A Tale of Two Education Reformers

Jonah Edelman
Steve Barr

It was Horace Mann and his lesser known comrades in the 1830s that launched the United States into the mode of top-down education “reform” initiatives by the meritocratic and entrepreneurial elite. The legacy today is perhaps our continuing and stubbornly OSFA (one size fits all) public school system. Frederick Taylor carried that torch in the late 19th Century applying his “Scientific Management” principles to public schools. His legacy is timed classes, bells and forms in triplicate. John Dewey continued the “reform” tradition in the early 20th Century with his “Democracy and Education” and focus on civics and social studies. And in the 1990s Rod Paige brought the country his “Houston Miracle”, and its legacy, No Child Left Behind and high-stakes standardized testing.

Certainly no consistent political agenda among the four… or is there? Mann and Dewey would be considered political progressives in their day, and Taylor and Paige conservatives. But they all believed in the top-down, rather than bottom-up approach to educational governance. That is, education was a compelling state interest and therefor the state should call the shots and stage-manage every child’s education.

Today there is no shortage of members of the meritocratic elite who try to make their mark and write their legacy as education “reformers”. Bill Gates comes to mind as the exemplar, along with numerous other individuals and foundations that plow millions of dollars into studies and programs to attempt to rethink, reinvent, and revitalize our public schools. But nearly always from that top-down perspective, looking for some “best practice” that can be turned into a single grand new scheme for educational transformation.

Two such contemporary meritocrats have been in the headlines lately (at least in the education business media like Education Week) for their work. The first is Jonah Edelman who launched the organization Stand for Children to improve public education through grassroots organizing of parents. The second is Steve Barr, founder of Green Dot charter schools, which has focused on revitalizing or replacing failed schools in Los Angeles inner city neighborhoods. The commonalities and differences between them and their stories are very interesting and informative as we grapple with our path forward as a society, and what are the drivers of educational and larger societal transformation.

Both Barr and Edelman have progressive political roots. Edelman’s mom is Marian Wright Edelman who founded the Children’s Defense Fund. Barr has been a Democratic party activist, fund raiser and community organizer, who co-founded the program “Rock the Vote” in the 1990s to encourage more young people to participate in the political process. Both I believe have gravitated to the importance of a good education for all America’s children, including those whose families are poor and disenfranchised, consistent with basic progressive principles.

What may differentiate the two of them is not their politics in a liberal/conservative sense, but their paradigm for how change happens. Is it instituted from the top-down as a universal “best practice” or is it developed from the bottom-up by a negotiation with the key players in the school community.

Edelman and Stand for Children

Following in his mom’s footsteps, Jonah Edelman was one of the key organizers of the 1996 “Stand for Children Day” which which drew 300,000 people to the Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC, along with numerous follow-up events and rallies around the country. With fellow event organizer Eliza Leighton, he founded the Stand for Children organization to launch an ongoing effort to continue the cause, that now includes dozens of local chapters in nine states.

The Wikipedia piece on Edelman and his organization calls out its goals, which don’t sound that different than the educational goals of the Obama administration…

* Getting great teachers and principals in every classroom and every school, giving educators the strong support, flexibility, and pay they need to do their best work, and making it easier to let teachers and principals go who, even with support, aren’t doing the job.

* Giving schools greater freedom to innovate while maintaining strong accountability.

* Expanding learning time, through a longer school day and year and providing high quality early childhood education.

* High school graduation standards that ensure high school graduates are ready

* Tests that truly measure what students know and how well they think.

* Data systems that measure students’ growth from year to year, show whether or not students are on track to graduate, and indicate how well schools and teachers are educating children.

* Effective intervention for chronically low-performing schools and struggling students.

In 1999, Edelman organized parents (including low-income parents) in Portland OR to fight for the Portland Children’s Levy, which provided funds for early childhood education, foster care, child abuse prevention programs, and a variety of other programs centered on children. Over the years SFC broadened its focus to work for more K-12 school funding and endorsed pro-education candidates for elective office. They fought for lowering class sizes and repairing crumbling school facilities.

SFC attracted a lot of corporate donations and over the years, at least according to a blog piece by a long-time parent volunteer and former Portland OR SFC Board member Susan Barrett, the focus of the organization began to change. Recounts Barrett…

I recently stepped down as a volunteer co-leader of a Stand for Children (SFC) team in Portland Oregon, the headquarters of this organization. Being a SFC member has meant fighting for the needs of children and better public schools for all students in this state… However, things have started changing here in Oregon, and I worry that SFC is headed down the path that disaffected parents, like me, identify as the corporate reform movement.

That “corporate reform movement” agenda, according to Barrett, includes expansion of charter schools and online learning, plus lowering of the capital gains tax in Oregon in exchange for more money for public schools. Writes Barrett…

This stance is a great departure from what people would normally expect of SFC, and only makes sense when you see the wealthy investors on SFC’s National Board of Directors, and how billionaire philanthropists like Bill Gates and the Walton Family Foundation are now funding and driving the organization’s agenda.

Perhaps reinforcing SFC’s growing corporate-driven agenda, Time magazine (whose agenda is generally aligned with big buisness) recently gave kudos to Edelman and his organization. Per Wikipedia…

In 2011, Stand for Children – and Edelman in particular – was cited in Time Magazine for “delivering results and changing how politicians think about grassroots education reform.” This acclaim was attributed to their work to improve school funding in Oregon, teacher evaluations in Colorado, and teacher policy in Illinois.

As to those “grassroots” education policy changes in Illinois, Edelman has been recently criticized for remarks he made at the Aspen Ideas Festival on June 28, 2011, regarding his role in the Illinois effort, as summarized in Wikipedia…

While unions and legislators say they engaged in a collaborative effort in which all sides gave a little in an effort to improve Illinois’ schools, Edelman told attendees at the Festival, that, actually, he led a well-funded campaign that used lobbyists and shrewd political gamesmanship to pressure union leaders to give up their rights. “They essentially gave away every single provision related to teacher effectiveness that we had proposed — everything we had fought for in Colorado,” Edelman said in Aspen… Subsequent to this speech, a video of Edelman’s lecture went viral. Afterwards, he apologized for his “arrogance” in claiming his political manipulations alone passed the bill to the exclusion of unions’ contributions. The Illinois Education Association declined his apology.

Given his pedigree, Edelman may have started with good intentions as a grassroots organizer, but perhaps in the never ending pursuit of funding and connections to help his organization grow and wield more clout, he has begun to compromise the integrity of his reform vision.

Barr and Future is Now Schools

Steve Barr made his name founding and leading the non-profit organization Green Dot, which has opened 17 charter schools in inner city Los Angeles to replace failing conventional public schools. Barr negotiated extensively with neighborhood parents and community groups in the process of setting up charter schools in their neighborhoods. He also has gotten enthusiastic backing from Los Angeles’ mayor Antonio Villaraigosa.

Barr is unorthodox among charter school launchers, in that his schools have unionized teachers. Though Barr has been at odds with the local Los Angeles teachers union (UTLA – the United Teachers Los Angeles) and particularly its former leader, A.J. Duffy, Barr negotiated with the statewide teachers union instead ( the CTA – California Teachers Association) which blessed his efforts to launch unionized charter schools.

The Green Dot schools have a different contract with their teachers union than conventional schools, as laid out in Anthony Cody’s Ed Week blog piece on July 21, “The Scaled Down Contract: Boon or Bane to the Teaching Profession?”

Only a few centralized policies are included: salary, health care, class size, and number of workdays. Teachers are paid 10-14% more than their counterparts at traditional public schools and they are given explicit input into decision-making authority in setting school policy to include the school’s budget, calendar, and curriculum, which is determined at the bargaining table. Teachers can teach what they want, how they want, as long as students pass quarterly assessments. There is no tenure, seniority preference, or probationary period for new teachers, and all teachers work under the protection of just cause discipline and dismissal. In addition, teachers work “a professional work day,” rather than defined minutes… A professional work day means teachers are expected to work on site till 5 pm. So, the 10-14% “increase” in pay is, in fact, compensation for the increase in hours teachers are expected to work.

The trade off of more control of how they run their classes and a real role in school governance in exchange for tenure and seniority is a key provision here that has been endorsed by the CTA. Barr is quoted in Cody’s piece as follows…

If you’re creating a new system you need a new unionism. If we’re more streamlined and we have less bureaucracy we should pay the teachers more – which we do. We want our teachers to be part of the decision-making so they feel they have more say in the game. We want them to also commit to being more accountable: you don’t have a job for life no matter what you do. Everybody is going to know we serve the kids first not the teachers first. There’s no minutes or hours in our day – it’s a professional contract and we require a professional workday. There’s also “just cause” instead of tenure – which most businesses have. It gives you some protections but it’s not an end-all.

So to me as a parent and not a teacher, Barr’s approach seems innovative and his intentions, in terms of respecting students and teachers, seem good. Readers will have to do their own investigating and thinking on this.

Barr does have his critics, though in googling him I did not find as much specific criticism as I would have imagined. He and now former UTLA union head A.J. Duffy apparently have had no love loss for each other. Duffy has accused Barr’s charter schools of skimming the most academically proficient kids for the existing public schools, which Barr vehemently denies. I could find no specifics on this or any other pieces in the local Los Angeles media providing specifics to this charge.

Barr has recently parted company with his Green Dot organization, a “divorce” as some in the media characterized it, and launched a new non-profit, Future is Now Schools, to attempt to bring the model for charter schools he developed in Los Angeles to other cities around the country. He is apparently in negotiation with school districts in several cities, including looking at opening a school in the Bronx in NYC. Barr has gotten a 500K grant from the Gates foundation to pursue this effort.

Blogger Cody notes that Barr has been criticized in some circles for the brevity of his CBAs (collective bargaining agreements) with unions. He also notes that the Board of his new organization is heavy on corporate sponsors with no teachers…

But the FIN Board is comprised of the usual hedge fund managers, investment bankers, real estate developers, cable network owners and lawyers. There are no educators on the FIN Board. Apparently they like their CBAs short and to the point, and are going to get $500,000 from Bill Gates to keep them that way.

Can he and his new organization continue the apparent local community focus of Green Dot, or will they be lured by the pursuit of big corporate foundation donations to more of the “dark side” of corporate and top-down educational control?

For more on Barr you might take a look at an extensive and generally salutatory piece that appeared in the New Yorker and is available for full viewing by non subscribers at the following link.

A Choice of Paradigms

So there it is… a tale of two community activists fighting to improve our public education system. Both are political progressives who have achieved tangible results in improving public education by most measures. Both have gotten funding from corporate education foundations.

But one, Jonah Edelman, appears to have adjusted his focus from his original grassroots community organizing to the top-down education “reform” that is consistent with existing state bureaucracies and education-industrial complex “reform” priorities. Who by his own words is exercising his political skills to out-maneuver labor unions so the state can gain more control over its teachers.

The other, Steve Barr, though also involved in trying to change the way teachers unions operate, and butting heads with some union leaders, seems still focused on his progressive community organizing roots, and working with teachers and parents towards more grassroots improvements to neighborhood schools.

The ongoing narrative of our society’s transition from hierarchies of control toward a circle of equals I believe is informed by the story of these two activists.

Jonah Edelman

6 replies on “A Tale of Two Education Reformers”

  1. good post, lefty —

    the pressures on reformers for funding and acclaim are similar indeed, though i’d argue that the backgrounds (privilege vs. public school) and the early adult lives (instant stardom vs. paying dues) of edelman and barr are even more dissimilar than you describe.

    you and your readers might be interested in the book i wrote about barr, green dot, and the attempt to rescue locke high school without stripping it of its soul. it’s called stray dogs, saints, and saviors

    / alexander

  2. Alexander… glad you liked my piece… and happy to give you the opportunity to give a little plug for your book! From my reading of various pieces about Barr, he seems like the real deal as a grassroots activist. Hopefully Bill Gates won’t get his clutches into him too much!

    I think it is important that we appreciate the water we continue to swim in, which is this huge transition from hierarchical to more egalitarian institutions, including our schools.

    /Cooper Zale

  3. Thanks for that link to Ohanian’s piece about Joshua Edelman’s connection to Arne Duncan. So perhaps Jonah and Joshua have really woven themselves into the education hierarchy.

  4. Barr’s approach sounds more flexible in that the teachers can teach whatever they want as long as students pass quarterly assessments. I would hope the students, too, would have input into their own choice of studies. And like you, Cooper, I hope that Gates and his corporate imperatives don’t start to dictate a “hierarchy of control.” Funny, Gates the Harvard dropout trying to ensure everyone gets a college education – or gets groomed for the conformist workforce.

  5. Louise… agree with you on Barr… I was more impressed with him the more I read. He’s not to the point of really empowering the students, but if anyone can make that jump at some point, it might be him. Barr seems the perfect antidote to all the progressive naysayers (including on DailyKOS) about charter schools being an evil plot to destroy public schools.

    Thanks for the comment… I really appreciate it!

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