Are trainings the right model for building DSA chapters?

East Bay DSA members preparing for a neighborhood canvass

After a brief, heated debate and a confusing vote recount, DSA’s 2017 National Convention passed the “non-binding” Resolution 28, which proposes we allocate $190,000 (a substantial portion of our yearly budget) to a series of trainings. The trainings, covering topics like “Community and Culture” and “Building Through Relationships,” are meant to address the very real challenge of turning an organization with tens of thousands of new members, most of whom are new to both socialism and organizing, into an organization of fully fledged socialist organizers. Most DSA chapters are either new or newly energized, and it was clear at the Convention that chapters across the country want some amount of guidance and support from National. Along with the Medicare for All national priority proposal, Resolution 28 was one of the only resolutions proposing a way to deliver that kind of support, so it’s no surprise that many comrades (a narrow majority) voted for it. I know that the Resolution was written with the best intentions by comrades who share my love for DSA and my desire to see it grow into a force that can win everything in the years to come. However right now, as we try to understand how we might implement this potentially costly and non-binding resolution, I think it’s necessary to ask what our organizers and our organization can expect to gain from the model of learning proposed by Resolution 28.

I’m interested in this question both as someone who joined DSA in January with no political experience and quickly became a lead organizer of a large chapter, and as someone who has studied similar adult-learning trainings in the field of education research. We can draw from the ample body of education research on teacher professional learning (also known as professional development or “PD”). We can also ask any teacher comrade about their experience of PD in their district. Teachers in most school districts are expected, and sometimes compelled, to attend days or weeks of trainings every year — trainings which are often very similar to those proposed by Resolution 28.

To cut to the chase, these kinds of trainings don’t work very well for teachers and they are unlikely to work for DSA either.

Supporting teachers to implement new standards like the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) or the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) is not unlike supporting new DSA members to become socialist organizers. For those who are unfamiliar with the CCSS, they can be understood as an effort to move classrooms away from a “drill-and-kill” or “sage on the stage” model of learning, to one where students themselves are responsible for the intellectual labor of the classroom and the teacher’s role shifts from a lecturer to a facilitator of students’ shared inquiries into the content.

Because almost no Americans have experienced this type of learning in school, implementing the new standards is vastly easier said than done, even for educators who are excited to take up the new role.

Likewise, almost no one comes to DSA as a fully fledged socialist organizer, although all of us are eager to learn. Like teachers facing a classroom of 6th grade math students, we cannot succeed if we engage shallowly with the content before us or if we engage shallowly with others in our organizing. We want to work and fight and learn deeply with our friends and neighbors so that we all are transformed into comrades in class struggle and we transform our world in turn. This is our practice.

School districts are also frequently tasked with “transforming” teacher practice when new standards, curricula, or techniques are adopted, and staff is usually trained on these via what teachers derisively call “sit and get” professional development. A district will gather its teachers in grade-level or content-area groups for a few days or weeks in the summer in a conference room and tell them what to do in their classrooms. There is no follow-up or opportunity to try things out with real students. There is also the phenomenon of “drive-by” PD, where a flashy consultant shows up and puts on an inspirational show for a few hours. A third model is called “train the trainers,” a cost-saving measure where districts invest in learning for a smaller group of teacher leaders who are then tasked with taking that learning back to their peers at their school sites, which frequently results in dilution or incoherence of the message due to poor support for the trainers.

Years of teachers’ bitter experience along with ample research show that these three models are almost always a waste of teachers’ time and districts’ money, and are absolutely inadequate for the task of guiding adults to deepen and reflect on their practice in the way required for a seismic shift like taking on the new standards. Sadly I am confident that DSA will learn the same very expensive and disheartening lesson if we implement Resolution 28 as written. These one-off trainings, disconnected from our real practice together in the world, are unlikely to guide new socialists to taking on the deep and challenging work before us and they will squander a significant chunk of our tiny budget in the process. We simply cannot learn how to do political work except by doing political work and being supported to reflect and learn in the context of that work.

Luckily DSA can also learn from the positive experiences of districts that gave up on sit-and-get trainings in favor of models where the learning is deep, ongoing, mediated by the experience of peers, and embedded in teachers’ actual daily practice with their real students, their real community contexts, and their real personal and organizational goals. For one example, Gersten, Taylor, Keys, Rolfhus, & Newman-Gonchar (2014), found that out of 643 mathematics professional development programs in use in American school districts, only two resulted in statistically significant positive effects on student math proficiency. The programs which achieved results, which succeeded in helping teachers to change their practice in order to support others in learning, were not “trainings.” Their common feature was an intensive focus on teachers doing and reflecting on the meatiest aspects of their real work together over long stretches of time.

Simply put, getting teachers in a room together once and describing routines for ideal education does little to affect their practice — they go back to their classrooms and do what they’ve always done because this is a poor way to help people change and improve in deep and complex ways over time. When teachers are supported to gather with their colleagues in their own schools, to learn and study something that is meaningful to them then plan a lesson together, to watch one another teach it, then to reflect and refine and go out and try again tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow — learning becomes an ongoing process that is inextricable from practice.

For DSA, the parallel is clear — instead of prefabricated, surface-level training modules isolated from the actual work ahead of us, we should use our democratically determined priorities to pair national campaigns like Medicare For All with sustained support from National and peer chapters including mentorship, material resources, the shared development of a set of best practices, along with forums and structures for shared reflection on challenges and wins. Once chapters design and embark on their campaigns, mentors and national staff would support them to frequently gather to reflect and reassess the work, within and across chapters, to make needed tweaks or deeper changes to their organizing programs based on these reflections, and then to go out and try again, and reflect again, and improve again.

People who study complex systems change (which is what DSA is trying to do right now) say “every system is perfectly designed to achieve the results it is getting.” The trainings outlined in Resolution 28 come from a non-profit model of change. Speaking as a person who works for a non-profit, and is proud of my colleagues’ work, I have to say non-profits have never and will never achieve the kind of revolutionary changes DSA wants for the world. Non-profits exist to work within the existing system, making refinements and improvements that help it to function better.

My chapter has used a well developed campaign around single-payer healthcare to rapidly train and develop new organizers and to create an extremely effective leadership pipeline. We have dozens of members who came to our chapter with no political or campaign experience, who canvassed, then lead canvass teams, and now run our increasing sophisticated canvassing apparatus, which includes a data operation and neighborhood canvass teams organized by city council district. The canvassing work is pumping out experienced political leaders for our chapter at an amazing rate.

By contrast the trainings I experienced at the national convention — which were lead and designed by impressively smart comrades — were what I think most of our teacher comrades would qualify as “sit and get” or “drive-by” learning, likely inadequate for the task of quickly forging us all into hardened and nimble class warriors. The kind of learning that our hungry young organizers deserve cannot happen in two feel-good hours in a conference room. Kids cannot deeply learn math by being told how to do math; teachers cannot learn how to teach by being told how to teach. DSA’s brave and committed chapter activists will learn how to organize by organizing and by getting and giving meaningful support around that work, not by being told how to organize. The work and the learning must be mutually reinforcing, and they each must happen in the streets, on our neighbor’s doorsteps, in our workplaces — in the world we want to win.

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