Let’s Get to Work: A Response to Robert Pondiscio

May 26, 2016


“Any group that only associates with like-minded people is susceptible to becoming extreme, inflexible, self-righteous, and losing its ability to see its own weaknesses.”

This is the organizing idea in Robert Pondiscio’s Gadfly blog from May 25th, “The Left’s drive to push conservatives out of education reform.”

At NewSchools, we actually agree with this quote, but not with Robert’s premise that we’re actively trying to quash conservative viewpoints. I’ll offer two rebuttals to this, and then address a few other things in his piece.

First, an explicit goal for our Summit is to identify complex, even difficult, issues facing education reformers, ones being discussed throughout the year in smaller rooms and on social media, and to put them front and center at our Summit. Ideally with a range of views across the political and philosophical spectra. Just like our overall invitation list, this year’s speaker and presenter invitations for plenary and breakout sessions included center-right, conservative, and libertarian folks. Our success rate in attracting them was near zero.

At the top of our wish list was a lunchtime plenary debate between a prominent conservative thinker and progressive leader on a range of issues (immigration, the economy, and yes, education). My hope was to build the session around Arthur Brooks, but he had a commitment in Europe on May 11th. I tried a number of other avenues — think tank leaders, television pundits, sitting and former national elected leaders. Unable to land a well-known conservative thinker for the session, I eventually and reluctantly gave up on the concept. It’s worth noting that conservative think tanks Fordham and AEI each had education events in DC on the same day. Many (but not all) who declined our invitations cited this reason.

It’s simply not accurate to say that under my leadership our Summit is part of a drive by the Radical Left to push conservatives out of ed reform, no more accurate than claims we are a tool of right-wing corporatists (I get accused of that too). We aspire to balanced, rigorous, and yes, heated dialogue at our Summit on the big issues and hard truths many of us are wrestling with every day. My friendly question to conservative ed reformers is, as we say in southeast Texas, “where y’all at?” Declining an invitation and not being invited aren’t the same thing.

Second, we’re coming off a couple of decades of an ed reform agenda aimed at closing achievement gaps affecting low-income Black and Latino kids in urban areas, largely developed and led by a coalition of likeminded center-right and center-left white elites. These efforts have produced some wins and some losses. In reflections about lessons learned as we think about the future, there’s a sense that our efforts might have been more powerful and stickier if they were done “with” rather than “to” communities. This shows up in rhetoric from both sides of the aisle about engaging more effectively with families and building real constituencies for reforms.

It also means that calling ourselves “a movement” is incorrect, as I said in my set-up to the morning session featured in Robert’s blog. The purpose of the session was to learn more about movements in general and hear directly from some people who are part of a couple of them. Robert describes a sense of alienation this created for at least one (maybe more?) participants he talked with.

Yes, the session included Black and Latino leaders working in ed reform (TFA alums and staff) who also are part of current social movements they view as intertwined with urban education issues. We’ve had 16 years of NewSchools summits with folks mostly agreeing with each other about what great work we’re all doing and how hard it is. I am genuinely puzzled by the “furious” reaction to one session featuring three TFA-affiliated reformers who offered a clear, direct challenge to a longstanding set of assumptions about our work to create better schools.

The fraying bi-partisan consensus on ed reform is a huge concern of mine as many Gadfly readers know. It didn’t come apart because of the topics covered at education conferences or the emergence of Black Lives Matter. It’s going to take hard work and open dialogue and debate if we’re to have any hope of knitting it back together on terms that reflect the times we’re living in. Different times from the Clinton 42/Bush 43 era that spawned version 1.0. Perhaps it’s impossible, but we haven’t really tried to create a new modern day coalition yet.

If we’re going to give it a shot, we have to be vigilant about the accuracy of facts we use to diagnose and describe this (or any other) challenge. In that spirit, I want to address a couple of inaccuracies Robert argues from, starting with this paraphrase of our opening speaker, Dr. Manuel Pastor:

“The story of America is the story of progressive social movements, government, affirmative action, the GI bill, and Obamacare”

A more accurate paraphrase of Pastor’s quote is: “The story of America is a story of individuals, yes. But it’s also a story of policies that help individuals reach their dreams, and of social movements that broke down barriers and helped put those policies in place, like the civil rights and labor movements…” You can see a clip of it here. You might not agree with it, but it’s hardly a radical view of 20th century social progress. Pastor did tell a story about his family’s upward mobility coming in part because his dad took advantage of the GI Bill, like a lot of our dads and grandfathers. It’s perhaps the most powerful and effective education law ever, and helped drive the massive expansion of the middle class. It’s news to me that conservatives dislike it. I don’t remember Pastor saying anything about Obamacare, but since I think it was a terrible idea poorly executed, I might have just ignored and promptly forgot it. Pastor did say things that made me uncomfortable, though, including some snarky asides about conservative views. So what? Like any other person we invite to speak, we didn’t attempt to censor his views or words. Arthur Brooks would have received the same consideration, as would any other conservative on our mainstage or in breakouts.

And then there’s this: “I remember finding these reform-y gatherings self-congratulatory a decade ago, but at least they were talking about doing worthwhile things—starting great schools and organizations to improve educational outcomes for poor kids,” says one NSVF attendee. “There is almost contempt for that idea now.” This quote is not even remotely reflective of the 20 sessions at Summit. There were conversations about the real progress for low income kids in Newark’s charter sector, the victory in the Washington state charter battle, the XQ project to redesign high schools, new school models still committed to strong academic performance while also broadening their definition of success to include social-emotional factors. And on a raucous panel about school discipline, a Black school leader made the case for tight discipline approaches in “no excuses” schools and acknowledged, lamented and called for an end to the fact that it suddenly seems acceptable to call white educators in these types of high performing schools “racists.”

Which brings me to this: “One sign of the dominance of the new orthodoxy: Almost none were willing to be quoted on the record. ‘I’m involved in too many fights,’ says one. ‘I can’t pick another.’”

This preference to sound off behind the scenes rather than engage with candor and transparency is neither new to our sector nor unique to this topic. It happens on the right and the left, on lots of issues, from teacher evaluation and common core to the evils of education philanthropy, and now I guess on race and equity. I’ve addressed this before, including at an AEI event last year, in reference to a paper about big foundations that featured “confidential informants.” Come on folks, this isn’t The Wire, and you’re not Bubbles.

I’m distressed by the “safe spaces” extremism on college campuses and its effects on young people’s ability and willingness to engage with ideas and people across lines of difference. Is the point here that conservative ed reformers are being made so uncomfortable by the addition of new voices and topics that challenge their (and my) basic assumptions about how to improve education and expand opportunity that they are cowed into the seething silence Robert describes, and therefore need safe spaces where the dominant logic of ed reform over the last 15-20 years must stand unquestioned? Or can only be questioned politely and obliquely? Honestly, this doesn’t sound like any of the conservative ed reformers I’ve known over the years.

But if it’s true, just as Jeanne Allen rightly observes about ed reformers on the left who might insist on total agreement on every social issue, those on the right will lose, too. And so will kids and families.

We can do this differently, but we have to want it enough to show up, speak out, be offended and still work together to find areas of agreement suited to the current moment we are in, not shout at each other through our twitter handles or whisper anonymously to friendly bloggers.

I’m glad Robert wrote his blog, just as I was glad Marilyn Rhames wrote her original post and then her response to his. At NewSchools, we’re ready to be part of an effort to assemble a new coalition that can cut across lines of difference, including political views.

Let’s get to work.