parent engagement

Some Advice for Young Education Reformers

Conservative education policy writer Rick Hess has a new book out called " Letters to a Young Education Reformer." He invited me to join one of two panels to discuss the book along with reform advocates Alexis Morin and Derrell Bradford, New Mexico Education Secretary Hanna Skandera, and choice advocate and former Milwaukee School Superintendent Howard Fuller. Hess moderated and began by asking us for the worst advice we ever received.

The Worst Advice I've Ever Gotten

“Slow down,” I said. Reform always faces resistance and appeals to give people more time to consider an idea. What they often mean is, “Give us more time to get organized so we can stop the reform.” But, as I often point out, kids only have one chance for an education and every year of delay is another year with children trapped in underperforming schools. Secretary Skandera kindly volunteered that I had once given her the advice to slow down. To her credit, she ignored me and has aggressively pursued reforms in New Mexico—“breaking glass,” as she delicately put it. She admits to a tamer style of communications in recent years, telling a story of a teacher she met who opposed her agenda but was surprised to find out that she didn’t have horns coming out of her head. Some Obama administration reforms probably would not have happened if we had waited or went too slow. For example, through the Race to the Top grant program, we encouraged states to compete for billions of dollars by, among other things, raising learning standards. At the time, several states had lowered standards to create the illusion of rising student achievement. To our surprise, in a matter of months with little public debate, 46 states adopted the freshly-minted Common Core State Standards, which were created at the direction of governors and state education chiefs with support from the Gates Foundation. Within a few years, some parent groups, several conservatives and even a few progressives began pushing back on the Common Core. Some falsely claimed it was a federal scheme to nationalize curriculum. A few states repealed the standards and a few more modified them. Several states also dropped tests aligned to the standards. Nevertheless, higher standards are now required under federal law and Common Core or something close to it is in place in about 40 states. Hess may be right to suggest that states should have been more deliberative in changing their learning standards, but America’s school kids are better off today because of it. It’s a good outcome, even if the process was wanting.

The Best Advice I've Ever Gotten

At the panel, we were also asked about the best advice we were ever given and I mentioned that a political consultant helped me understand how message drives policy, rather than the other way around. For a roomful of policy wonks, that was probably not welcome news, but more than a few good ideas have succumbed to poor messaging. I often say that policy is a scalpel but message is a sledgehammer and in our noisy, over-informed world, you need a sledgehammer to cut through. For example, when we say that parents should be able to choose the school that best meets the educational needs of their child, that’s a strong and clear message about a parent’s natural right to school choice and a central argument of the choice movement. The policy, whether it’s public charter schools, vouchers or choice within districts, makes good on the promise of the message, but it’s the message that matters. As charter leader Mike Feinberg wrote recently, parents just want a great school for their kid and don’t care how it’s governed. And they definitely want the right to choose it. Message drives policy. Hess’ book mostly cautions education reformers to be humble about their ideas, reflective and honest about their impact, and skeptical of the experts and others who insist they have the formula for improving public education. It’s good advice that’s easily forgotten in the zeal to drive change.

My 2 Cents

My main message to reformers is that they should work much harder to engage parents, teachers and students on the front end before developing and implementing policy. In my experience, too often we make decisions behind closed doors and then try and sell it to the people affected rather than asking them first what they want and shaping the agenda to satisfy their expectations. School reformers are, by no means, the only ones guilty of this and in fairness to them, outreach is hard, time-consuming work and most times they are under pressure to drive change in a limited time frame. Nonetheless, it’s essential and pays off in the end. There is one other piece of advice I forgot to share at the panel. Education reform exists in a buzzy world of students, parents, teachers, administrators, union leaders, lawmakers, judges, advocates, pundits and researchers with a bewildering array of agendas, biases, personal experiences, competing “facts”, and countless other factors shaping their views. In our day-to-day policy debates, it’s easy to get lost in the political calculus of an issue, to worry about how something plays with a particular constituency, and to lose sight of the core reasons we do this work.  But, as I once reminded a young education reformer who rose to prominence in the field, when the politics gets confusing, and it always does, remember that our job is not to please adults but to fight for kids.
Peter Cunningham
Peter Cunningham is the founder of Education Post and serves on its board. He served as Assistant Secretary for communications and outreach in the U.S. Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Prior to that he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Peter is affiliated with Whiteboard ...

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