Object lessons in political savvy

April 23, 2010

Yesterday, I woke up to the latest in a series of object lessons in political savvy for education entrepreneurs.

My alarm clock radio is set to NPR, and this morning, I hazed into consciousness listening to a terrific piece by Claudio Sanchez on the growing field of teacher residency programs. The piece focused mostly on the Boston Teacher Residency Program, as a lens on this growing way of preparing teachers.

Let’s be clear: this is a nascent field. Only a handful of such programs have progressed beyond infancy, and while the indicators for some of these programs are very positive, we should be straightforward that these are early indicators.

Yet, by late afternoon, there were 34 comments on the story, few of them treating teacher residencies as a delicate young shoot in the educational garden. A handful of comments were positive, but many had their minds angrily made up already. “More eye wash from the education community,” one commenter wrote. “Learning how to communicate doesn’t require a group grope modeled on a medical residency program.” Another one offered faint praise: “One has to applaud these fresh efforts to improve the quality of education but also must slightly and tiredly roll one’s eye’s (sic) when listening to these ‘teachers’ unconsciously using the identical vernacular as their students, namely interjecting ‘like’ after every other word.” (When making grammatical accusations, one should use one’s apostrophes carefully. But we digress.)

It’s a small but typical example of the ways in which education entrepreneurs are now very much on the radar — to their benefit, but also to their peril. Only a handful of years ago, the work of education entrepreneurs rarely got much public attention. Today, the Race to the Top, the Investing in Innovation Fund, and a flurry of other federal funding and staffing choices are putting a spotlight on the work of education entrepreneurs, and politicians and the media are paying attention.

For entrepreneurs seeking to bring good ideas to greater scale and to more children, who believe fervently in a theory of change that they could explicate when woken from a deep sleep, this new attention is all to the good — or, mostly to the good. The new focus, new attention, and possibility of greater funding will, under the laws of political physics, necessarily mean more resistance and more attention from more powerful opposition. For entrepreneurs whose strategy over the last decade was to keep their heads down, get great results and stay out of the public eye whenever possible, a new plan is in order. It’s a new world, and opportunity is walking hand-in-hand with danger.

Fortunately, there are guides to this complicated territory, and several of them will be gathering to offer advice in a breakout session at the NewSchools Summit titled “Political Savvy: Guidebook for a New Landscape.” Dan Katzir of the Broad Foundation will moderate a high-powered panel including Joe Williams of Democrats for Education Reform, Jonah Edelman of Stand for Children, Steve Barr of Green Dot America, Andy Rotherham of Bellwether Education Partners, and Alice Johnson Cain of Hope Street Group. Don’t miss it.