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Step One: Spot the Real Reformer

Calling All Advocates
by Fawn Johnson
National Journal
September 10, 2012

Politicians love to say the word “education,” but when it comes to actually doing something about it, outside forces must do the pushing. That is the lesson I learned from the political conventions that took over the airwaves and newsrooms in the last two weeks.

Former District of Columbia Schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee is one such outside force. She was at both the conventions with the same message, which she outlined for me when I sat down with her in Tampa where Republicans gathered. “There is a huge possibility for both parties to say, ‘OK on this issue, because it has to do with our kids, we can disagree about taxes and everything else, but let’s choose this issue that we can show the American people that we can come together,'” she said.

More from that interview here.

Rhee’s grassroots education group StudentsFirst screened Won’t Back Down, a movie about two mothers who take on a failing inner-city public school, for delegates and convention guests.

BELL, a nonprofit summer and after-school learning provider, was another outside force. “I probably lost 10 pounds of perspiration,” said vice president of schools Joe Small about his two days manning a booth at CarolinaFest, an outdoor carnival of good causes–and bands–organized by the Charlotte host committee for the Democratic National Convention. (The Republican convention did not have a similar exhibit space.) In Charlotte, BELL highlighted the benefits of summer learning for at-risk youth, showing the impact its summer programs have made in a low-income district in the city. Small said the reaction from delegates and visitors alike was, “Wow. How do we bring this back to our community? How do we replicate a Bell program?”

These are just two groups that I happened upon in my wanderings. There were dozens of other education-oriented groups at the conventions. (More of them were at the Democratic convention, in part because many such groups are overtly Democratic.) The American Federation of Teachers and the National Education Association sent delegates from several states. NEA President Dennis Van Roekel even sat in Vice President Joe Biden’s sky box during a tribute to the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass. Democrats for Education Reform held an “education town hall” in Charlotte that included the famous Newark mayor Cory Booker.

For groups like these, having a presence at a national convention is just like advertising. The more attendees see a slogan or logo, the more likely it is that the topic will bubble up in other areas. Political parties welcome this, assuming they agree with the message. They need backup, just like they need people to wave signs during convention speeches. There is no shortage of advocates for education, but herding them in the same general direction is a daunting task. “People have to strap in for the long haul and understand that it’s not just one or two things that you can change that will change the system, but it’s an entire paradigm shift,” Rhee said.

So, advocates, there is almost no disagreement that the country’s schools need to improve, but polling shows that education is not “top-tier” for voters. How do you raise awareness? What can you do to make sure a consistent message gets out? How do you handle the areas where you disagree? Is Rhee right in saying that part of the trick is converting the local battles into a national narrative? Or do you need a bunch of local, grassroots groundswells to provoke changes in individual communities?

Response – Step One: Spot the Real Reformer
by Jeanne Allen
September 12, 2012

You all have asked the right question … “Politicians love to say the word ‘education,’ but when it comes to doing something about it… outside forces must do the pushing. … what is the trick to provoking change in individual communities? ’”

Education reform is indeed driven by the grassroots. It’s always been that way, and it’s a great movement for that reason. Education reform was “postpartisan” before postpartisan was cool! There are lots of effective strategies and tactics (and some not so much), but one thing allreformers must be able to do is to understand what constitutes real reform.

There is a moment when parents or other would-be reformers join forces with elected officials. Say, there is xx legislation to be passed, or it’s time to implement accountability measures, or they need a better charter law. What happens at that moment? Politicians, as you point out, do indeed like to use the word “education.” The elected have gotten very savvy, and most of them know how to pay lip service to education reform … how to sound like a real reformer. But this has led to an all-too common scenario: people at the grassroots have a passionate desire to work for fundamental changes to ensure a better education for their children. They find a politician to work with, someone who says all the right things. But the end result is a toothless and ineffective piece of legislation, worse than nothing. All because they hitched their wagon to the wrong star – or to mix metaphors, they got taken in by a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

So how can the grassroots discern who are the real reformers? As part of CER’s Taking America Back to School on Education Reform campaign, we developed a tool that helps people figure it out. The Field Guide to Education Reform has a fun, tongue-in-cheek tone, but its content is actually quite serious. We think the Field Guide can help parents (and voters!) separate the “talkers” from the “doers” by giving them questions to ask, and telling what to look and listen for as politicians talk about education.

So look out faux reformers! An informed grassroots and electorate is your worst enemy!

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