Education Opinion

Deconstructing a Social Keiretsu (IV): You Can Learn a Lot at Conferences

March 02, 2008 7 min read
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Conferences are a part of almost any human activity, but they are especially important where the business is conceptual; e.g., politics, policy, advocacy, academia, research, and professional services. “Real” meetings held in physical locations remain important even in the virtual age. There’s something about being able to shake hands, share meals, stop someone in the hall, watch the body language of speakers and other participants, feel group energy – to say nothing of the tantalizing prospect of chance encounters with new people and ideas - that Web2.0 still can’t match.

The collection of organizations and individuals covered by this series of postings are engaged in each of these spheres. The CMOs are a unique kind of professional services business – akin to hospital management. BAEO, HCREO and NAPCS, and the state charter schools associations advocate on behalf of their respective constituencies’ specific interests in public education. The foundations pursue social agendas. Fordham, the Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Education Sector, Education Evolving and AEI engage in policy analysis.

For attendees, conferences are a primary vehicle for making new contacts, exchanging ideas, obtaining knowledge, and getting a grasp of their world’s gestalt. Organizers use conferences for outreach, to share their knowledge and values, learn, and create and reinforce consensus. Speakers and other invited participants reflect who the organizers believe have something important to say by virtue of their position, experience or expertise; something organizers want attendees to hear. Participants want to transmit some substantive message and/or psychological perception.


Box Color:
• White: No participation by organization’s leader and/or staff
• Light Grey: Participation by organization’s leader or staff member
• Medium Grey: Participation by organization’s leader or staff member in two roles
• Dark Grey: Participation by organization’s leader or staff member in at least three roles

Organizations (NAPCS board members’ organizations underlined)
• Gates Foundation
• Walton Foundation
• Broad Foundation
Casey Foundation
• NSVF - New Schools Venture Fund
• CMOs - Charter Management Organizations receiving grants in last posting
Fordham Institute
Public Imact
• BAEO - Black Alliance for EducationalOptions
Hispanic CREO
Knowledge is Power Program
Education Sector
Education Evolving
• AEI - American Enterprise Institute
• NLNS - New Leaders for New Schools
New Teacher Project
• CCSA - California Charter School Association
• NACSA - National Association of Charter School Authorizers
• NAPCS - National Alliance of Public Charter Schools
• MAPSA - Michigan Alliance of Public School Academies
• CLCS - Colorado League of Charter Schools

The figure above identifies the principal national conferences available to people in fee-for-service nonprofits serving public education, the organizers of these conferences, and the frequency at which the organizations examined in this series of posting participated as in the role of introducer, moderator, speaker, panelist and discussant. If edbizbuzz readers request, I will add a table at the end of this posting with more detail, distinguishing between the people examined in this series, and other participants from their organizations serving in at least one role in each meeting.

Others may have different lists of national meetings, but I would argue that the top five for those involved in market-based school reform are New Schools Venture Fund’s Annual Summit (May); their Annual Gathering of Education Entrepreneursco-sponsored with The Aspen Institute (July); The Supply Side of School Reform and the Future of Educational Entrepreneurshipsponsored by the American Enterprise Institute (October), the Yale Education Leadership Conference sponsored by the School of Management’s Program on Social Enterprise (February), and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools (April) annual National Charter Schools Conference. The last is focused on one segment of market-based reforms, but charter school founders not only make up the overwhelming majority of social entrepreneurs in public education, many others attend and present and attend. Altogether this list fills out a year’s conferencing calendar quite nicely. If you lead an education nonprofit engaged in fee-for-service, these are the meetings you want to attend to stay on top of the field nationally.

The Summit, Gathering and Charter Schools conferences are multi-day affairs. The AEI and Yale meetings are one-day meetings. The Charter Schools conference has multiple sessions occurring at any one hour. The others follow a more or less linear course of speeches and panels. Most of these meeting provide something on the order of 20-25 opportunities to introduce, give a speech, present on a panel, discuss a presentation or moderate a session, the charter schools meeting offers over a hundred. The first two meetings are by invitation only. The remaining conferences are open. The charter conference has virtually unlimited capacity, while the Yale and AEI meetings have limited space.


Funders bless conference themes. Grantees set the agenda; determine whether attendance will be open or by invitation; and pick who will introduce sessions, moderate, speak, serve as a panelist or discussant. So what? There is nothing nefarious in this. The First Amendment of the Constitution allows freedom of speech and assembly.

Nevertheless, there are consequences. For better or worse, these choices give legitimacy to organizers, participants and attendees in terms of defining a movement, its leaders and followers, and its values, beliefs and objectives. I would argue that when the same people and entities appear as organizers, moderators, speakers, discussants and panelists in a series of conferences on roughly the same topic, that pattern has meaning. Either no one else has anything to say that is worthy of attention, or this group has decided what is important to say and who is important to hear.

I am not inclined to conspiracy theories; largely because I doubt most of mankind has the capacity and discipline required to pull one off. I do believe in the human tendency towards exclusivity and self-styled elites and this is how I view the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Bilderberg Group, Bohemian Grove, Skull and Crossbones, Shriners, the kids down the street who built the shack with “No Girls” painted on the door, and the “Gathering.” Nevertheless, for conspiracy theorists or those of us who simply recognize the existence of clubs, the annual meeting co-sponsored by NSVF and the Aspen Institute should be an interesting event. I could locate neither an agenda, nor a list of attendees. I have drawn on reports from the first three sessions held between 2005 and 2007 to learn that the meeting is limited to something like 30 people, and identify a few participants and participating organizations. I have included it below in the hope that edbizbuzz readers might help fill in the blanks.


In reviewing this data, I would ask the reader to take the perspective of a new social entrepreneur, policy wonk, education beat reporter – or man from Mars attending this set of meetings facing this pattern of appearances on the conference dais. At the end of the cycle, would you be able to determine the opinion makers and gatekeepers? Could you describe the political orthodoxy? Could you identify who defines what is politically correct in this little world? Would you understand the nature of the market-based activities that philanthropy would and would not invest in? Would the experience suggest to you that this group constitutes the leadership of the pro-market school reform movement – or at least presents itself as such? I think the answer to all of these questions is yes. Do readers of edbizbuzz?

More important, would their words be taken as the best expression of what this movement is all about? Should they be so interpreted? My answers are “yes” to the first, but “not necessarily” to the second. Again, I invite your comments.

Next: I’m not sure. Probably this group’s writings and publications, but maybe personal relationships.

Other Postings in This Series:

Deconstructing a “Social Keiretsu” in Public Education Reform

Deconstructing (II): Board of Directors

Deconstructing (III): Money Talks, But What Does it Say?

Related Posts:

Edbizbuzz-Eduwonk Exchange on Washington’s Like-Minded, Overlapping Education Policy Groups

Uberblogger Russo Asks: What is Social Entrepreneurship in Public Education? Who is a Social Entrepreneur?

Uberblogger Alexander Russo asks: What is the role, impact or benefit of education think tanks?

The opinions expressed in edbizbuzz are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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