Sunday, February 12, 2017

Reformsters Contemplate Race (Part 2)

I've worked my way slowly through two panel discussions held at the American Enterprise Institute a couple of weeks ago. They're interesting and mostly thoughtful discussions among reformsters about how reformsterism (by which, mostly, they mean the charter movement) can navigate this new era and the fissures that it has opened up in reformland. You can read about the first panel here, but I'm going to walk you through the second one now.

This conversation is a bit broader than the first one, and I'm going to give you broad strokes of broad strokes. If you want to watch yourself, the second panel starts around the 1:10:00 mark on the video below.

Who's here?

The panel moderator is Stacy Childress (New Schools Venture Fund), and participants are Andy Smarick and his winter beard (AEI, Bellwether), Chris Stewart (EdPost), Marilyn Rhames (Teachers Who Pray, EdPost), Jason Crye (Hispanics for School Choice) and Derrell Bradford (NYCAN). Interesting assortment.

So, we can't assume that we can do the work of school reform without discussing race equity etc. Our charge is to stay in dialogue even across our disagreements. Childress is saying that the goal here is to hash out differences without "permanently alienating potential allies" There was apparently a conversation about all this earlier, so Childress is asking for a sort of reflection-recap of that.

Note: There's a lot of discussion in this panel about disagreements and dialogue. They mean disagreements and dialogue within the reformy community. Nobody here is going to talk about how to achieve dialogue with their "opponents" or the "enemy" or, as someone will put it later, the "bad guys." This is about dealing with internal discord.

What was one thing you heard today from a colleague that helped you have a clearer understanding of a perspective that's "distinctively different" from yours?

Smarick: This is such a sensitive set of issues that we tend to surround ourselves with people who make us feel safe about the views that we have. This can create an in-organization echo chamber. We need to do a better job of hiring people for our organization who have different views.

Stewart: Pretty sure there are some political differences in the room. He's pre-occupied with black and brown children who are not served by public schools, but he knows some reformers are there for other reasons. His realization is that everybody feels marginalized, and he notes that reform is a loose confederation of people working in different ways toward sort of same goals.

Bradford: There's still a lot of fluidity for where people can come down on this stuff.

Rhames: Realized that "some of us are solving different problems" and therefor solutions clash. She came into for equity for black and brown children, but there are reformers who are more concerned with reform everybody and if equity occurs, that's fine.

Crye: There's a lot of energy here. We agree on many things (choice).

Sometimes we talk about our differences as conservatives and progressives, white, black and latino, all these categories, and seeing someone as one category leads to assumptions about persons. Thoughts?

Bradford: The labels are so imprecise. The pluralism is a good thing. He used many more words. Bradford is good with words.

Smarick: It's easy to make guesses, but then you hear their stories. It's harder to parody or categorize them once you know their story.

Crye: As an agent of change, you know you're doing a good job when you're uncomfortable and a lot of people are yelling at you from different sides.

Stewart: Calls himself an expert at people being mad at him, which is an interesting observation. To digress-- Stewart is one of those reformsters (Dmitri Melhorn is another) who can talk and write and sound totally reasonable and relatable, but his approach to people he disagrees with is a sort of scorched earth assumption-jumping total warfare that is not exactly conducive to dialogue. He's turned it on those of us in the resistance (I've had my turn for a reductive misreading of my own story) and on some reformsters as well. It's the kind of thing that's more befuddling than angering, but it definitely slams the door shut on any kind of dialogue. Anyway.

Stewart describes the birth of his child as the moment he entered ed reform, and he talks about that journey up through his son's college graduation. And he sees that as beyond political labels.

Rhames: Be motivated by the needs of children and not how can I profit or get a better position. What do kids need. Put your money where your child is. Focus on children keeps you honest.

Across various categories we are going to have different goals and tactics. How we behave toward each other when we differ can affect how we achieve things, and apparently the earlier discussion included admissions of behaving poorly in social media etc. 

So, what do you commit to do differently? 

Crye: We can work out the details, but we must commit to the principle that many children in this country are not getting the education they deserve and they need access to choice. And he goes into a story about a woman who has children in many different sorts of schools, but I am back to my usual question about choice, which is-- do we really need choice more than we need good schools? I agree that not all schools are serving students well, but to me that means we need to improve those schools, not that we need to start more schools, thereby stretching thin resources even thinner. If we know how to make a great school, why not use that knowledge to improve the school we've got? If we don't know, starting a second or third or twelfth school makes no sense. I agree with some charter-choice premises-- not all public schools are getting the job done. But that premise does not lead me to "so we should start charter schools and choice systems." And I have yet to hear a convincing explanation of what gets reformsters across that gulf.

But Crye believes that woman with kids in three different school systems is success, and he wants power back in the hands of parents, but we are not going to examine the assumptions behind either of those assertions.

Rhames: Ed reform is centered in inner-city schools for black and brown students. Maybe people had other bigger ideas. But reform looks very black and very brown and very poor, but leadership looks very white, and teaching staffs look very white, and families are not part of the decision-making. With these dynamics, the issue of race has to come up, both because of both optics and influence. "If we are going to liberate children of color," women of color like her should not feel oppressed by the power structure driving reform. She gets applause for that. Can you empower black and brown children if you aren't empowering the black and brown adults?

Bradford: Talking about the "perpetual discomfort" of trying to navigate power. He addresses the question of working with Trump or not. If you're a person of color waiting for a perfect framework for getting power "your ass is going to be waiting forever." How much discomfort are you willing to go through to make your point. Plenty of reformsters (this is his point, not mine) haven't had to pay a price or suffer discomfort to push their public policy, and maybe now there will be. Not as big as that paid by folks with crosses burning on their lawns, but still a price.

Stewart: Be realistic about peoples' lives. Education is one of many issues; poor people are facing many others. And now he will be legitimately funny:

Sometimes reformers are like having the worst date ever. they just want to talk about themselves constantly. So you tell them all your problems and they're like, "You know what would cure that? A charter school." And you say, "But my foot hurts." And they say, "You know what's good for feet? Charter schools."

There is a range of problems. Education is just part of it. Compartmentalizing education and refusing to talk about any of the rest of the stuff except schools misses the mark. Any responsible parent wants a good education for their child, and any responsible person talking to that parent realizes they've got fifteen other things to worry about. Ed reform has not been very good about understanding the contxt in which they put schools. And for at least a couple of minutes, Chris Stewart and I agree on something. 

Smarick: Those of us who write and talk for a living have to strike a balance between having a sharp edge but not being a jerk about it. Nice conversations don't necessarily get anything done, but toxic public debate is a bad thing. Be mannerful and respectful, but as Douglass said, "Power concedes nothing without demand." I will give Smarick credit for following through with this in his own work.

Childress underlines the principle of disagreeing with someone without caricaturing or belittling them, and I'll remind you that she's talking about within reformsterland, not outside it. She also notes that building relationships matters because it's hard to be a jerk to someone who is a real person. Mostly true. Mostly.

Crye: Notes that discussions of race often pretend that Hispanics don't exist, or don't acknowledge the different Hispanic and Latino history and thoughts and ideas.

Now, floor questions.

Oh boy.

The first question is (which I will shorten for clarity, because he had some trouble getting it out, but these are his words):

How do we keep our internal differences of opinion and perspectives from dividing us so that the Bad Guys, who are universally, single-mindedly focused on killing us, don't succeed?

So much for avoiding the caricaturing and demonizing of people we disagree with. And yes-- many's the time that I have stalked the halls of power carrying a crossbow and hunting down reformsters so that I can kill them, gut them, and hang them on my wall. Kill?? Seriously?

But I'm glad the question was asked, because this is a recurring theme in reformyland-- that public school advocates are tightly organized and well-financed and more of a well-organized army that the reformers who have nothing on their side except billionaires and a bunch of organizations that employ people full-time to do nothing but push their point of view. It seems transparently ludicrous to me (why did I watch this as a recording and not on live stream? Because I was busy at my actual job while this panel discussion was going on) but I have now heard it so often (Eli Broad and some friends wanted to start EdPost because he felt that his point of view just wasn't getting out there) that I have to believe they believe it. Which is, seriously, just nuts.

But let's hear form the panel.

Bradford: Throws out the word maturity, meaning that the institutions, the bad guys (he uses those words) have been around longer than the rough confabulation of reformsters-- and he actually uses the descriptor "hang out" as if people like the folks this panel just sort of get together on their free time to do this. No-- that would be public school advocates, who do all of our advocacy work for free on our own time. It is just the height of disingenuousness for reformers like these folks to pretend they aren't making a good living pushing this stuff. They may well be utterly sincere and doing work they believe in, but if you think I could leave teaching and go get a good-paying full time job just advocating for public ed, you are high.

Bradford also calls it a central command thing, which is, again, a statement without any foundation in reality. Where, exactly, is that central command? Who is the High Overlord of public education from whom we all take our marching orders? Bradford again calls the reform movement a loose confederation, and I believe him (though it is an awfully well-connected and interconnected one), but this notion that they are the little guys facing off against some massive, monolithic, unified army is an alternative fact.

He also suggests that reformsters are mostly young folks who don't know what it's like to live in difficult and uncomfortable times.

Stewart: Also calls opponents the "bad guys," with a vested interest in the status quo. He doesn't think reformers will "replicate their unity of purpose" which makes sense because that would be like replicating a unicorn or hippogryph or other imaginary creatures. He also suggests that public ed defenders are defending their mortgage, which is not, he says, for reformers. Also, we're defending our Disney vacations. And it's true that those of us who work in public ed depend on it for, not only Disney vacations (ha), but for food and clothing for our own children. "Everything we're talking about has a cost." Which is true.

Rhames: Defines bad guy as anyone who is not working in interest of children, whether it's a reformer or union member or mayor. Watch what work people are doing. Hold people accountable for what they produce, regardless of who they are. I would have liked to see reformers work within the school district to fix things-- e.g. Chicago with charter schools but no busing. Rhames is an anti-label kind of lady. We fight the bad guy by holding each other accountable.

An audience member questions basically what about Asian people?

Stewart uses this to slam public education for "just waking up now to discover we have Asian people" which seems like a bit of an overstatement. He talks about ethno-centic charters in Minnesota. And he throws in that schools districts are where good ideas go to die.

"No abolitionist ever talked about slavery reform," Stewart says, just in case you wondered whether or not he thought public schools should be fixed or reformed or just done away with. "We talk about school reform as if these schools are good," he says, but no-- we talk about school reform as if schools are a necessary and valuable part of our country and our culture. The abolitionist line is a crowd pleaser, but slavery was an institution with no useful purpose, no redeeming value. Nor did abolitionists want to replace the old form of slavery with some new form of slavery. It's a lousy analogy. And apparently Chris Stewart and Betsy DeVos are on then same page when it comes to public school.

Rhames: The public system has the majority of our students. The majority of districts don't have charter schools. I think she's trying to scold Stewart without scolding him-- there's a place for people to try to work with the public school because that's where the students are and not all charters are high performing.

Smarick: Rattles off some urban districts where charters are majority providers. Distinguishing between principles of public education and delivery system for it. Shifting decentralized delivery systems brings up issues in new ways.

Stewart: Now he's agnostic and about systems and religious about outcomes. Make it about results.

Audience: Parents who want options but can't make it happen because of practical things like busing. Also, about parents who are breaking the law to get their kids the best education.

Rhames: It's true, e.g. lying about address. People do what they have to do, and some systems force "cheating." In a perfect world, choice is a quality street across the street from you, she says. Actually, in a perfect world, public education is a quality street across the street from you. Then she gets into the ins and outs of Chicago politics, and the mass closing of black schools. Which I would call symptomatic of Chicago politics and the problems of a mayor-run school system. But she calls for leadership courageous enough to do the right thing and not the political thing, which seems like a long shot in Chicago

Stewart: Education reform needs to be more parent driven. In New Orleans we thought that if we set up good schools you would love us, but we hadn't done the homework and we weren't there on the ground to see things like students going to school in the dark and coming home in the dark. They didn't have an education problem, they had a listening to the customer problem. Stewart doesn't think that will survive much longer.

Audience: What kinds of themes and venues and messages can we use to build coalitions?

Crickets. And then they dump it on Smarick.

Smarick: The story of choice systems is the story of particular states and cities and we sometimes force too much trying to carry a lesson from one place to another. You need a group of people with a vested interest. Every day, millions of children are assigned to schools that are not working for them. And while I get Smarick's point, once again, I don't see how charter schools change that. The market cannot support choices for everybody, and choice has frequently failed to provide any more choice than the public system did. Smarick says that parents desperately need power to change things, and I don't disagree (though this sidesteps the issue of the many parents who are not remotely engaged in their children's education or even lives) but I also don't see charter-choice systems as providing that power.

Closing thought?

Bradford: This too will pass. Sometimes it feels like this is the worst moment ever and we will never get past it, and then we do.

Crye: Parents need more power. There is nothing more persuasive than the love a parent feels for their child.

Rhames: Crossing political and ideological lines-- make sure you have a friend in your life who doesn't agree with you.

Stewart: He says that's called a wife. Har. We need to stop skirting the issue of the millions of teachers that can't teach and schools that suck etc etc.

Smarick: There really are very few bad guys in this. People with different priorities and perspectives, and we don't have to give up our own principles and priorities to listen to them.

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