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Nine strands: An ongoing effort to make sense of the educational landscape

I like to ask people “What percentage of the educational landscape do you think you have a strong sense of?”

I also like to ask myself. One of my favorite answers went something like, “43% but each time I think I understand more I only extend the range of what I realize I don’t know.”

One of my favorite answers went something like, “43%, but each time I think I understand more I only extend the range of what I realize I don’t know.”

That’s my way of saying what you read below comes with full awareness of its limitations and problematic omissions. It is just my most recent effort to struggle for a way of making sense of what I’m seeing.


The change to Republican control of Congress has put national education policy back front and center where it is difficult to read what will happen beyond possible reductions in testing and potentially significant reductions in the control of the Federal government, both of which could get a Presidential veto and further set the stage for education to be a primary issue in 2016 Presidential elections.

Before and amidst relevant tensions in NYC over police behavior and racial disparities, the Mayor of NYC, Bill DeBlasio announced $52 million dollar investment in building “Community Schools.” And within that story alone lay a hundred others. The investment is rooted in years of local community organizing with groups like the Coalition for Education Justice, work amongst national leaders with the Coalition of Community Schools, and all the political and social dynamics that put DeBlasio in office rather than Anthony Weiner.

In February 2015, hundreds of educators, organizers, and progressive academics traveled to Edcouch-Elsa, Texas for the 43rd gathering of the North Dakota Study Group. Visiting rural Texas, the three-day place-based conference was rooted in learning about collective leadership and the slow but powerful changes that have taken root because of projects like the Llano Grande Youth Development Center and two brothers, Miguel and Francisco Guajardo.

Each of these three stories are important. And, there are many more stories to tell and much to unravel in attempting to understand what is happening when thinking about transformative educational change.

I’ve attempted to roughly make sense of rapidly changing dynamics by looking at nine strands:

1. Place The lens and story of place is one of the most neglected and most important pieces to making sense of what’s happening. One story or place of attention in on national policy and politics. The current operating law is ESEA (aka NCLB) but it is seven years post reauthorization by Congress while most states now operate under “flexibility waivers”. Here’s a dynamic map for more on that. Another lens of place is to think at the state level. States have wildly different histories, politics, policies, and visions about education. Within each state, the dynamics of rural and urban environments, of poverty, transportation, and housing, and again of the politics – makes for very different sets of practices, policies, stories, and district structures. From Septima Clark to Medgar Evers to Wendell Berry to Terry Tempest Williams – there is strand of place that is vital to attend to and consider within any larger examination of education.

2. Policy – NCLB is mentioned above. The current national policy environment is fairly empty as reauthorization stalls, then revs, but both with little reflection of the values and visions of social movement that MSC or the networks and communities it is linked might yearn for. The Republican takeover of the U.S. Senate is rapidly leading to a bill that will call for a massive cut to the Department of Education in both resources and power, pull-back NCLB testing controls, and cut away from the Common Core (which was initially very bi-partisan but has now been dubbed ObamaCore by the right). This makes for complicated dynamics (more below) as there is a strong 70% agreement factor for the progressive left on many of these matters but very different values on the 30% they are apart and as one activist of color says, “how could we negotiate with someone who doesn’t see us as fully human?” State by state and district by district this is a time of rapid change, implementation, and confusion. As states have navigated their own waivers and choices around Common Core, they’ve also had to think about their own policy goals and agendas. What is happening in Oregon, Minnesota, in Vermont is similar in nature but each of those states if very different from what’s happening in Louisiana and Pennsylvania.

3. Struggles and Movements – There are many different efforts and struggles that are taking place. Some are led by impacted young people and parents. Some by clergy. Some by community-based groups. Some by labor. And some by alliances and networks. Even some gaining traction among like-minded funders. The values, habits, and visions of these groups is wildly discordant. Here’s a snapshot of some threads within this strand:

  • Disruptive efforts that are well funded but have little trust amongst advocates for educational justice like TFA and KIPP
  • Funders that appear to have a targeted agenda to privatize public education with a potential profit motive: Walton and Broad
  • Profiteering actors via hedge funds, online charters, textbooks, and charter management companies
  • In government “reformers” that exist on the after-oxygen and thinking of folks like Michelle Rhee, Joel Klein, etc
  • Anti-reformers who run a wide gambit in terms of stridency. Chief amongst them is Diane Ravitch with a very strong online presence followed by groups like the Badass Teachers Association.
  • Educational Justice alliances like AEJ, AROS, OTL, and the new Education Justice Network funded by the Ford Foundation – that bring together a mix of Community Based Orgs and Unions to speak to the harms being done, call for an end to bad policy and school closing, resist privatization, but are actively trying to find a “for agenda.”
  • People trying to do school differently. Whether local/solo actors or networks like Ashoka, Annenberg, Convergence, or IDEA — these are groups with a view on what the future of school should be who are pursuing some strategy to support folks doing that.
  • A handful of like-minded progressive funders have spent a few years developing a New Models Working Group that might eventually have some strategic impact across grassroots groups, unions, foundations, and larger policy and advocacy efforts.
  • Republicans against the Common Core – a wave of mothers and activists have raised and are winning a debate on this national policy item – mostly rooted in the lack of good process, oversight, potential profit motives, and sense of a “liberal agenda.”
  • Liberals against the Common Core – folks see this as the next straw in a long line towards privatization via more testing and more tech
  • Anti-High Stakes Testing – a real moment of resistance is happening with a wave within the “Opt-out movement” peaking. Monty Neill and Fairtest are a key epicenter for information. Limitations are the generally strong reservations of folks of color and participation in Opt-Out is currently white and middle class.
  • “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot” – the events in Ferguson and NYC mobilized hundreds of thousands and while not directly linked to education – they have fed into school board protests and campaigns to end Out of School suspensions and the School to Prison pipeline led by groups like the Advancement Project and Dignity in Schools.

4. Practices – Ask someone on an airplane and almost universally you’ll hear folks agree that they want their kid to have a high-quality education and more people than not want a high-quality education for all kids. But ask them what a high-quality education looks like for today’s world or the world of the next 25 years and folks rapidly get tongue tied. In thinking about the larger story of systems transformation, long-time actor Michael Fullan pushes folks to get precise in talking about what is they want. This precision is not something to dismiss and attention to “good practices” and figuring out what they are and how to implement is critical. Flashback to NYC – a team of long-time organizers has essentially won the day. They have the Mayor’s attention and the practices they wanted are being supported, funded, and now must be implemented. And so far – the fear is that they are moving too fast, with low-quality, and not enough people with the capacity to implement what was dreamed of. The pressure they helped build is now acting as a weight as they try to meet their own demands and worry that poor execution of restorative justice practices and community schools models – across a big system – will result in these highly-valued practices rapidly being dismissed.

5. Systems– Systems are resilient and by their nature they have difficulty holding the moral values and humanity of any one person or even a group of people. The arc of the educational system is large and to date it has not bent towards justice. The reality is that the educational system of 2014 is as disproportionate and unequal as it was in 1954 when Brown v. Board passed. The zip code, wealth, and race (in that order) a young person possesses impacts their life. That is a reality that touches every aspect of a person and communities educational experience and in the systems that perpetuate a long-held reality of the U.S. and manifests in the school to prison pipeline.

6. Narratives –  The narratives we use help shape the future we’ll realize. There are many different educational narratives running through the last eighty years – and today there is are investments being made to pursue public narratives that can be transformative and limiting. Without any big changes – the current dominant narrative will play out. The education system is broken. That will be solved by the breaking down the system and creating highly personalized highly techonologized solutions that are run by for-profit companies with a common core set of standards and tests that allow for high mobility. This will create a very tiered educational system where everyone has “opportunity” but at wildly different scales, types, and caliber. Several efforts have approached this issue – through the Annenberg Insititute for School Reform, through the Frameworks Institute research on educational narrative, and through lesser known efforts by groups like Spirit in Action, IDEA, and Integrity in Education.

7. Politics – When Gandhi was asked why he was so political I’ve been told he responded, “I wish I could not be – but all things are political.” The political stratification of the U.S. and the outsized impact of the Federal Government on Education makes politics themselves a required strand to attend to. This recent paper by Theda Skocpol examining the politics of immigration and climate change is a must read for thinking through the political realities and impacts of educational change and the kind of capacities and strategies needed.

8. Economics- The economy has often been used as the weapon of choice to defend bad educational practice and policy. An example is when President Obama advanced Race to the Top during a State of the Union address and spoke about our need to Race India and China to create an army of engineers. However, experiences with Grace Lee Boggs and connected community groups in Detroit and with Nuestra Escuela in Puerto Rico have brought a newer set of inputs into my own thinking. I learned from Gopal Dayaneni that the latin roots of the word economy is “the management of home.” How we manage home really is a powerful and better question – because it brings sustainability, economy, and education all into one integrated conversation that we aren’t having often enough. This is the weakest of the “strands” in my own analysis, perhaps the strongest in impact, and the area I’m most actively learning about.

9. Public Understanding and Influence – It seems difficult to say what the public does and doesn’t understand. And it also seems clear that the majority of Americans have limited to no understanding of the educational landscape or the less visible systems that impact their day to day realities. From Marshall Ganz work on public narrative to the framing work of folks like George Lakoff and Char Ryan , to more recent research on cultural organizing – this is also a strand that lives mostly out of view while having real impact in how we imagine and consider both what is possible and the current state of events.