The New Center of EdReform Gravity

I tweeted Kevin Carey’s insightful post earlier, but Whitney’s blast reminded me that this deserves more circulation.  Remember when CEOs (e.g., Lou Gerstner, Ed Rust) and Govs (e.g. Jim Hunt, Bill Clinton,Jeb Bush, George Bush) where the center of gravity for edreform?  The center of gravity has clearly shifted (with help from new money foundations) to  “the annual New Schools Venture Fund Summit and its confluence of charter school operators, TFA alumni, urban reformers, philanthropies, and various related “edupreneurs.” It’s a different world with a different mindset, and this has real implications for public schools.”:

Enter New Schools, Teach for America, KIPP, and the rest. The civil rights advocates were reluctant to jump on board the charter school movement, because it smacked of right-wing voucherism and they were having a hard enough time managing the intra-liberal politics of opposing organized labor. This turned out to be a serious strategic error. While NCLB turned out to be sadly ineffective at turning bad schools into good ones, the best charter school people figured out how to create good and occasionally great schools from scratch.

Philanthropists and journalists began to visit these schools, which tended to be staffed by TFA corps members or people cut from a similar cloth. Education is complicated and people get frustrated by the seeming hopelessness and ambiguity of it all. The best charter schools had a galvanizing, clarifying effect. In a confusing world, people knew–knew–that here, at last, was something that worked. So they began to open their pocketbooks and their notebooks and inject financial and reputational resources into the new education organizations, valorizing their leaders as heroic figures in the struggle to help children learn.

Teachers unions, meanwhile, also miscalculated on charters. They largely got away with opposing NCLB by positioning themselves against business interests and a Republican president. Fighting the heroic personae of the Dave Levins and Mike Feinbergs of the world was much harder, because it meant being against the great charter schools that people knew in their bones were making the world a better place. The parallel rise of mayoral reform efforts in heavily Democratic cities like New York and D.C. meant the unions had to engage simultaneously on two rhetorical and policy fronts. Over time, the mayoral control people and the New Schools people got to know one another and figured out that even if their respective approaches to education reform sat at opposite ends of the centralized / decentralized spectrum, they had many common convictions–and enemies. It was only a matter of time before, in the form of people like Michelle Rhee, the two groups would converge.

The New Schools approach also had the great benefit of being an open system that invited new organizations and ideas into the fold. There’s a great deal of personal and intellectual cross-pollination among these organizations. Relatively low start-up costs and a flood of new philanthropic money from information-age rich people who prize exactly this way of thinking meant that dollars could be found to back ideas, energy and purpose.

…And while I’m sure Duncan also wouldn’t put this this way, he’s actively contributing to the steady and increasingly successful rhetorical and political attack on the various maddeningly stupid personnel practices that teachers unions continue to defend. Weakened by their unapologetic opposition to the heroic and defense of the indefensible, teachers unions are struggling with the famously difficult task of managing an organized retreat.

The new voice of edreform is the dynamic duo of DFER/EEP . With the last reauthorization, we left it up to EdTrust to do the heavy lifting.  This time around the edreform push comes from DFER, EEP, TNTP, NLNS, TFA, the Alliance, as well as EdTrust, not to mention all the former New Schools staffers at the Department.

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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