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Education Opinion

How Racially Diverse are the ‘New’ Reformers Anyway?

By Heather Harding — April 18, 2011 4 min read
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Note: Heather Harding, vice president for research and public affairs at Teach For America, is guest-posting this week.

Recently, Ashindi Maxton, a Teach For America alumnus, wrote a blog about diversity in organizing and politics, declaring that while most folks in these sectors say they value diversity, we fail at actually achieving diverse leadership within our organizations. She argues that diversity feels inefficient in the short term, but in the long term is a requirement for actually reaching our goals. The post reflected several thoughts I’ve been having regarding the importance of racial and socioeconomic diversity within the so-called entrepreneurial education reform crowd and the growing divide between traditional progressive reformers. Part of my analysis for why the debate has grown so polarizing has to do with the lack of visible racial diversity in the leadership of new education reform organizations who so boldly appropriate the language of the civil rights movement. If education is the new civil right, then why is it that so few of the most visible leaders in this movement come from the communities being served?

My mother often advises to speak of what you know, so I’ll speak about my experience at Teach For America from my personal perspective. As a senior leader in the organization and as an African American woman, I was pleasantly surprised to meet and work with many other senior leaders in the organization who are Black. When I participated in a meeting last year of Teach For America’s African American senior level managers, I was shocked to see that we filled a hotel ballroom. This year that same ballroom was even more crowded. Yet despite the diversity within the organization, what people see and associate with our work is a white woman named Wendy Kopp who went to Princeton. Not surprising, given she is the founder, but problematic nonetheless when one takes a cursory look at the diversity of the organization. Why does it go unnoticed that on our leadership team we have two Black women, a Latina woman, and an Asian woman? Our general counsel is a Black woman and our chief financial officer a Latino man.

I have several theories about why the diversity within new reform organizations goes unrecognized, but one important one is that TFA and other organizations have largely grown their own leaders--White and non-White. Over time the professional networks of these individuals suffer from the same lack of diversity found in the field--they are not broadly racially diverse and are even less diverse in terms of paradigm and perspective. Thus, the folks who are most critical of the lack of diversity in this new reform crowd have very little interaction or engagement with those of us who work within them. This problem is acutely true for people of color; many of my professional mentors who are people of color are in academia or serve in large activist organizations, many of which are suspicious of TFA’s motives.

As someone who is an alumna of TFA circa 1992, I have had some time to study and develop outside the TFA network. When I completed my two-year-commitment, the organization wasn’t big enough to offer an internal career pathway in education reform. So I made my way through a number of other more traditional education reform organizations and institutions. As I work alongside my colleagues of color now, I worry that they have less access to build bridges across the ever widening ideological divide. A colleague--also a woman of color--recently heard Diane Ravitch speak about current reforms and was shocked to be painted as part of the “conservative, neoliberal, free market, hedge fund manager capitalists” who are “ruining” public education. Having never thought of herself as The Man and only identifying with the vision of closing the achievement gap, it seemed a hard pill to swallow.

My return to TFA in 2008 was a jaw dropping experience for me; we had gotten so big! It was clear to me how one could easily craft a career path that included TFA or TFA alumni-founded or influenced employers. I often hear people talk about alignment with the ideology of the new education reform as akin to “drinking the kool aid.” And while my White counterparts also have to contend with this standard, for myself and other colleagues of color, the test is a painful reminder of how the community is represented and how we are somehow perceived as being on the wrong side of the fence. The truth of the matter is that beyond the few, high profile founders, if you scratch the surface, there are people of color working within entrepreneurial education reform organizations in important influential positions. Perhaps not enough--and it remains an open question how one makes claims to the civil rights discourse on any terms. Ultimately, there are many reasons why Wendy Kopp remains the face for our organization, but at 1500+ staff members there are a multitude of perspectives on the work of TFA. I don’t think we’ve figured out how to push for a more complex articulation of these views, but I do think it’s time that we try.

For myself, I think we ought to work harder to identify more social entrepreneurs of color who can be the visible founders of new organizations. Although largely symbolic, the role of a key spokesperson and leader is important and offers a more nuanced view into the equity and excellence argument. I also just deeply believe that if we, as a community of school reformers, are going to claim the civil rights mantle, we have to have substantial collaborative partnerships with civil rights organizations. We have to stand on more than rhetoric and develop true policy goals that highlight our overlapping interests. And finally, I do think the time has come to deal with the growing polarity with which we address each other. We have to heed the call of pragmatism and find spaces where we can work together in the service of children.

--Heather Harding

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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.