I have been fighting to improve America’s schools for almost my entire adult life. I say this not to brag, but because it’s true. I chose a career in education reform, and as a result, I’ve learned a lot of lessons over the last 20 years.
The biggest lesson is this: providing educational opportunities for children is not easy. In fact, it’s sometimes a pretty gruesome fight.
We fight this battle because we’re disgusted that American kids trail behind children in 35 other countries in math and literacy, because 50 percent of students in our largest cities drop out of schools, and because continuing to fail low-income and minority students is simply immoral. We know our country can do better — and it must.
But now that education reform has become popularized, described as a post-partisan issue by some of our friends in New York and Washington, and as something that is now, suddenly, “cool,” America needs a reminder that education reform is, still, a fight. It may be cool, but that doesn’t make it easy.
Bluntly, I’ll say that people are increasingly forgetting that being an education reformer means more than appearing on television and visiting a few charter schools. It means standing up to opponents. And it means changing laws.
NBC’s Education Nation confab in New York this week is a fantastic idea — bringing together interested parties, mayors, governors, and the nation’s education secretary — for a summit-like discussion on education reform.
But the summit, for all its good intentions, is a bit Pollyannaish. It just brushes the surface of the issues we face in education, while presenting a “united front” of reformers and special interests calling for better schools and teachers for our kids.
If only it were as easy as it looks on TV!
Because the real world doesn’t look like Education Nation.
For one thing, America cannot be lulled into thinking that special interest groups — the same groups that have long opposed reform — are now ready to sit down at the bargaining table and talk. Pressure groups claim to want reform just as much as we do. But they just want more “collaboration,” they say. They want a seat at the table. They want to talk more with reformers.
This makes for phenomenally effective talking points, but it fails in practice. Special interests — like teachers unions, school boards associations, and groups like the ACLU and the People for the American Way — do not support education reform. They know that the tide of public opinion is against them, though, and they’d rather delay their fate for another five years by creating a blue ribbon commission or a special working group made up of professional talkers. That doesn’t help kids.
Second, it goes without saying that people want “better teachers,” and that we want “high quality charter schools” and “more options for parents.” But sitting on a stage and proclaiming these goals does not make them so. Lost in the discussion are the challenges of implementing these policies — the challenges of changing education laws, something that must be done if we hope to see real reform thrive.
To incentivize and reward teachers, to expand charter school options, and to provide school choice to disadvantaged children, you need to pass bold new laws at the state level. Thanks to the special interest groups (see above), this is incredibly difficult. I encourage anyone who thinks education reform is easy to visit a state capitol. You’ll see lobbyists from special interests line up to oppose even the most watered-down reform bills.
And so for the new crop of reformers out there and for the good folks at NBC, I have this message: the glittering TV special was nice, but it’s time for a little less collaboration and a little more concrete action. Instead of prepping for another television appearance, prep for a trip to a state capitol where a charter school bill is being debated, and see how tough it really is. Watch and see how your attempts at collaboration will be met by brick walls. It’s not fun.
Education reform is not easy. Not by a long shot.
Jeanne Allen is the President of the Center for Education Reform (CER), a Washington, D.C.-based organization driving the creation of better educational opportunities for all children by leading parents, policymakers and the media in boldly advocating for school choice, advancing the charter school movement, and challenging the education establishment.