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What Education Reformers and Anti-Reformers Have in Common

By Mark Sass

When I was in high school, many decades ago, I found myself hanging out with friends who belonged to different social groups. I never could be pigeonholed into one group or another. Even then, I appreciated the diversity of thinking and views of teenage life. I thought of this the other day as I was driving up to Boulder to attend an “education reformer” conference after having just attended a school accountability conference that included many people who claimed the title of “anti-reformers.” While many of the attendees of both conferences would consider themselves liberals and Democrats, they would not consider themselves allies in the fight for educational equity. And that’s a shame. I worry that since Democrats now have control of both Colorado chambers, K-12 legislation and the debates that follow will get bogged down because of the binary “reformer” versus “anti-reformer” labels. And that would also be a shame.

We are all prone to using and applying labels to each other. In education circles, the label of “reformer” conjures up someone who is a corporate-loving and market-driven hater of public education. Liberals who are “non-reformers” are seen as favoring policies that are adult-focused (union members) and that reject any attempt to hold teachers accountable for student achievement. As someone who has so far managed to avoid being pigeonholed into one group or another, I have come to see that these two groups share more than they would like to admit. My hope is that liberal Democratic legislators will avoid the labels and all the baggage that comes with them, and focus on what unites them around public education: Public schools that provide opportunities for all students to achieve at high levels.

My experience tells me that both factions want equity to drive policy decisions. Both factions realize that school is but one institution that impacts the lives of students — institutions that administer the health and welfare of our citizens are just as important. Both factions believe in the fight for social justice. I have seen both factions protesting ICE ripping children from their parents at the border, supporting Black Lives Matter, and pushing back at the gerrymandering that has contorted our democracy. We need to realize that just as we are allies in these fights, we can be allies to ensure all students have the opportunities to achieve and lead healthy productive lives.

For example, both factions could work together on teacher quality. Both sides would agree that teachers have the greatest influence on academic achievement in the classroom. Both sides would agree that teachers need to know the impact they have on students under their care. The question moves to how we evaluate the impact of teachers on their students and how we can support those teachers who need professional development and how we can leverage those teachers who excel. I am a firm believer in the power of a compelling argument, so can we have an argument around how to evaluate teachers without accusing reformers of applying business metrics to the issue, and without anti-reformers being accused of only wanting to protect union members?

School funding should be an easy rallying point for reformers and anti-reformers. So should school accountability and ensuring teachers entering the profession are prepared and receive the necessary supports to be effective. Funding full day kindergarten has been embraced by both sides. And both sides would agree that the practitioners should be the ones leading the profession.

(Note to my Republican friends. This is not to say you don’t share in many of these ideas. I am addressing those like-minded progressives such as myself.)

In my current role as the State Director for Teach Plus in Colorado, while teaching part-time high school social studies, I interact daily with teachers who are leaders in their schools and districts. All of them focus on what’s best for the profession, which means what’s best for students. They don’t lead with any label other than professional educator, and that’s what unites them. Those who engage in education advocacy can learn from that.

I have interacted with all types of education reformers and anti-reformers and I can say that there is more that unites us than divides us. The next legislative session is an opportunity to work together to ensure we have high quality teachers in every classroom; that we have discipline policies to keep our young black and brown boys from entering the school-to-prison pipeline; that social and emotional learning is not relegated to the back burner of school curriculum; and that K-college funding matches our expectations of a 21st century society.

The psychologist Lynne Namka said, “Labeling is definitive; once we say it, then it holds meaning.” My hope is that the next legislative session focuses on the shared meaning of what we hope to see from our schools and how we can get there.


Mark Sass is the Colorado State Director for Teach Plus. He teaches high school history at Legacy High School in the Adams 12 Five Star School District.