Category Archives: Grassroots

High expectation vs. low expectation parent organizing

This is likely a crude distinction, but I think there’s a real difference between high expectations and low expectations parent organizing.

Low expectations parent organizing occurs when you simply meet parents where they are at, without having much urgency about tackling systems level issues.

For example, organizes might work for parents for a few years on issues like lunch quality, bus routes, and extracurricular activities.

If organizers and parents work hard and a few year later the lunches are a little better, what’s the point if the vast majority of the kids can’t read or do math on grade level, or if the school culture fails to build students with strong values?

This feels like low expectations: working too long on these issues is implicitly saying that parents are not smart enough to tackle the most pressing issues facing their children.

High expectations parent organizing starts with the premise that families can grasp systems level issues, and that the quicker they are engaged on important issues like teacher and school quality, the better.

I’ve had the opportunity to discuss really hard educational issues with families living in deep poverty. And while it’s surely true that they start from a deficit of policy knowledge, they tend to come up to speed quickly and, most importantly, can merry policy arguments with the brutal facts that they see day in and day out when the are forced to send their children to struggling schools.

Based on my experience (and I still have a lot to learn in this area), I’d say the following are the key components of great high expectations parent organizing:

  1. Organizers begin with the mindset that families can grasp and advocate for systems level policy solutions.
  2. Organizers provide unbiased (as much as feasible) educational classes and experiences to families so that families can grapple with systems level policy issues.
  3. Organizers both possess and cultivate a sense of urgency – so that educational experiences start leading to powerful systems level actions.
  4. Family leaders fairly quickly take the reigns in terms of determining the future policy and advocacy agenda.
  5. Family leaders increase their operational chops so that the actions and campaigns they are less reliant on external organizers.

Ultimately, this is a two step high expectations game: first, you need to believe that families can understand systems level issues, and second, you need to believe that they can lead the charge.

I’m still trying to get smarter in this area, so I hope that the organizers who read this blog  will correct errors in the comment section.

Organizing, Mobilizing, Commanding in Education Reform

steal pos

Over the past decade, education reformers have spent more time and resources on grassroots work. Outreach to families, community members, and teachers is on the rise.

This type of work can take many forms. It can involve listening, organizing, informing, advocating, mobilizing, and commanding.

This post from an ex-organizer is of interest.

Jorge Cabrera writes:

As I began my work in the “education reform movement” in Bridgeport, I noticed a plethora of ivy league educated “consultants” and “transformational leaders” that littered the often loose coalition of funders, new organizations and executive directors.  From the beginning, it was clear that many of these new “leaders” that were emerging were well credentialed. They had graduated from prestigious universities and, it was presumed (though not by me), that alone qualified them to lead. Many were very young (recent graduates), energetic, unmarried with no children and little life experience.  They often exhibited a cultish commitment to “the movement.” Their zeal for “education reform” and “saving the children” often resulted in a bizarre abdication of critical thinking that made a mockery of their high priced “education.”  For instance, in many meetings I attended, many of these acolytes extolled the virtues of charter schools as the only solution to closing the achievement gap…

I am an unmarried consultant with no children who possesses an ivy league degree and extolls the virtues of charter schools.

I was not involved in the work in Bridgeport (New Orleans is mentioned in the post), and I hope if I had worked there I would not have come off as abdicating critical thinking. But surely some have accused of me doing just this.

More from the post:

I recall in one strategic planning meeting when I advocated for authentic engagement and patience to allow parents the time to become informed on the various issues and was told to, “just use language to convince” the parents and impress upon them a sense of “urgency.”  Another person told me, “It’s all about how you say it.”  It was becoming increasingly clear to me that there was little interest in authentic community engagement and problem solving.  The fact that I was hired to do exactly that was lost on virtually everyone!  They were talking at me not to me.

I think this is a major risk in the education reform movement. If you say you are going to engage people, then you should listen to their opinions. If you say you’re going to organize, then you need to put the voices of others first.

My general way of operating is to be clear that I already have opinions on education reform, and while I’m willing to change these opinions, I’m an advocate, not an organizer – my opinions represent my own thoughts, not those of others.

As per Cabrera’s policy outlook, I disagree with much of it. I also find his reflections on Naomi Klein’s Shock Doctrine to be unconvincing. I thought her writing on New Orleans was ill informed and analytically weak.

But I think Cabrera is right to criticize reformers who pose as organizers but are really advocates.

I think it is legitimate to organize others around their own desires.

I think it is legitimate to mobilize others around a shared vision.

I think it is legitimate to advocate for your own policy beliefs.

But you should be transparent about what it is that you’re doing.

Lastly, this is a new area of consideration for me, so if I’ve gotten a lot wrong, drop a note in comments. Or pillage me on twitter.

The former would be preferable.