Charlottesville Summit, 30 Years Later: TFA’s Brittany Packnett on the Governors’ Gathering That Changed Education, ‘Pendulum’ of Ed Reform, Morality & Poverty and Democracy vs. Innovation

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To commemorate the 1989 Education Summit in Charlottesville, Virginia,that convened 49 of the nation’s 50 governors to discuss a single policy issue — the education of America’s children — the Aspen Institute’s Education & Society Program is partnering with The 74 to produce a series of Q&A’s with distinguished leaders across politics, education and advocacy to reflect on the legacy of the summit and what lies ahead for public education. The interviews were conducted over the telephone, transcribed and edited for clarity and length. Participants were asked some of the same questions, but also queried specifically about their careers and backgrounds. These leaders share their thoughts on why the summit was a groundbreaking event, the strengths and shortcomings of education policy and what is required for propelling further gains for students. You can see all the interviews here.

Over the past few years, a wave of activism has galvanized the nation, and Brittany Packnett, vice president of national alliances and engagement at Teach for America, stands with many others at its epicenter. In 2014, Packnett, a former teacher, garnered national media attention for protesting the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, and became one of the country’s most outspoken activists. She co-founded Campaign Zero, a policy platform to end police violence, and is a co-host of the podcast Pod Save the People; her TED Talk on confidence has been viewed more than 2.5 million times. Here, Packnett speaks about the “pendulum swings” of education reform, the moral judgment behind poverty and the false choice between democracy and innovation.

What do you see as the greatest accomplishments from the 1989 Education Summit and the standards-based education agenda that emerged from it?

A standards-based approach to education is clearly the most, in my opinion, important thing to come out of that, and the thing that has been the most pervasive. I remember entering the classroom in 2007 and it being a foregone conclusion that everything I’m doing should be standards-based and data-driven. Knowing that that was not always the case struck me, as a brand new teacher, as odd. Why wouldn’t this approach exist?

Recognizing the importance of some standardization across the board for the sake of equity is really important, because otherwise, we allow a permissiveness to exist where certain kids are justified being held to one standard and other kids are just fine being held to another, and never the two shall meet.

Thinking about that and the lessons from the past 30 years in education, is there anything that we could have, or should have, done differently? 

Naming equity as not just an aspiration, but as a deeply held value that should guide our behavior at all times, is the place we have to move into within the next 30 years. Standards-based practices matter deeply. I also remember those standards not always translating, not because the standard was wrong, but because the tools that were built around the standard, the ones that we had access to, were limited. They were not culturally relevant. They were not culturally responsive. Therefore, they didn’t assist or aid in helping students reach the standard because they were irrelevant to students.

I taught third grade in Southeast D.C., and I’ll never forget getting the textbooks. The first story in the reading textbook was about a kid and his father going rock climbing. My students didn’t understand how somebody could climb a rock because the only rocks that they saw were on somebody’s lawn or pebbles from the playground. It lacked cultural relevancy. I had a limited amount of tools with which to fill in the gap.

We have to be willing to continue to refine the approaches that we’re taking. Too often, we are pendulum swingers. There are trends. One day, it’ll be all about standards and data. The next day, it’ll be all about technology in the classroom. Five years after that, it’s all about personalized learning. What we should actually be doing is looking at each of these practices and asking, “What can be pulled from all these things to create equitable and excellent experiences for all kids in all classrooms?”

Could you say a little bit more about what you mean by equity as a value, and what is the work we need to be doing in education to better meet the goals of these standards that were passed?

Equity is everybody getting what they need — not the same thing. I think for too long, we’ve been giving people the same thing. We’re like, it worked in Massachusetts, so it’ll work in D.C., or it worked uptown, so it’ll work downtown, or it worked for the Latino kids over here, who are first-generation Americans, so it’ll work for the immigrant kids who just got to our shores.

We know these things are not true, yet we don’t invest the effort, or the time, or the energy, or, frankly, the money to differentiate in ways that are culturally responsive. The tool of cultural responsiveness is a technical fix, but the spiritual piece is that people actually have to believe it is worth our investment to train teachers, principals and school leaders in culturally responsive practices. We’re not seeing that across the board.

Operating with a value of equity means we should be able to look at not just outcomes, but our inputs, and they themselves should be equitable. Right now, we know that they are not, in terms of literal dollars and cents, in terms of manpower, in terms of research, in terms of who is conducting the research, in terms of the nonprofits that are being funded and the ones that aren’t, the innovations that are being funded and the ones that aren’t.

We can look at the data about our inputs and investments across this industry and see very clearly that we are not operating equitably. That’s what I mean by operating at a value of equity.

Acknowledging that the work that arose from Charlottesville responded to the context of 30 years ago, what you would say are the priorities that should animate our work going forward for the next 30 years? 

There is finally more energy and commitment to a conversation about the fact that the trauma of poverty is real, and therefore providing — or at least beginning to talk about providing — trauma-informed care to young people is now on the table in a way it wasn’t then.

I also know that there are far too many corners of our work where the mindset of moral impropriety being the cause of someone’s poverty is pervasive, that there are still too many people who think poor people caused their poverty through poor judgment, instead of taking a systemic view of what causes poverty and therefore looking at what we need to do to nullify its effect in the classroom. There are still too many people who think that poverty is a moral judgment.


“I don’t think closing the achievement gap should be the goal. I think closing the equity gap should be the goal, because if there’s not equity in the first place, there’s going to be an achievement gap.”

I say that knowing in 1989, especially in poor communities of color, we were standing in the shadow of the crack epidemic. Oddly, we are standing in the shadows of an opioid epidemic right now, which is very connected to the context of education in this moment. But there are far more resources, and there’s a very different conversation happening about it because the vast majority of the victims, at least the ones who are discussed, are white and live in suburban areas. The context of the proliferation of drug use is not different. The amount of resources in the conversation around it is different in all the ways that affect young people and tear apart families.

Certainly the school choice context is very different. We’re having a different conversation about school governance models than we ever have in history, a different conversation about resources, access in democracy in schools in a very different way. What’s also really important to the context now is that we do have much more access to strong research and scholarship on culturally responsive teaching. That was an underresourced research area. A lot of people just thought it was kind of bunk during that time. It was also pretty new then. It may not have even been described in that way.

What would you say about the role of state policy and state leaders, given this new context, given what we’ve learned from previous years? What should state leaders be thinking about when it comes to educational improvement? 

State leaders should be thinking intentionally about how we stand at the intersection of innovation and democratic engagement. I think we situate those as binaries. We say, you can innovate, but that means that you’ve got to be in a charter model, which means that there is a level of opaqueness about who’s on the board, where the money comes from, what decisions are being made about the content and the culture of the school, etc.

Or, we say, you can have a fully democratic process where you can come to a school board meeting and shout your head off, but those will be places where you can’t innovate. That’ll follow this standard, that you have to follow this practice, and that there’s little room for maneuvering. Not only do I not think that those two are mutually exclusive, it’s deeply unhealthy for us to treat them as mutually exclusive.

I hear from parents all the time who are essentially saying, “I want the innovation. I want my kids to have access to the latest and greatest and best ideas about what works in the classroom, and not be stuck with 1970s, 1980s, 1990s models of education that we know have been bettered.” I hear parents saying they want that kind of innovation, but they don’t want to lose their voice in order to get the innovation. They don’t want their democratic rights to be sacrificed.

This is what this continues to boil down to. Nobody’s saying it that way, but the adults at the table have to be willing to say, “This is actually the crux of the issue.” People want the best of what there is, but they don’t want to lose their voice and their rights in the process. I think it is wise, for state leaders in particular, to be thinking about how their state departments of education set the conditions for both of those things to be true at the same time.

There are all kinds of levers that are being pulled. The one that I’m not seeing being pulled is the one that says, “How do we respect democratic voice and choice, and promote innovation at the same time?”

What role do external partners play to support the work of state leaders?

I think they have more importance than we currently give them, because right now what is happening is state departments of education, school districts, nonprofits and nonprofit leaders are creating a plan and then going and requesting community support for it instead of understanding what the community’s desires are, co-creating the plan with the community and having the community express the role that they would like — especially with nonprofits — for that entity to play in accomplishing said vision.

I frankly think we’re doing it backward. This is what I mean about voice. All these plans get put out, and then members of the community are asked to support it. But I wasn’t involved in the creation of the plan in the first place, therefore I’m not invested in seeing it be executed.

So here we are trying to fix a train while it’s already moving on the tracks, which is basically impossible to do. People are not willing to stop. They’re not willing to go back. They’re not willing to say, “We did it wrong.”

People want to move full steam ahead because they don’t want to admit their mistakes. I believe that the role of advocacy organizations, but most importantly the role of members of the community and the consumers of the products that we are putting out every single day, is essential throughout the entire process.

What issues beyond closing achievement gaps are important for education policy to consider in order to make progress on equity and educational excellence?

I don’t think closing the achievement gap should be the goal. I think closing the equity gap should be the goal, because if there’s not equity in the first place, there’s going to be an achievement gap. Also, I think that understanding what the achievement gap looks like has been very helpful in us more correctly identifying what the problems have been, but it can move into this very scary territory of being incredibly Euro-normative, and normed around a level of wealth that our kids should not necessarily have in order to experience an excellent education.

It’s fascinating — when I started running Teach for America in St. Louis, all our slides, all our presentations, all the things that we used to communicate with the outside world were about how we were trying to make kids from North St. Louis do as well as white rich kids from a school district called Clayton. We changed all that language, because if we are consistently positioning low-income black and brown kids from the North Side in competition with rich white kids from West County, and not only in competition with them, but we’re positioning those white children as the black children’s aspiration, then we’re setting up the wrong system and it will cause us to make some perverse choices.

For me, the goal is about establishing a standard of excellence and equity across the country in every classroom, such that every child is set up to thrive. To me, that’s the whole ballgame.

Ross Wiener is vice president at the Aspen Institute and executive director of its Education & Society Program. Previously, he was vice president for program and policy at the Education Trust and a trial attorney in the U.S. Department of Justice, Civil Rights Division, Educational Opportunities Section.

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