Democrats for Education Reform (DFER) May Be the Most Important Advocacy Group in America

In the long run, education is the issue that will most determine this country’s role in the world.
In the long run, it will be the position of the leaders of the Democratic party, state by state and in congress, that will determine the quality of education in America.
Here’s a statement of DFER principles:

A first-rate system of public education is the cornerstone of a prosperous, free and just society, yet millions of American children today – particularly low-income and children of color – are trapped in persistently failing schools that are part of deeply dysfunctional school systems. These systems, once viewed romantically as avenues of opportunity for all, have become captive to powerful, entrenched interests that too often put the demands of adults before the educational needs of children. This perverse hierarchy of priorities is political, and thus requires a political response.
Both political parties have failed to address the tragic decline of our system of public education, but it is the Democratic Party – our party – which must question how we allowed ourselves to drift so far from our mission. Fighting on behalf of our nation’s most vulnerable individuals is what our party is supposed to stand for.
Democrats for Education Reform aims to return the Democratic Party to its rightful place as a champion of children, first and foremost, in America’s public education systems.
We support leaders in our party who have the courage to challenge a failing status quo and who believe that the severity of our nation’s educational crisis demands that we tackle this problem using every possible tool at our disposal.
We believe that reforming broken public school systems cannot be accomplished by tinkering at the margins, but rather through bold and revolutionary leadership.  This requires opening up the traditional top-down monopoly of most school systems and empowering all parents to access great schools for their children.

DFER supports high standards, strong accountability, and public school choice.  President Obama and Secretary Duncan have bravely supported DFER positions in most of their educational decisions.
I’m touring high performing California charter schools with Washington legislators today along with the fledgling WA DFER steering committee.   Washington is one of a handful of states that does not allow charter schools.
After visiting high performing schools, we’ll discuss these five success factors:
1. No excuses culture. High performing schools all share a strong high expectations culture and a college and career ready mission.
2. Mission-supporting governance. As Netflix CEO Reed Hastings frequently points out, nonprofit boards are formed to perpetuate a mission, while school boards are elected around a political mission.  That difference makes it hard for school districts to form and sustain a clear intellectual mission and why they oscillate from improving to deteriorating.
3. Educational options. Families deserve access to at least one quality public school.  Diverse views and educational preferences points to the benefits of a portfolio of public options.
4. Responsive management.  Many charter schools are not particularly innovative academically, but they execute at consistently high levels as a result of responsive management.  Charter schools typically don’t receive pubic facilities and pay rent out of their operating budget (which is also often smaller than district schools), so they are also very efficient and not bureaucratic.
5. New bargain. Charter schools typically offer higher starting salaries, hire teachers prepared through alternative routes to certification, evaluate effectively using available data, and quickly offer top performers additional responsibilities.
Many of the objections to charters (some aren’t good, some charters seem selective) are address by sound authorizing practices. The National Association of Charter School Authorizers (another group that lists me as an advisor) has taken the guesswork out of initiating quality schools.
The one objection NACSA can’t answer is, “charters take money from already cash-strapped districts.”  The answer to that objection depends on whether you think public education exists to serve students or district employees.  DFER stands squarely on the side of children and families.

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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Melissa Westbrook

Oh, Mr. Vander Ark, there you go with a lot of talk and not much to prove it. To whit:
"Many charter schools are not particularly innovative academically, but they execute at consistently high levels as a result of responsive management."
Really? And the data that they "executive at consistently high levels" is where? Because I haven't seen it and I've looked. And you just overlooked one of the grand benefits of charters - innovation. Yes, research DOES show that charters have been sadly lacking in BOTH innovation and accountability.
Look, call DFER whatever you want but REAL Democrats won't be fooled. If my party, the party of real working class people, will turn its back on the unions that helped build it, in an election year, for a bunch of people who plan to privatize and make money off our public school system, then that's not a party that needs my help in November.
Last time I looked we had a big election in November and if the real Democratic party wants all hands on deck, they will ignore these pretenders.
But I love a good fight so I predict that charters in Washington State will not happen this year.


Tom Vander Ark

Thank you for your comment. I appreciate DFER's focus on students and what they need.
I also advise NACSA,, and believe their authorizing principles lead to quality options. In fact I think performance contracting could be the state's basic accountability system. Rather than fighting over a couple new charter schools, perhaps we can spend the next year discussing a new accountability system that would result in:
* school-based budgets with real school autonomy
* weighted funding that reflects actual levels of challenge
* options for underserved kids/communities
* support for struggling schools/providers, non-renewal for chronic failure

Danaher M. Dempsey, Jr.

Good comment. Where is the real high quality evidence?
A 2005 paper evaluating the decline in Ed Research quality "Is Educational Intervention Research on the Decline?":
"In short, the 20-year decline in intervention and experimental research observed in the five journals investigated here may result in part from the relative ease (and apparent acceptability) of researchers making causal claims about outcomes based on non-experimental research."
These authors don't come out and say it but the 2008 NMAP report said that Ed Research doctoral students needed more training in experimental design methodology. I suspect that the decades long dirty little secret is that if you can get an Ed PhD without doing the hard work of rigorous experimental design then why work that hard? Dr. Cindy Moss of Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools certainly didn't have to and she got a state STEM award in 2009. ( )
This nonsense has got to change and step one is that the state and school districts have to evaluate the research history, credibility and credentials of any person from the Ed Schools supplying them advice. Deriving political cover by taking advice from people such as Virginia Stimpson or others from the UW who have no experience with high quality quantitative research should be seen as a failure of due diligence related to responsible oversight.
Many of the programs pushed by the US Dept of Ed ...... are research deficient. Much of what DFER pushes is also research deficient.
To improve a system requires the intelligent application of relevant data....
Seattle fraudulently brought in Teach for America ..... Will WA State ignorantly allow charters?


Tom Vander Ark

Thanks for your comment, but I'm not exactly sure what you'd like to see more of.
The fact that 2/3 of US kids don't get what the need seems clear and everything I've seen/read over the last 20 years leads me to support DFER principles:
The evidence for the direct (not to mention the indirect) benefit of TFA seems airtight. And while there are lots of competing claims about charters, we've certainly learned how to authorize and incubate high quality new school networks. I've involved in the development of 1200 new schools (district & charter) and nearly every case they provided a better option for students. Where they replaced failing schools, they doubled the graduation rates.
Even if we can't agree on the approach, I hope we can agree that WA kids deserve better educational options.

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