Education Opinion

Do All Reformers Know Each Other?

By Jack Schneider — May 14, 2015 5 min read
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In this post, Jack Schneider and New Orleans educator Mercedes Schneider discuss the seeming insularity of education reform circles, with particular focus on the Big Easy.

Jack Schneider: Educational policy circles are notorious for being insular. Philanthropic organizations, non-profits, think tanks, university-based research centers, and central administrative offices often draw on a single pool of talent—people with the same background, training, and worldview.

This seems particularly true in the case of New Orleans, where reformers swept down to participate in the erection of the Recovery School District. As one recent study found, a pro-charter reform coalition already controls “much of the policymaking apparatus, as well as the policy discussion.”

So I’m wondering: what’s your take on the degree to which this is true? And then maybe we can talk a bit about this kind of insularity.

Mercedes Schneider: The insular nature of corporate reform circles is evident both locally and nationally. In the case of New Orleans, for example, Tulane University supports a number of these groups via shared office space.

The president of our state board of Education (BESE), Chas Roemer, is the brother of the CEO of the Louisiana Association of Public Charter Schools, Caroline Roemer Shirley. Another example is the connection between former BESE member Leslie Jacobs, considered the “mother” of Act 35, which handed most NOLA schools over to the state in 2005, and former TFAer/New Schools for New Orleans-founder Sarah Usdin, who was also afforded hefty financial support for her run for Orleans Parish School Board in Nov 2012.

In addition to Usdin, who was TFA executive director for Louisiana, TFA also stitches reformers together. State Superintendent John White is a former TFA executive director for Chicago (connects him to Obama and Duncan), and current BESE member Kira Orange-Jones is current TFA executive director for New Orleans/Louisiana combined.

TFA’s ties are close to charters. They need each other. In fact, TFA founder Wendy Kopp is married to KIPP CEO Richard Barth.

Lots of TFAers start charter schools.

Jack Schneider: The associations are indisputable. And I think they should give us pause. But I imagine that you and I disagree about the concept of intent.

As you seem to be implying, there is an intent here to fill positions with people who maintain similar ideological positions on education policy. The aim is to find people with the same ideas and put them in positions of influence—in other words, to “take over.”

I think it works somewhat the opposite way: in closed networks like this, people are exposed to fewer ideas. They don’t intend to be partisan, or to hold slanted views. But the insularity of their professional world produces a kind of myopia. They don’t think they’re taking over. They don’t believe there is an ideological agenda. They just happen to all be having dinner together, and reading the same reports, and attending the same conferences. Not to mention all having a set of similar background experiences.

This difference in intent may not account for much difference in actual behavior. You may end up with the very same set of policies. But I think it’s an essential difference for dissenters to recognize. Because dissenters who see a vast ideological takeover are going to be dismissed by those in power. After all, they don’t see themselves as partisan. Instead, they see themselves as qualified. Now...what makes them qualified? That’s the key question. Not all qualifications are “valued” the same by all parties. But, the point is that they don’t see themselves as having a partisan agenda; and when they are accused of that, they get defensive. The network closes up even more tightly.

Mercedes Schneider: There is an undeniable and obvious intent for the test-score-driven reform set to take over. In the case of Louisiana, that means intentional TFA takeover. I wrote about this in my book, A Chronicle of Echoes: Who’s Who in the Implosion of American Public Education.

In 2001, TFA altered its mission to include placing TFA alums in positions of educational influence, including in administration and in education policy.

In 2003, Eli Broad and others actually composed a “manifesto” to place those outside of education into positions of education leadership. Broad is a major TFA supporter, and his “superintendents academy” is an oft-used vehicle for former TFAers to become educated in his brand of test-score-driven reform.

Louisiana state superintendent John White is a “Broadie.”

Our state department of education (LDOE) is known to be a TFA “talent” incubator. I have tracked some of these people, like Molly Horstman, who with no experience was placed in the position of director of Louisiana’s teacher evaluation system. After this news went public, the LDOE did some backpedaling and said she was not the person in charge; however, a conference bio had her clearly promoted as the person in charge. She has since been relocated from LDOE.

I also wrote about several LDOE contracts with TFA. Some of them involved actively seeking to recruit TFA alumni in Louisiana to become involved in RSD. It is well known that TFA capitalizes on saying that a high percentage of TFAers remain “educators"—but this does not mean they remain classroom teachers. They are moved into positions of education leadership, or policy, or they start an education business or charter.

These people are well aware of their agenda, and allegiance to that agenda has replaced any other qualification.

Jack Schneider: I wish it were that simple. We could get rid of TFA and solve all of our problems.

But TFA wasn’t designed to seize control of public education. The 2001 mission shift that you mention, in which TFA expanded its aims to include placing former corps members in policy positions, was just a re-branding. As I document in my first book (which is excerpted here), TFA brought in a brand manager to help them combat criticism that they were failing at their mission. If the mission was to put teachers in classrooms and keep them there, then the outcomes weren’t good. But if the mission could be expanded to include what was already happening—TFA alumni ambitiously leaving teaching and entering the policy world—the organization would appear to be much more successful.

Does Eli Broad have an agenda? Absolutely. But I would wager that most graduates of the Broad superintendent training program don’t see themselves as minions. They see themselves as professionals.

No one is in charge in American education. The system is too big and too diffuse. And that’s why ideas matter far more than people. When people begin to believe the same things, that’s when you see major shifts. But that doesn’t happen as a result of a few billionaires throwing their weight around, or a few dozen policymakers coming out of organizations like TFA.

That’s why I think New Orleans is such an interesting case. Because there was a sudden influx of people who seemed to share the same beliefs and assumptions about schools.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric 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.