Oh he’s a great guy,” we’ll say of a person who quotes you or Joel Klein or says they like Governor Christie. To make meaningful political contributions to candidates requires a detailed litmus test that goes beyond generalities about data systems, accountability, performance pay, unions and the like. “Would you support or oppose…” doesn’t cut it. You will need to assess the positions of politicos looking for your support. Will they seriously learn the distinction between a bill that requires strings and one that does not? What would they do if faced with a bill that permits only kids in failing schools to attend a charter, which can only be approved if the school board controls in and manages the contracts (and thus resulting in only a fraction of the kids who need good schools getting them). Would you think this is a worthwhile endeavor (half a loaf) or would you insist on bigger, better, stronger as a condition of your support?

3) BEWARE OF FALSE FRIENDS. Someone I respect said the leader of a major education establishment organization was “enlightened” for talking a lot about accountability. Clever union leaders have adopted the language of reform. Some think tanks and advocacy groups have a seat at the table even when they still believe that there is no solution for educating kids until we fix the family. [Note: Under the “watch-what-you-say-you-never-know-who’s-listening-heading” I sat in front of two very prominent people at EducationNation this fall who childishly made fun of major reformers who talked about choice or accountability on a panel, yet on these individuals is heaped praise for showing up at our tables.] These groups and individuals have adopted our language, but not our cause. Some just want to feel like we are all getting along. We are not. This kind of thinking dilutes otherwise great effort and it influences a generation of people to think we’ve got more friends than we actually have, so they can just stay home and let others do the work.

If you hold yourself accountable to these three simple tenets at a minimum, you may not find a lot of friends but you’ll be consistent, impactful and make progress, even if people would prefer not to admit it.

Good luck!