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Reality Check-In: Why Education Reform really does need a reality TV show

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Reality Check-In, with Jeanne Allen
Vol. 1, No. 1
May 28, 2014

Why Education Reform really does need a reality TV show

I would not have said this a year ago. I’ve been opposed to such a thing, despite being auditioned once for a show that promised to show the real challenges schools face daily. (I was supposed to be the provocateur, calling out bad practices on screen. Thankfully they dropped me from consideration when I insisted we had to talk about solutions. So much for my worldwide fame!)

But now I have another take. Having been “on the outside” for 6 months now, after 25 years “in,” I now understand clearly why EdReformers bang their heads against a wall daily and make only marginal progress:

Only a few thousand people – maybe 20,000 – are actually paying attention.

I know that’s hard to believe. After Waiting for Superman, the trials of Michelle Rhee, Facebook, KIPP, and people from Cory Booker, to presidents from Reagan to Clinton and more, only a fraction of the people in our otherwise exceptional nation have a clue that reformers are doing what they are doing to create better opportunities for kids.

I was shocked to learn this, and it hasn’t been an easy conclusion to reach. The reasons are numerous, but I’m going to offer just one primary reason in this commentary…

…Reformers are (generally great but) clueless.

This Memorial Day I sat by the water among dozens of families with whom my kids grew up. They come from all over the East Coast. They are old and young and in between. Most are politically engaged and hardly apathetic. They are right, left, and center. They go there to relax and when socializing, they share what they know and ask one another about what they don’t know. These are not wealthy people; they are mostly working and middle class Americans including researchers, plumbers, bank employees and educators. One thing they all have in common though, is that all are Americans, or aspire to be.

These citizens are, like most citizens, informed about the issues when they need to be, but most of the time they are just folks. Because they are pretty civic-minded and because they have known me a long time, they do have some sense of what’s happening in education.  But this is just one little piece of their world, and as such they know only what they see in their community or from their own trusted sources of news, and that’s not very much.

Yet, nearly every Memorial Day until this year I’ve arrived at the Bay convinced otherwise. Every other time I arrived having just spent months engaged in protracted battles as the head of the Center for Education Reform, a post from which I stepped down in the fall. Arriving at the Bay last year for the first time since the previous season, I had just completed terse negotiations with Pennsylvania legislators and others over amending the State’s charter school law so that the schools might finally have equitable funding and communities more opportunities to start schools and serve kids. At the same time we were in the thick of developing new protocols to push out the daily education news through our Media Bullpen.  We were involved in local advocacy work with New Jersey charter leaders who couldn’t find a friend in their own state. On top of that, efforts were underway in many states to craft better policies on issues ranging from teacher evaluations to achievement standards.

All of this was occurring against the backdrop of continued failure in our schools as revealed by the National Assessments.  I had spent many hours on television and in print commenting on these issues.

This was pretty standard for my work, and upon reengaging with the folks at the Bay year after year I’d assume they all were as clued in as I was to all of these important battles. I’d stroll down to the water and as the typical “how are you what are you doing these days” would evolve, I’d say things like, “Well Philly has been really difficult these days,” or “still trying to break through the barriers to get more reform.”

There would be questions and comments about this school or another that they know about, and sometimes arguments about whether unions can work or not. Eventually somebody would always say – “hey-I-saw-you-on-TV-that-was-great.”

Of course this all made me believe they knew exactly what I was talking about and that they were actively engaged in education reform issues.  At a minimum I thought my long time seasonal friendships had persuaded them to at least be quiet supporters of the movement or maybe even committed voters for reform.

Clearly I was projecting.

This year I arrived wearing a new hat. I am still personally and professionally engaged in education reform but I am no longer leading the charge nor am I intimately engaged day to day.

The questions have been the same, but my answers have been different. Having now become a “normal, ordinary” person — the kind I pushed my team to find and educate so that more people would join our cause — I now have come face to face with a cold reality. Those of us who bleed “EdReform” assume that once exposed to the hard facts, others will not only follow us but also fully engage. It isn’t so.

As my inaugural weekend at the Bay reminded, our individual lives — our families, our work and our friends — largely dictate what we do and how we conduct ourselves with regard to the issues of the day. If we are “in it” we feel like others are in it with us. If we are not, the subject changes, and the focus shifts.

I walked around for years thinking that people were interested in education reform because when we talked about it they seemed to be interested. My friends and I would often discuss the topics they knew were foremost in my mind. “What are you up to?” They asked me over and over again, and I’d respond about the issue du jour. Not anymore. Six months of having been “out of it” means others are, by extension, out of it too.

Now the conversation is not about work — because until now work was always my passion – but about the other things that consume my time, like adult kids and activities, vacations, and the stuff of daily life. When we all have kids in school, they supply an endless sea of discussion topics. As they age, so does our interest in school related issues.

It’s hard to tweet and Facebook and Instagram things that are no longer your daily focus. Don’t get me wrong — I still read and participate in numerous efforts to change the system and I continue to write about it.  I still consult regularly with colleagues and other stakeholders with whom I’ve been connected all these years.  That won’t change, nor will my personal passion for reform.

I am, however, living it differently and seeing first hand why it was so hard to get people to show up at a meeting, to write their lawmaker or to push back a failing system.  I used to consume the reform stuff almost 12/7. It was what I read for fun on the weekends (seriously), what I talked about at parties, what I talked about with my kids and husband nonstop. I read every blog, every newsletter, and every tweet. I attended events, blogged, wrote and managed a small but robust team, which in turn created armies to tackle the opponents of choice and accountability in word or deed.

There was no question we had to work hard to attract attention and I was relentless in getting the work done to educate, inform and galvanize the masses, those great EdReform-unwashed. Once they became interested or engaged, it was definitely our job to keep them engaged. Inevitably we — and others like us — grew frustrated about how difficult that was. We would question why someone who was an activist one-year suddenly stopped responding to emails, or why a small dollar donor stopped writing checks.

I had an inkling that life got in their way, but I also thought sometimes that the growth of the reform movement had resulted in their finding other outlets for their interests.  But what is clear now is that ordinary people just don’t have time for it all. Wearing a new hat, I understand fully now to me that we engage and outrage only when our friends and family clue us in, either because they are “in it” by virtue of their work or service on boards and in their communities. Without those connections, we — the masses — don’t even know there is an EdReform movement out there.

I imagine many people who were part of other social movements felt the same frustration.  Remember that most people didn’t go to Woodstock and most people didn’t fight in the Cultural Revolution.  Most people don’t focus on politics (let alone vote!) and most people don’t know much about education reform. But we can change that.

Professional education reformers must face the reality that their world is actually small and will continue to get only sluggish results, unless they grapple with the issue of how real people spend their time.  They — we— must stand back from the reality of the hundreds of e-letters that fill “our” inboxes, that are loaded with confidence-boosting calls for help, showers of praise from our colleagues, and news of thousands of media hits, and realize that such noise is having little impact on actually reaching the people who can help “us” make real change.

While there have been many great wins in expanding access to great education to more kids, the wins are isolated and often short-lived, because the ordinary people involved go back to leading busy lives. So, what do we do about this?

• First, be honest with yourselves and assume no one new is reading your newsletter. Find other ways to communicate directly with real people right where they live. Bring back the town hall meeting or the community dinner, because guess what? Real people don’t have time to go to conferences during the day but they do like food!

• For every New Schools summit or Fordham Institute seminar you hear about or attend, spend two days in a neighborhood or at a community organization (like a Kiwanis club) doing nothing but asking this question and listening to people’s answers:  “What do YOU do to help your family and your community, and how do you do it? Where do YOU spend your time?”

• Stop writing about the same things — please. People outside of education reform can’t relate to all the stories about Newark, KIPP, quality authorizing, or even teacher evaluations! Try talking about pocket book issues — how taxes are spent on schools and what programs get funded; how their fellow Americans (not necessarily their kids or grandkids because the vast majority of us don’t have kids) spend their time. It’s not that people don’t care — it’s that they need other reasons to care. This leads me to the next point:

• Make education an issue of patriotism — which it is — because most of us deeply believe in our country and want it to continue to be the best nation in the world. Craft your communications to expose the connection between schooling and democracy. Show where and how it is that our children learn uniquely American values and where they don’t. When Americans know that only a handful of 17 year-olds can correctly identify the time and the purpose of the American Revolution, they can’t be confident the product of that Revolution will last or benefit their own kids, which will spur them into action.

• Expose inequality of opportunity and lack of freedom, not just lagging math scores. Most of us don’t think about math as relevant anymore. Explain the connection between a student’s lifelong achievements and earning power.

• Take the issue to TV. When searching for a new “standard” television this year, I was shocked to learn that standard now seems to include every kind of media outlet possible at the touch of a remote. Take the Reality TV plunge and knock the sleazy stuff out of first place. If a Nun could be on the Italian equivalent of “The Voice,” why can’t an Ed Reformer?? You’ll be amazed how many people will start to engage.

• Finally, ask for feedback. If people aren’t writing back and talking to you about what you say, how do you know it’s working? News Flash: It’s probably not.

When I wrote the School Reform Handbook nearly 20 years ago, it was with ordinary people in mind. As our movement grew, we assumed everyone grew with us. Some did. But most people always will be focused on the basics of their everyday life. To engage them, we need to focus on how ordinary people live ordinary lives, and become part of their lives, not the other way around.


 Jeanne Allen is founder, senior fellow and president-emeritus of the Center for Education Reform, and the author of Education Reform: Before it Was Cool – The Real Story and The Pioneers Who Made It Happen, an indispensable anthology of the modern education reform movement.