I’ve spent much of the last five days making sense of the two days I spent in DC last week and the last six months of my work with IDEA.
In two days of meetings, I met with the staff of three congressman, two senators, two folks in the Department of Education, the adviser to the education advisers of the 75 largest cities in the US, the interim director of the national PTA, the leaders of the National Youth Rights Association, and the head of policy and advocacy for the organization that brings together many of the state schools foundations.
I’ve been obsessed with understanding the educational landscape. Who has the power to convene the kinds of conversations many of us want to see happen? Who makes and who influences decisions that have the most impact on youth, communities, and schools? If there are levers to create change, where are they and what do they look like?
I have had the opportunity to spend the last six months of my life fully engaged in these questions. I’ve spent hundreds of hours speaking one on one, listening and learning. This morning I even made a list of everyone I’ve spoken with just to see for myself how wide a cross-section and with what kinds of perspectives I’ve been talking to.
And so I sit, trying to make sense of both what I know and what I don’t. Going to DC, I thought I had a pretty good sense of the educational landscape. And maybe I do, but what leaves me struggling to find coherent sentences is feeling how wide the chasm is between where high-impact decisions are being made and where they are being felt and how little collaborative capacity exists to bridge that gap.
How will we meet a reality where:
- The Gates Foundation has folks in and out of the Department of Education on a very regular basis but faith and civil rights groups advocating on behalf of millions are told they are “for the status quo” and don’t understand the real levers of education reform while both “sides” cite Dr. King?
- The Annenberg Institute for School Reform will launch a National Center on Education Organizing at the same time the Hewlett Foundation will launch its Deeper Learning Initiative and yet neither knows about the others work and likely won’t end up coordinating to be in the same states and cities?
- The National Education Policy Center is asked by foundations to write a paper providing guidance on what to fund and while their paper beautifully articulates funding inequities and the re-segregation of schools, it says not a word about what happens inside of schools or the kinds of learning environments that could systemically change root social conditions?
- Voices of sanity like Linda Darling-Hammond and Pedro Noguera have little, if any, influence on current policy directions despite having the respect of so many different organizations – from the NEA, SBAC, to the NLC, and beyond?
- Just over 500 million dollars will be split between WestEd and Achieve on behalf of two state consortiums to design new national assessments for 2014 while my generous guess is that at least 60% of teachers in our country couldn’t tell you anything about either organization nor tell you what ESEA includes?
- A march to Save Our Schools is planned for July that might bring hundreds of thousands of youth and teachers out, but if told they “won”, there would be no clear or coherent direction of how to proceed amongst the individuals and organizations participating?
- Too many of the organizations people count on or hope can help the situation are cash poor, have flimsy organizational structures, don’t want to play with each other or reach out to new organizations, and/or want to retain their status more than they want to build a strategic movement?
- DOE staff and insiders get frustrated because teachers, organizers, and activists advocacy seems irrelevant or at least not timely, and likely it is?
- Organizers, teachers, and community leaders feel like they aren’t listened to by the DOE and key decision makers, and likely they are not?
- Chances are, no one is really poorly intentioned, there is just a significant gap between the point of planning and policy execution and the public dialogue? Even with all our technology – we, the public, may just be way behind. It seems like we don’t get it because we are catching up. And it seems like they aren’t listening because they are thinking what we have to say isn’t relevant because the decision has already been made with millions of dollars already spent.
- Federal policy has gotten so invasive that you can’t ignore it. When principals and teachers are getting fired in schools because of conversations in DC, you can’t say (which I had) that policy conversations are a distraction?
- Like-minded groups who care about student learning and healthy communities don’t yet have the collaborative capacity and the level of relationships and raw power needed to change the narrative and instead too often compete with each other for money from funders, buy into the language of schools as businesses, and fight amongst each other on small differences rather than finding common ground.
IDEA was not launched to create yet another education organization. Our aim is to build collaborative capacity where little exists – even if at some point that means we need to combine or join some other effort.
At this moment, I don’t think IDEA’s initial analysis was wrong, it’s just that the impact of our collective inadequacy is clearer.
This summer, on my first official day on the job, Dr. Vincent Harding reminded a room full of people that we have to find the courage, the capacity, and the will to play better together.
We don’t need to be in crisis, in fact going too fast to sign a pledge or a paper or to protest is part of the challenge we must address. We need to build real alliances. We need to find the 70% we agree on, the relationships that can handle some conflict, the strategies that have real impact, and the courage to ally and share.
IDEA is ready. Are you? Let’s get to it.