Lake: What Does It Mean to Be an Ally in Efforts to Transform Public Education? The Answers Threaten to Tear the Movement Apart

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What defines an ally? Competing answers to this question threaten to tear apart the increasingly fragile political coalitions working to improve our nation’s schools.

I’m an education policy researcher who has spent 25 years exposing unequal opportunity and outcomes in public education and proposing ways to fix those inequities. When I began, I was compelled in part by working in tandem, if not always in agreement, with a lot of other people who saw that public education was failing too many students.

While I personally shy away from the “reformer” label, I was heartened to see people on the left and right come together around one idea: There are systemic reasons for unequal opportunity. Overcoming those systemic barriers required people who didn’t agree about so many other things to work together.

This unified action led to changes in state law to create public charter schools, which better educate urban, low-income youth. It led to greater public transparency and reporting of student performance to expose that children have shockingly different access to funding, effective teachers and high expectations based on where they live and their race, disability and other factors.

Conservatives intent on holding government accountable and giving families more choices joined forces with liberals who wanted more effective public institutions and with progressives who wanted more equitable outcomes and culturally affirming schools for historically marginalized students. Teamwork across this political spectrum created opportunities for the most vulnerable students, but it benefited all children who needed something more than what the traditional system offered.

Much to the delight of the powerful special interests that want to protect the status quo in K-12 education, this united reform front is weakening. This is partly because the leaders of the movement didn’t represent the communities the movement professed to serve. In something that can only be described as missionary zeal, leagues of young, idealistic teachers and Ivy League-trained school and policy leaders promoted reform policies and created hundreds of new high-performing schools. Most of these changes were targeted to help low-income communities of color, and most did. But as with any missionary effort, this outsider-driven change was not sustainable or just.

Thus began concerted efforts to right that wrong. Among the most influential is the Pahara-Aspen Fellowship. Pahara consists of three leadership training programs that aim to “strengthen and sustain diverse, high-integrity leaders who are reimagining public education in America.” Pahara has intentionally recruited leaders of color and worked to promote a more diverse education reform leadership community.

The nation’s deepening political and racial divides are rapidly exacerbating the tensions within that community. Today, nearly every conference or meeting on education policy includes a deep discussion or debate on the intersections of education with other issues, particularly race. These dynamics first exploded after Robert Pondiscio, a well-known author, blogger and former teacher, wrote a controversial 2016 blog post arguing that discussion at that year’s New Schools Venture Fund’s annual conference for educational innovators and policy leaders about structural racism seemed to overshadow a focus on how to improve education outcomes for kids from low-income households. Conservative and white reformers felt unwelcome in the movement. Many people of color felt that their issues, too long ignored, were finally getting a fair hearing from a movement that too often sidelined their perspectives.

This debate was smoldering that summer when I was accepted to the 15th cohort of Pahara Fellows just after the New Schools blowup. I was very much looking forward to the Fellowship, but I also worried about how we would deal with the growing reality that the reform movement was fracturing along political, cultural and racial lines.

Our cohort of 24 Pahara Fellows started off badly — making assumptions about one another, being defensive. Then I watched a group of impressive leaders among us take action. Someone suggested we take time to tell one another our stories. We shanghaied the day’s agenda, created a protocol, and grabbed snacks and tissues.

Each of us described a powerful personal experience that was motivation to fight for educational opportunity. I shared that I nearly dropped out of high school and was raising a child with complex needs. When the last person finished, we saw one another plainly for the first time. For the rest of the Fellowship, we had much more empathy and patience for one another through difficult discussions about our values, our ethics and our leadership. It was clear that we all had important motivations and standing in our common cause, whether we’d been at it for 20 years or for five.

But in the end, all that goodwill was never put to best use. In our formal discussions of classic readings, we never discussed the dynamics playing out in our professional worlds. Our facilitators steered us away from debates about policy or the state of reform, asking us to reflect instead on our own values and organizations. This time was meant for our own personal growth and for recharging.

Pahara accomplished its mission of personal reflection. Many of us had epiphanies that transformed our leadership and personal and career trajectories. But in the waning hours of our time together, things became tense, as some openly questioned whether every one of us in the cohort was truly an ally when it came to equity and inclusion. We misunderstood one another and put one another back in boxes. We graduated from our program with unresolved hurt and resentment.

The question “Are you an ally?” raised by individuals in my Fellowship is the question being asked in schools and organizations across the country today. It is the question that is tearing us apart and that we are woefully unable to answer or debate in meaningful ways. We’ve done a fair job of bringing more people into the work and examining the roles of structural power and bias. That’s a big step. But to what end, if we can’t, won’t or don’t know how to actually communicate with one another, work through challenging painful discussions and build powerful partnerships toward common goals?

Steven Wilson, a member of our Pahara cohort who ran an extraordinarily successful New York City charter school network, recently wrote a provocative essay on the value of intellectual joy and invited his community to respond. A disgruntled teacher started a petition accusing him of racism and demanded that the board fire him. In October, it did.

Those in our cohort know Steven. We know his incredible record in our collective fight for equity. We know he led a system of schools away from unnecessarily harsh discipline and toward restorative justice without compromising academic outcomes. We know he led a redesign of Ascend Charter Schools’ curriculum to better affirm the culture of its students (who are predominantly children of color). We know he is not a white supremacist, as the petition wrongly claimed. On the contrary, he is deeply committed to a belief in the intellectual potential of every child. Ironically, an articulation of that belief got him in trouble.

When Steven came under fire, three Pahara Fellows (from cohorts other than our own) wrote public statements on his behalf. Many others penned private notes of support. Some said nothing. Perhaps some worried that they didn’t know all the details. Perhaps others felt Steven was an unfortunate casualty in a necessary power shift. I know we all care for Steven, but did we do enough when he needed us?

I am deeply grateful for the Pahara experience, but I believe Pahara and similar leadership programs are unintentionally setting us all up for failure. We were an intentionally diverse group of opinionated people, all with strong track records of improving students’ lives. We were encouraged to be empathetic as one human to another, and we were. But we were not encouraged, or even allowed, to apply readings from Martin Luther King, Plato and other luminaries to the intense tensions building in our community as it tries to diversify its leadership to better reflect an increasingly diverse population of students, and overcome a history of reform efforts being done to — not with and by — the communities they intend to help.

We made lifelong friends and we better understand one another, but it’s not enough. We started Pahara, and concluded Pahara, with dramatically different assumptions about what it means to work in common cause with people who don’t always agree.

We are angry and sympathetic at the same time, and we are sometimes afraid to say the wrong thing. We don’t know how to go beyond our genuine personal fondness for one another to truly answer the complex questions before us. We are moribund in difficult conversations and unable to move forward on behalf of students who continue to be failed by an education system that often fails to acknowledge, much less successfully nurture, the intellectual potential of every child. We don’t know how to stand up for one another, or approach difficult issues with the goodwill necessary to build greater understanding. We don’t know what being an ally really means, and we often stand idly by when would-be allies are wrongly vilified.

The Pahara survey we filled out two years after our Fellowship asked whether we are more likely to hire people of color in our organizations and have deep conversations about diversity, equity and inclusion. Most of us probably responded “yes,” and everyone feels good about that. But maybe we should also ask whether we have a better understanding of how alliances and movements survive internal divisions. Maybe we should say whether we would stand up for a friend when it wasn’t popular to do so. Maybe we should say whether we believe we are better (or worse) equipped to put student welfare above adult disagreements.

Meanwhile, student academic progress in most states is flatlining. The growth of innovative schools is slowing. Interventions that we know work for struggling students are not being implemented. Parents, educators and students of all stripes have little power in large, unresponsive bureaucracies. Economic mobility is slowing. Adults are still rarely held accountable for failing to help students succeed.

Now is the time for those of us who thought we were allies, despite many ideological differences, in the fight for systemic improvement in public education to either recommit as allies to work toward a common cause or form new coalitions around things we do agree on. It is time to talk about what we believe will make a transformative difference for students and be clear about how we think that will happen.

Deep reflection (and meaningful action) on the role of race, equity and power is essential work for every person and organization working in education and in America. But this work will amount to nothing if it is not also grounded in a harsh realism about what it will take to win in the most important fight there is: the fight for young people and their futures. Who has standing or who does not, who deserves brave and loud allegiance and who does not — these ideological litmus tests foster divisions that cause any movement to lose against unified and organized opposition.

In the end, the question consuming education reform is the right question: “Are we allies?”

Finding the answer might be complicated. It might involve expert facilitators (via organizations like Pahara) that work to establish common objectives, help people know and understand one another, build trust through common experience and help us map out strategies to fight for one another when things get tough.

Or, the answer may be more simple: telling one another our stories, building new ideas and new constituencies from the ground up with an eye toward growth as an opportunity for all students. Both of these options, it seems to me, should take the role of power and privilege seriously.

But if we continue to focus only on adult divisions, kids will lose.

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington Bothell. You can find her on Twitter @RbnLake.

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