Examining the Aftermath of Education Reform

By Michele Molnar — September 28, 2012 3 min read
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When parents and activists in community groups mobilize to transform education, what happens next?

That question is the subject of an in-depth study published in the most recent issue of Educational Policy, which looked at the aftermath of two major changes in California: the New Small Autonomous Schools Policy, in Oakland, and the Children’s Amendment, in San Francisco.

The September article, “From Agitating in the Streets to Implementing in the Suites: Understanding Education Policy Reforms Initiated by Local Advocates,” examines this conundrum: Once a community advocacy group hands off its successful reform to a government agency, the group naturally wants to oversee implementation, but cannot officially do so from its position outside government.

The study found that groups took an aggressive “watchdog,” a more collaborative “critical friend,” or a more distant “witness” approach in the oversight of how their initiative was implemented by officials and institutions, depending upon how much influence they could have to effect change at that point.

This research began as part of a larger study Anne Newman conducted with a team through the John W. Gardner Center for Youth and Their Communities when she was a Stanford University graduate student. “We were trying to understand how organizations like the two in the article are able to shape policy,” she said. The groups—the Oakland Community Organizations (OCO) and the Coleman Advocates for Children and Youth (referred to as Coleman)—effected two dramatic changes in the San Francisco Bay Area.

“We wanted to look at how do you navigate the political challenges of seeing something implemented that might deviate from your intentions when, as an advocate, you may have to move resources and time to other projects,” she said.

Two Reforms, Two Approaches

In 2000, the New Autonomous Schools Act was passed in Oakland, which led to the creation of 25 new small schools in the first four years after the policy was implemented. OCO, a coalition of community organizers, worked in partnership with the Bay Area Coalition for Equitable Schools (BayCES) to make the change happen. The authors say this change has “become a national model for community-driven school reform.”

Ironically, this initiative began with a small problem—dirty bathrooms in schools—that grew into a focus on school overcrowding and moved up the system until the solution of building smaller schools became a policy.

In San Francisco, Coleman leveraged the knowledge of its professional staff in understanding the city budget and community needs. The end result was passage of “The Children’s Amendment,” which means 3 cents of every $100 assessed property tax value is spent on child and youth programs. The ballot initiative, first passed in 1991, has been reauthorized through June 2015.

Combining what she learned from these two case studies, Newman and colleagues Sarah Deschenes and Kathryn Hopkins wrote about the “streets-to-suites” issue.

“Both organizations have been really savvy about being able to mobilize. If you’re going out to have a rally, for instance, they make sure a lot of people will be there,” she said.

Newman describes the Coleman group as more of an “expert-run, policy-wonkish” type of organization that now has added a grassroots, empowerment model. OCO is grassroots-driven.

“Coleman’s been very good at thinking about how they can institutionalize their reform, recognizing their attention as advocates to one particular issue has to be fleeting,” Newman said. “Historically they’ve been really good about thinking, ‘What can we do, policy-wise, to entrench this reform in local government and find a permanent home for it.”

Monitoring Implemented Reforms

For oversight, Newman says these two organizations have taken different roles at different times. Coleman has, when needed, adopted the watchdog stance, sometimes jumping in to criticize.

“OCO has taken more of an insider approach, serving as a critical friend, to make sure things look as close as possible to what was intended. They recognize that they have to move on, that they have limited resources, and their members are interested in something else now,” she said.

For both groups, Newman said: “They look at the number of kids being served, and this is the best we can do. It’s an acknowledgement of what it means to be an advocate; it’s a tension inherent in their role. You have to move on to something else,” said Newman, who now conducts research at the University of California Center for Collaborative Research for an Equitable California.

Learn more about OCO from a case study here. Find out more about Coleman in a case study here.

An abstract of the “streets-to-suites” article is available here.

A version of this news article first appeared in the K-12 Parents and the Public blog.