Until Dai Ellis spoke up, it seemed that the students and speakers were going to continue to mosey around the big elephant in the room that is responsible for stifling the progress of closing racial achievement gaps for our nation’s most vulnerable children. Professor Roland Fryer told a narrative of how he’d presented several decisionmakers with his “vaccine” of five “common sense” interventions and how each turned him down, even though they had been initially interested in his achievement gap research because it had potential benefits for their communities. And Professor Tom Payzant followed Fryer’s presentation by adding that parents and community members ought to be engaged in the process of turning around the lowest performing schools in order for reform efforts to be authentic to the communities with the most to benefit or loose from the interventions. The former Boston Public Schools Superintendent also cautioned reformers to think about creative ways to replicate charter management organizations without also replicating the bureaucratic ills begotten to many school systems. But until Mr. Ellis, CEO of Excel Academy “no excuses” charter schools network, advanced his two talking points ((1) “ideology kills” and (2) scaling up charter success is possible), the class conversation seemed mainly about the problem of the achievement gap and proffered solutions coming from research and practice. The conversation would have never moved to the real takeaway lesson for the evening: individuals from various backgrounds can become change-agents for the education systems in their communities. The counterintuitive politics of education reform has made it increasingly difficult to deliver solutions that make our student outcomes more fair.
Politics affects which solutions we consider. The reality is that school districts have a supply chain of teachers, leaders, administrators, and employees that form an infrastructure through which students experience education institutions. These human resources have their own preferences, skills, and capabilities separate from the objective or aspirational needs of the children that will be served by these institutions. For example, Mr. Payzant implied that there must be a teacher and a principal in every functioning school on the first day of school even if they are the best that the district has to offer or among those that would add the most value in a classroom. Collective bargaining, community preferences, and ideological bias often drive the conversation about which reforms, interventions, or priorities will be applied to the lowest-performing schools in a district. And as Mr. Payzant illuminated, both sides and all players, including the top administrative officials and the collective bargainers, are to blame if union contracts or commercial agreements result in environments that are not conductive to addressing the most important problems to help the most vulnerable students.
Politics affects which research will be permitted and which innovations will be supported. Before Mr. Fryer’s “vaccine” could be administered, he first had to have top administrative officials and school leadership accept the political responsibility for the experiment and results of the intervention. Additionally, he had to have a source of funding that ideologically believed in his baseline assumptions: that some schools were producing outcomes that made students unequal to their peers; that a set of interventions would be able to affect this problem; that students, teachers, and leaders were capable of executing the interventions; that charter schools or low-performing whole-school (as opposed to simply intervening one grade at a time) public schools were an appropriate place to measure these interventions; and, that the results of the intervention would tell us something about how to fix the achievement gap. In essence, Mr. Fryer was dependent on locations where the politics was open enough to try something that had not been tried before (like removing principals and hiring new ones, importing tutors, and rigorously using data to inform practices).
Politics also affects how we see the problem. Mr. Ellis elaborated on his “ideology kills” talking point by offering that within both the Republican and Democratic Parties there are allies and obstructionists. Where private solutions of educational delivery try to compete with public schools, some cry foul. Where public schools try to improve educational delivery to expand the individual opportunities for those who are victims of educational inequality, others cry foul. As Mr. Ellis suggested, the lens of education reform is hampered by ideological lens of public and private provision that must be retracted. The correct mix of public and private provision of education ought to be geographically dependent on what works best in each city, town, or district and what works best for the community of children the schools are servicing, rather than an absolute prohibition for public (including charter), private, or innovative model.
We should thank Mr. Ellis for identifying the elephant in the room and for giving her a name: politics. His first talking point that “ideology kills” is in fact, as he asserted, “one of the biggest barriers” to making in progress closing the achievement gap. This is a truth that Mr. Payzant knows instinctively and that Mr. Fryer is too removed to fully appreciate. As students in a course reflecting on our social systems and how we can change them to reflect values of interdependency, respect for youth, and healthy communities, we ought to think not only about the problem of the achievement gap and which solutions are offered as “vaccines,” but we ought be thinking about how we can create political environments that are open to delivering the most fair and best education outcomes for our students. We ought to leave this session, and others, with a tangible list of “what I can do to change this.” Bravo to the speakers who underscore this moral charge.