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Education Opinion

Three Principles for Being a Cage-Busting Advocate

By Guest Blogger — April 04, 2013 9 min read
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Note: Rick Hess is on sabbatical through May 6th. If you’re missing him, you might try to catch him while he’s out and about discussing his new book Cage-Busting Leadership (available here, e-book available here). For updates on when he might be in your neck of the woods, check here. Meantime, a tremendous lineup of guest stars has kindly agreed to step in while Rick’s gone and share their own thoughts on the opportunities, challenges, implications, and nature of cage-busting leadership.

Guest blogging this week is Marc Porter Magee, Ph.D, President and Founder of 50CAN. 50CAN is an education reform advocacy group that identifies and supports local leaders building reform movements within their states to make sure that every child has access to a great school.

One of the most significant recent developments in American education has been the explosive growth of advocacy groups. In the last three years alone, we have seen a number of new efforts emerge: 50CAN, Educators 4 Excellence, Families for Excellent Schools, Students for Education Reform, StudentsFirst and many more.

This growth holds a lot of promise, but we still have much to learn. I found that “Cage-Busting Leadership” had a lot of lessons for school and systems leaders that also spoke to the core principles of effective advocacy. Below are my three favorites, with some examples from my own experiences the school reform world.

Lesson #1: Be a Truth-Teller

As Rick says, “truth-telling makes it possible to get serious about pinpointing challenges, chasing away excuses, and solving problems. Absent honesty, it’s hard to earn credibility as a disciplined leader or educate the public on what needs to change.” If we are serious as reformers about solving the complex problems that face our public schools, we need to be relentless truth-tellers in our communities--especially when it’s hard to do.

I learned this lesson during my first years at ConnCAN, where I was chief operating officer. When our newly formed team, led by then CEO Alex Johnston, met with city and state leaders, we were shocked to encounter a deep and prevailing sense of complacency. Surely, we heard, whatever problems our schools might have are small problems. This is Connecticut. We are always No. 1.

The numbers told a different story. When ConnCAN dug into results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), we found that Connecticut’s overall results were middle-of-the-pack and the state’s achievement gap was the worst in the nation.

Connecticut policymakers responded to these facts with skepticism that quickly turned into open hostility. At the time, Connecticut’s leaders had emerged as fierce opponents of No Child Left Behind. It was the only state in the country that sued to stop implementation of NCLB. Betty Sternberg, then the commissioner of education, went further, arguing that the achievement gap the new law was trying to bring to light wasn’t all that different than other states. She said that Connecticut’s gap was simply the result of its white students performing so well.

In reality, Connecticut had the largest achievement gap in the country because its low-income students and students of color had some of the lowest levels of achievement in the country. For example, Connecticut’s eighth-grade math scores for black students were the second lowest in the nation, just above Alabama. Failure to acknowledge that simple but disturbing fact was holding back our state leaders from fighting for the changes we sorely needed.

What’s more: Connecticut wasn’t just turning a blind eye to these problems. Key state and district leaders were actively resisting any discussion of the facts.

In the summer of 2006, ConnCAN held a forum to candidly discuss the achievement gap and the state of student achievement in Connecticut. Our panelists were shouted down by audience members recruited by the district until, two hours into the protest, we had to cancel the event before they even got to speak. The headline in the New Haven Register the next day was, “Education Gathering Turns Chaotic.”

Undeterred, we went online with our campaign to get the facts into the hands of the public, launching report cards with letter grades on every school and district in the state. On the eve of the launch, we received calls from state education leaders warning us not to publish the results. The report cards went on to become more popular than the state’s own education website as parents and citizens jumped at the chance to get the facts.

In those early years, when we testified at legislative hearings, our team members received stern warnings from red-faced state senators and representatives for mentioning the words “achievement gap” in their testimony.

But we stuck with it, year after year, until the reality of Connecticut’s shortcomings became the foundation for education conversations throughout the state. By 2010, all the major gubernatorial candidates ran on an education platform of closing the achievement gap. And in his second year in office, Governor Malloy declared 2012 “The Year of Education Reform,” pushing through a sweeping package of changes designed to improve teacher quality and boost student achievement.

Lesson #2: Don’t Stop at Small Changes

As Rick puts it, it has become “too easy for us to dumb down our definition of excellence. Cage-busters resist that temptation, and fight like hell to make sure those around them do as well. They ask what excellence looks like, and don’t settle for doing well by today’s minimalist yard sticks.” In seeking to transform public education, advocates must avoid the temptation to declare victory for incremental improvements that don’t do enough to solve the problems we face. We must stay optimistic that even against stiff opposition, big changes are possible.

Our team learned this lesson first-hand in Minnesota. When we launched MinnCAN in 2011, just 1.5 percent of Minnesota’s 3- and 4-years-olds were in state-funded pre-K programs--one-tenth the national average. The business community had funded a four-year pilot program to test out a quality rating system for pre-K programs but it was due to sunset at the end of the year. Working with a coalition of community leaders and pre-K advocates, we fought for a bill that would both provide more funding for pre-K scholarships and connect that funding to a statewide rating system that helped parents pick the best programs for their children.

The bill enjoyed broad bipartisan support and sailed through the legislative committees. But in the final weeks of session, a group aligned with Minnesota’s Tea Party that had successfully stopped high school graduation standards in 2003 launched an all-out disinformation campaign, claiming the rating system and expansion of pre-K seats was anti-family. Within 24 hours, the rating system went from a sure thing to a distant memory as a small number of senators and representatives threatened to stop the entire state budget from moving forward unless the rating system was removed.

MinnCAN and its partners rallied to defend the pre-K initiatives, and they succeeded in saving $4 million in increased funding. Then, through in intensive public campaign called “Remove the Blindfold” in the weeks after the session ended, we succeeded in securing the governor’s support to implement the rating system through administrative action. Given the opposition we faced and the roller-coaster end of session, it felt like a big first-year victory. But the truth was, our hard-fought win represented the minimum that Minnesota needed to do that year. It was humbling to realize, after all that hard work and the improbable path to success, how far we still needed to go.

So instead of spending time celebrating a victory, we went back to work with an even bigger coalition to set our sights on the changes we would need to really move the needle for kids. The result was an unprecedented coming together of advocates and community leaders in 2013 called MinneMinds, asking for a much larger investment to do right by Minnesota children: $185 million, a 46 fold increase from the investment made in 2011.

As advocates, the toughest question we need to ask ourselves is: “Are we setting the bar high enough?” Too often the answer is no. And in those cases, we must be prepared to redouble our efforts until the job is done.

Lesson #3: Make Precision Your Friend

“A cage-buster can’t settle for ambiguity, banalities, or imprecision,” Rick says. “These things provide dark corners where all manners of ineptitude and excuse making can hide.” The same is true for policy advocates.

One of the most challenging aspects of managing an advocacy campaign is how fuzzy your efforts can seem from the inside. Are you making progress or losing ground? Is the compromise plan on the table a win or a loss? How do you create public accountability for yourself and your team when so much happens behind closed doors?

After three years of fuzzy campaigns at ConnCAN, we decided in 2009 to try something different. We organized our work into a discrete one-year campaign--called Mind the Gaps -- with three clear policy goals and benchmarks for what exactly constituted a win in each area. We put the details up on our website before the legislative session began and provided regular updates to our members, detailing the progress made each week. At the end of the session we put up a scorecard with plain language on wins and losses against the goals we set.

We brought this approach to seven new state CANs over the past two years through 50CAN. It worked, but perhaps too well. Having such clear annual goals sharpened our focus--but we found it also discouraged long-term plans. We found ourselves throwing out policy goals that had little chance of being secure in a single year.

We decided that plussing our accountability model meant learning from other groups. As we looked around the country for models, two education advocacy organizations stood out: Delaware’s Rodel Foundation and Tennessee Score. Over the past decade, both have succeeded in creating precision in their goals while driving forward with ambitious long-term plans. What’s more, they not only take responsibility for pushing hard for policy change, but also for seeing it through to successful implementation. They don’t declare victory until their efforts are actually securing big improvements for kids.

With that kind of focus and commitment from community leaders, it’s no surprise that Delaware and Tennessee were the only winners of the first round of Race to the Top.

Drawing inspiration from their work, 50CAN this year has partnered with fellow advocates and education leaders to begin creating long-term blueprints for policy success and school reform in our states. Soon there will be even fewer dark corners for excuses to hide as we work to get real results for kids.

While Rick wrote “Cage-Busting Leadership” with school and system leaders in mind, there are key lessons that apply across all of the people working to improve our schools. If we are going to reach our shared goal of great schools for all kids, those of us advocating for policy change will need to keep them front and center in all of our work.

- Marc Porter Magee, Ph. D

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.