Marc Porter Magee Ph.D is the CEO and founder of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now. He lives in Alexandria, Virginia.

This is the fourth post in our series on opening up the world of education advocacy. Two weeks ago we defined some of the basic concepts in an advocacy campaign and introduced the three part process we use at 50CAN: 1) clarify goals, 2) match strategy to environment and 3) select winning tactics. This week we explore in far greater depth (so buckle up!) what is arguably the most challenging and time-consuming element of any campaign: clarifying your goals.

First things first

Perhaps the biggest mistake advocates make is trying to speed through the process of selecting their goals. It can feel like an unnecessary step: “Of course I know what needs to change, now let’s talk about how to get it done!”

We often mistake the (correct) belief that policy work is not enough with the (incorrect) belief that we should spend more time on our advocacy strategy and tactics and less on our policy goals.

There is nothing worse than “winning” in your advocacy campaign only to find out that the policies you helped enact actually do little to address the underlying problem you are so passionate about solving.

Start with values

When we start our campaign planning process with our fellows, the first thing we ask them to do is to share their story. What are the life experiences that shaped their view of education? What are the issues they are most passionate about? Why did they feel compelled to apply for this program? Their answers to those questions kickstart the process of clarifying goals.  

When teacher turned activist Elliot Haspel was in the sixth grade, he slipped while running through the playground and smashed his head into a metal slide. What at first seemed like just a bad bang-up turned out to be much more serious. What his doctors didn’t fully understand at the time was that the accident had damaged his brain’s ability to regulate emotions. In the middle of class, he would sometimes fly into a rage when little things went wrong, throwing a tantrum as if he were in kindergarten. He was not able to attend a full week’s worth of school for two years.

But Elliot was lucky. For the next several years every adult in his life—his parents, teachers, principal, doctors and counselors—leaned in. They poured extra time and energy into creating an environment where his learning could continue while helping him learn to rebuild the impulse controls that his accident had taken away.

It was as a new teacher of fourth-graders that Elliot began to realize just how unusual his network of support had been. Many students in his class were struggling with their own trauma, physical and otherwise, but rather than being surrounded with the supports they needed, they were labeled or ignored. The system was failing brilliant kids who just needed the same kind of help that he had received when he was in need.

The three core values Elliot took from his experiences as a student and teacher—empathy, understanding and dedication—are serving as the moral foundation as he builds his advocacy plan.

Listening and learning

While your personal values are the essential starting point, to have a lasting impact on a problem you must shift your perspective outward to the people around you. While the image we often conjure up about advocates is someone with a megaphone in their hand shouting slogans, the truth is that the best advocates are great listeners. They learn to think and say “we” in everything they do. That’s why the second step in this process is to go on a listening tour.

When it came time for the team at MinnCAN to craft a new policy agenda, Executive Director Daniel Sellers and Deputy Director Nicholas Banovetz didn’t lock themselves in their conference room and start marking up a whiteboard, they grabbed their keys and hopped in the car. Over the next six months they conducted a 19-city listening tour, visiting 48 classrooms, speaking with more than 450 students, teachers and principals and powering their travels with 144 cups of coffee.

Daniel and Nicholas came away from their road trip armed with 182 pages of field notes and dozens of policy ideas. Most importantly, as they prepared for their 2014 campaign, they brought with them a much richer understanding of education issues in the cities where they lived and across the diverse regions of Minnesota as a whole.

Craft a vision

The third step to clarifying your goals is to craft a vision of change. The animating question for writing down this vision is: how will the world be better if we were successful in our campaign?

One of the most compelling historical examples of the power of a strong vision to transform a system is the advocacy work of Horace Mann.

Mann was appointed secretary of the Massachusetts Board of Education in 1837 and he immediately threw himself into the role, launching a tour that took him to every school in the state. A year later he founded The Common School Journal as a vehicle to share what he was learning with other concerned citizens in his state. What emerged was a detailed account of the huge differences in the current system: large numbers of children received no formal education, those who did often stayed in school only a few years and the long-term education that was provided was driven forward by narrow interests instead of an investment in the common good.

Thanks to Mann’s advocacy Massachusetts emerged as a leader in a new approach to education. It enacted the first compulsory-attendance law in 1852 and invested in a network of public schools to ensure that every child had an opportunity to learn. By 1885, 16 states had followed the Bay State’s lead; by 1890, there were 34 states; and by 1918, every state in the country required its children to attend school.

Mann’s reforms served as a catalyst for a sea change in American education. The average number of days students attended school jumped from 78 days to 111 days between 1869 to 1910. Over the same time period, illiteracy rates were cut in half. And high school education was transformed from the bastion of elite preparatory academies in the 1870s into a standard element of the school system by 1920.

To spark this dramatic shift in education, Mann used every advocacy tactic in the book. But as historian Ellwood Cubberley reminds us it all started with a vision of what was possible. No one did more than Mann, Cubberly wrote, “to establish in the minds of the American people the conception that education should be universal, non-sectarian, free.”

Hitting the books

The fourth step on your way to crafting clear goals is to leverage research to transform this vision into concrete policy changes that will have a positive impact. Education research has advanced rapidly in the past decade and it has emerged as an amazing resource to help guide the creation of policy goals. However with so much research available, the first challenge advocates confront is where to start.

The good news is that the Internet is lowering the barriers to accessing high-quality research. For example, working with Public Impact we created an online Policy Library that organizes top research into eight issue areas with summaries and links to the research studies that can help you craft your goals.

A great example of how these values, vision and research can be brought together is found in the work of JerseyCAN in creating their “Framework for Excellence.” The report draws upon both interviews conducted throughout the Garden State and a careful review of the research to present a concrete, five-part policy plan for achieving their vision of “engaged kids, involved families, effective teachers, strong school leaders, vibrant and innovative classrooms, high standards and pre-K for all.”

Don’t hedge

Finally (you made it!), when you have brought it all together into a policy plan you need to do the difficult work of letting go of some of your goals. As Peter Drucker reminds us, “it is much easier to draw up a nice list of top priorities and then to hedge by trying to do ‘just a little bit’ of everything else as well. This makes everybody happy. The only drawback is, of course, that nothing whatsoever gets done.”

Every year, our local advocates start out with dozens of policy goals that are consistent with their values, the views of the community and their long-term vision. And then they cut and cut and cut until they are left with the few that absolutely have to get done. And then the work of crafting the advocacy plan begins. In our next post we will explore the four winning advocacy strategies and how to choose the one that will maximize your odds of success. In the meantime, you can download our Clarifying Goals PDF for your use. 

Twitter: @marcportermagee
Facebook: 50CAN


Recent Posts

More posts from Open Advocacy

See All Posts