The PIE Network releases Rabble Rousers Revisited, a guide for launching state-based education reform advocacy organizations. It is an updated version of a 2006 report that helped put the education reform sector on the map, launching groups in a number of states and even helping national organizations such as Teach For America. The revised report, written by PIE Network Executive Director Suzanne Tacheny Kubach, profiles the work of six PIE Network members and includes insights from nearly all of them. We interviewed her last week in anticipation of the release.
Rabble Rousers Revisited profiles the work of six leading education reform advocacy groups in different states. Are there others like them?
When we wrote the first edition of Rabble Rousers back in 2006, no one was supporting organizations like the six we profiled in Rabble Rousers Revisited as a national sector; such groups were often working in isolation in their states. The Policy Innovators in Education (PIE) Network was founded soon after Rabble Rousers was written to build, promote, and support this growing sector of education reform organizations. The PIE Network now has 25 members in 18 states.
Why focus on the state level, and why now? Is there something implicitly lacking in the state level politics, or is it something else?
Even with all the national attention on education through the federal stimulus and later Race to the Top, most education policy in the U.S. is made at the state level. If No Child Left Behind taught us anything, it’s that you can’t accomplish education reform just by working at the federal level; we need advocates on the front lines in states representing the interests of local constituents. The PIE Network recognizes that the state policy level is a crucial battle-ground and our goal is to strengthen the groups working at this level of change.
Your member groups are relatively small compared to other players in education yet they’ve been able to have an outsized influence – how is that possible?
First, our members don’t take on every issue; they focus strategically on a few high leverage issues each year where their efforts will make an impact. Second, it’s important to remember that many political leaders want to do the right thing and our members often just make it easier for them to do so; that goes a long way. Finally, education reformers have common sense on their side of the argument. Most of the issues that our members advance are things that resonate with the broader public—things like basing educator evaluations and compensation on how well students do, holding schools accountable for performance, or giving parents choices for the schools their children attend. The challenge is effectively engaging the public in these issues so they understand the basic values at stake.
Your network members have seen tremendous change this year with Race to the Top—how will it be possible to keep up that momentum?
For any major advance in education reform there will be a wave of backlash and it will be no different with this one. But what’s especially important for this most recent set of victories is how many were codified into law. The crucial work for advocates in the next few years will be to ensure that these strong laws are implemented as they were intended. That’s where the game will be won or lost in the next few years.
RRR provides guidance for state leaders who want to get such a group started in their state. What’s your one best piece of advice for anyone who wants to launch an education reform group?
We say often in the network that this work is highly contextual; strategies that work in one state won’t always work in another. Having a sophisticated understanding a state’s lawmaking culture, history, and intricacies is crucial. Equally important is knowing when to respect those factors and when to challenge them; knowing when to make the bold moves. Rabble Rousers Revisited is packed with advice gathered from leaders doing this work, but if I had to pick out one bit that matters most is would be to select leadership (board and staff) carefully looking for people who bring that requisite knowledge and political wisdom to succeed in work that you correctly noted requires an outsized effort.
How did this movement get started?
This is a timely question: the movement just lost the man it’s fair to credit as among it founders. The late Robert Sexton, founder of the Prichard Committee, creating one of the country’s first education advocacy groups back in the early 1980’s. Bob’s been it’s lead executive since then until his death just a few weeks ago. The tenure of the organization and the man demonstrate the importance of constancy and credibility for success in this work.
What can the broader public do if they want to help drive real change in education?
Our members consistently put the “public” back in public education proving again and again that you can change political will using basic political tools like letter writing or calling legislators. So what can the broader public do? Get connected to a leading voice for change, stay informed, and when the call comes, take up your pen (or keyboard)! Go to a rally. Know that when effective groups are organizing political actions, your actions matter.