Interview: Marc Porter Magee, COO, ConnCAN

Completely softball question to start. I noticed many of you are on Twitter – how can it be used in your policy shaping work? New platform for unifying voices?
It took me a while to get the hang of Twitter – I’m used to Facebook where my updates are more about the funny thing my kids just did than the news of the day. But ConnCANers are all fast-moving, inquisitive, wonky-but-real people, so Twitter fits our culture well.
Twitter is a conversation accelerant. If you are following the right people, when you check in on your feed you are immediately brought up to speed on what is being discussed. If the right people are following you there is no better way to get information out there. And, if you approach it in a social and reciprocal way it generates a great back-and-forth on the issues of the day.
You’ve gone from the successful ConnCAN to now RI-CAN, the pilot project for 50CAN. Can you explain for us how this was done in terms of what you leverage politically and socially on the state level, and what is the purpose for focusing on the state level?
We focus on the state level because that is where the action is. It’s so obvious but it needs to be repeated again and again. More than nine out of every ten dollars comes from the cities and states. Most things that matter for ed reform are ultimately state issues, from charter laws to teacher certification. For a quarter of a century, big education ideas generated at the national level failed in the face of state-level opposition or indifference.
ConnCAN was started to overcome that opposition and indifference to real reforms. After five years of R&D, we have developed a model that merges research and policy, communications and mobilization, and legislative advocacy into a unified public movement that demands—and gets—results. As we began to build up a track record of success it became clear that the state-level advocacy gap in Connecticut wasn’t unusual, it was the norm.
So the theory behind RI-CAN (and 50CAN) is pretty simple: in building an effective education reform campaign there are roles that need to be in the state (campaign leaders, government relations, community relations) and there are other roles that don’t (research & policy, communications, development, technology, finance, operations). In fact, there are big gains in efficiency if you don’t need to fill every role in every state but instead can build up a national office to tackle those tasks in support of the on-the-ground team in the states. By doing it that way, you speed up the process of building campaigns and you leverage incredible economies of scale in developing the new generation infrastructure for great ed reform advocacy.
With 50CAN, is the goal to have one, overarching federal policy for national education? Or does it look more like 50 different states maximized to their best ability?
We need 50 sets of state policies that work for the reality of each state, but are grounded in the principals of structural education reform: greater choice, greater flexibility and greater accountability for results. This means building 50 sets of community and government relationships, producing 50 sets of research and communications vehicles to speak to 50 distinct environments, and recruiting and mobilizing 50 statewide education reform movements.
What does a state needing 50CAN help look like? Can you give us an example of where you may be looking to expand after the “Acela Corridor?”
I can’t think of a state that wouldn’t benefit from a 50CAN campaign. The challenge of fundamentally reforming our schools is so enormous, I think we need as much effective advocacy in as many states as possible. But we are approaching the question a little differently: what are the state-level conditions that increase the chance that these initial campaigns will be successful? We are looking at three factors:
First, a state should have key local actors who share a strong alignment with our vision and have demonstrated strong enthusiasm for bringing 50CAN into their state.
Second, a state should have one or more education innovators that can serve as a model of excellence (a strong Teach for America chapter, high-performing charter operators, a reform-minded urban district superintendent or state commissioner, etc.).
Third, a state should be on the radar of at least one national foundation to ensure a strong initial base of support and should have strong individual or local foundations that can provide sustainable support.
Outside of the “Acela Corridor” we are looking very closely, for example, at the Mississippi Delta.
Do you think it’s possible to bring a tech revolution to public schools as a matter of policy, and what factors need to be a requirement in this kind of policy?
I think that if there is going to be a tech revolution in our public schools it will only happen as a matter of policy. The reason it hasn’t happened yet is because the current policy environment is working directly against the kind of entrepreneurship, experimentation and innovation that will produce those breakthroughs. Rick Hess does a great job making that case in his new book Education Unbound.
From a state-level advocacy standpoint, the challenge in this area is that most of the time we are picking up tried and true ideas that almost everyone agrees are just commonsense reforms and building the political will to make them a reality. In the area of a tech revolution, we are trying to link smart advocacy campaigns to ideas that are still taking shape. This means we need to invest more upfront in the research and policy groundwork to figure out the types of changes that will have the greatest impact and then figure out how to get them passed into law.
Texas. An easy 50CAN reform state, given their attitude on RTTT?
There is a part of me that reads a headline like “Texas sits out RTTT” and thinks “Not if we were there!” It is, of course, a lot more complicated than that, but we always relish a good fight on behalf of kids. (ed. note: For context: Texas Governor Rick Perry’s Letter to Education Secretary Arne Duncan)
What you are looking for in terms of board of directors members? What makes a 50CAN board member?
It’s a huge question because one of the secrets of ConnCAN’s success has been a focused and committed board of directors: it’s baked into our DNA. For 50CAN, we are looking for people who share our motto that “we will not rest until every child has access to a great public school” and our belief that nothing is more important for our country than this work.
We are also really interested in bringing together a diverse group of people who attack the challenge of making a network of state-level campaigns work from different sources of expertise. When Apple decided to open retail stores, they went out and recruited Millard Drexel, the CEO of the Gap, to be on their board to guide the process. That’s the kind of thinking we want to bring to our board recruitment effort.
In addition to board members, we are looking for leadership from the philanthropic community. To reach our goal of state campaigns in one-third to one-half of all 50 states by 2015, we will need to raise tens of millions of dollars. Right now, we are actively seeking $5 million to stand up 50CAN.
Just a last current events question: Turning to Connecticut – big problem with the need to possibly double that state’s annual spend on education after the recent court case. What’s the solution? Where do entrepreneurs figure in tackling this?
The starting point for the solution is to understand that doubling spending on education by itself won’t solve the problem of unequal educational opportunities or unequal outcomes. We are as interested in Clintonian “grand bargains” as any advocacy group and there are always creative ways to use additional resources to secure fundamental change, but that is rarely the way these things play out.
Our approach is to keep the focus on commonsense reforms that realign the incentives in our public school system around excellence—including a funding system grounded in the principle of money follows the child. If we do our job right, then any new resources that come into the system will speed up the changes that get results for kids instead of slowing them down.

Tom Vander Ark

Tom Vander Ark is the CEO of Getting Smart. He has written or co-authored more than 50 books and papers including Getting Smart, Smart Cities, Smart Parents, Better Together, The Power of Place and Difference Making. He served as a public school superintendent and the first Executive Director of Education for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

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1 Comment

Andrew Erben

In regards to Texas and the RTTT:
The one thing that people seem to forget is the relative scale of the Texas public education system. Texas has a $50 billion (with a "b") annual budget for K-12 public education to serve almost 5 million students. As a result, the RTTT funds would simply not have the impact in Texas as they would in other states.
While our organization, the Texas Institute for Education Reform, supported our entry into RTTT as a "measuring stick", our decision not to pursue the funding has in no way detracted from the education reform accomplishments we have seen over the past few years.
Based in large part on a strong reform movement in the state, Texas passed HB 3 which Achieve credits as the reason Texas is the only state that currently meets the minimum college and career readiness criteria.
While, as in every state, there is a lot of work to be done in Texas, we are continuing to push for many of the reforms envisioned by RTTT. Just because Texas isn't participating in the RTTT application process doesn't mean that meaningful reform work isn't happening.


Douglas Crets

Thanks for that great response, Andrew. Any other information you wish to send to me, please do. I'm always open to having some ideas to work with for future blog posts. Thanks.

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