The education reform coalition has a problem. Unlike other historical movements dedicated to the urgent betterment of social conditions, the most prominent leadership and voices of the school improvement coalition have not been representative of the communities that the effort hopes to serve. The leaders of reform organizations are mostly white, and mostly from backgrounds of relative privilege, creating a stark contrast with the communities, and leaders, of color that demand rapid improvements in their schools.
Those of us signing this letter are some of those white leaders. We must admit the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white through the early 2000s. In under-representing the communities that we hoped to serve, particularly people of color, in the leadership and decision-making processes of reform, we created a movement that lacked the ability to drive durable change. A movement of innovators and technocrats will never have the intellectual and moral power of a movement created by, and led by, the communities most affected by inadequate public schooling. And while there is an important role for allies to play in advancing the work of school improvement for poor students and students of color, an unrepresentative group will lack the critical insight and creativity that diversity and inclusivity bring to addressing complex problems.
Despite our own mistakes, we have been heartened by recent course corrections within the reform community. When some major organizations in education reform, including New Schools Venture Fund, began to publicly embrace the need to not just diversify the leadership in the field, but also to ensure that the voices of people of color were centered in the reform conversation, we celebrated the shift in emphasis. That’s why we were so baffled by Robert Pondiscio’s article on the Fordham Institute website yesterday, which suggests a coalition problem that we don’t think needs to exist. In the piece, Pondiscio cites a string of anonymous “conservative education reformers” who are dissatisfied with the “increasing dominance of social justice warriors in education reform and the marginalization of dissenting views.” Pondiscio frames this tension as one of right versus left, or in his words, free market enthusiasts vs. social justice warriors.
It is striking that Pondiscio, and the anonymous sources he quotes, choose now to start worrying about dissenting viewpoints. For many years, the views and leadership of people of color have been overwhelmingly marginalized in conferences, panels, and other prominent education reform spaces. In critiquing the shift he is observing, Pondiscio’s piece makes many of the same mistakes that he decries. He resorts to a left vs. right dichotomy, while demanding the primacy of his own views. He diminishes discussions of social justice as “groupthink,” while asserting that markets, and the other ideas he embraces “need no apology.” Instead of wrestling with issues of institutional racism, he more or less ignores their existence. Most importantly, he worries about the marginalization of his own ideas while diminishing the voices and perspectives of the leaders of color.
When Brittany Packnett, one of those leaders, spoke at the New Schools Venture Fund conference, discussing the intersection of her roles at Teach for America and on the White House’s Task Force for 21st Century Policing, we saw a courageous champion tackling the complex intersections of issues that most affect communities of color. We witnessed the kind of intellectual generosity, coalition building, and diversity necessary to drive real progress. We should pursue transformational education ideas while also considering reforms to immigration and criminal justice, and the education reform efforts of the past twenty-five years are full of examples of unlikely alliances and mash-ups of political perspectives.
Believing that the people most directly affected by educational inequity should have an outsized voice regarding the potential solutions is not a political stance. A true movement for improving schools must embrace the leadership of the communities we hope to serve, and elevate—not ridicule—the ideas of the leaders of those communities. That doesn’t mean that we need to suddenly rebuke everything that Pondiscio and his anonymous sources believe, but it does mean their perspectives must live alongside the stated needs and objectives of the communities whose lives we wish to value in our work. Just as it was always a false choice between “fixing poverty” and “fixing education,” so is it a false choice between abolishing institutional racism and improving schools.
Reimagining schools for all children, particularly the ones our current system ignores, will require many more years, perhaps generations, of hard work. There will be politicking, tradeoffs, wins, losses, frustrations, and celebrations. The greatest risk to our success is not the minimization of a particular political ideology, but rather the continued marginalization of the communities and leaders that most urgently need for schools to improve. We, as white leaders, have been imperfect allies in that work, but we’re committed to getting better. We hope that others will join us in this important work.
The following people are signatories to this letter. They sign as individuals, not on behalf of the organizations they lead.
Robert T. Clark
Marcie Craig Post
Tracy Dell-Angela Barber
Amy Hertel Buckley
William E. Olsen
Andrew Plemmons Pratt
Mary Ann Sullivan
Celine Toomey Coggins
Patrick van Keerbergen
Laura Wilson Phelan
J. Gordon Wright