While we have been writing a lot of posts on The Catalyst that share the tips, tools and insights we have learned in 50CAN’s first five years, there is so much more that needs to be done to reach the goal of a high-quality education for all kids that hasn’t even been tried yet.
In this post, we look into the future to share an idea that education advocates could use to tackle one of the biggest challenges we face: the slow pace of progress in growing a larger, more diverse and more dynamic leadership corps.
If there is any field that can’t be satisfied with supporting a small number of advocacy leaders, it’s ours. The very nature of education in America—its vast network of 14,000 school districts, the complex interaction of thousands of different local, state and federal policies, the enormous diversity of our student body and the challenges of ensuring effective implementation without centralized control—means a small number of campaigns, no matter how well funded, will never be enough.
In education policy, we often talk about the structural changes needed to improve our education systems. It’s worth turning that question back on ourselves to ask: what kind of structural changes would be needed to truly democratize our approach to education advocacy?
Power curves and long tails
To explain why education advocacy is ripe for a democratic revolution, it’s helpful to spend a little time talking about how a similar revolution has transformed other fields. It requires a few charts, and a few detours to the world of top authors and microbrews, but it’s worth it!
Almost ten years ago, Wired editor Chris Anderson popularized the idea that the combination of cheap computers, widespread broadband connections and online marketplace would work together to help democratize production in areas like news, music and books. This dynamic, he wrote, would lead to a “long tail” of products and services developed by small producers who would collectively rival the largest organizations in each field.
The mathematical concept for this idea is a “power curve.” If you plotted authors and sales on a chart it would look something like this:
In contrast to a typical “bell curve” distribution, where the largest number of authors would be plotted in the middle around the average number of book sales, in a power curve a small number of authors—J.K. Rowling, Stephen King, John Grisham—have very large sales. Then there is a steep drop off followed by a very large number of authors with relatively small sales numbers.
While you might think that over time this tail would go away as more and more sales go towards the top authors, when it comes to a field like publishing, the numbers suggest that the long tail is actually growing much, much longer. For example, Bowker, the bibliographic information company, estimates that between 2007 and 2012, the number of self-published books in America tripled.
This extraordinary growth is powered not by existing authors writing more books, but by many more Americans taking up writing. The literary review site The Millions estimates that there are now at least 250,000 active novelists in the United States. Lest we think that is the upper limit of what’s possible, the BBC recently estimated that one in ten residents in Iceland will likely write a book in their lifetime. Now imagine what would be possible if one in ten Americans were leading education advocacy campaigns!
The same “long tail” is emerging in fields as diverse as filmmaking and craft brewing. For example, the total amount of beer produced by craft brewers—16.1 million barrels a year—now outpaces Budweiser. More than 4,000 independent feature films were produced in 2014 that collectively brought in more than $3 billion dollars in revenue. Perhaps this same dynamic could be the key to understanding the future growth of education advocacy as well.
Two ways to grow education advocacy
Over the past decade, there have been enormous investments made in education advocacy campaigns, but the total number of campaigns remains quite small. At the same time, there are thousands of aspiring leaders looking for opportunities to start local education advocacy campaigns. Where do they fit into the picture?
Analyst Ben Thompson of the website Stratechergy writes about two kinds of systems that support producers in a field:
- A pro system that works on behalf of a very small number of people who can spend a lot of money. For example, in the book industry this might include the agents, publishing houses, advertising firms and professional editors.
- A scale system that works on behalf of a very large number of people who can’t spend a lot of money. For independent authors this might include freelance editing and design marketplaces, Amazon’s Kindle self-publishing tool and Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook pages to get the word out.
One way to understand the progress we have made in education advocacy to grow the number of campaigns is that we have invested in the pro system but haven’t made similar strides in building up a system that can support citizen advocates. These aspiring leaders need a qualitatively different set of supports designed to help them start and sustain high-impact but low cost advocacy efforts in their communities.
Supporting citizen advocates
What might a system of support for citizen advocates look like? It would likely involve the same three elements we see in professional campaigns—leadership, staffing and funding—but optimized to operate cheaper and scale quicker than is possible within the professional system.
Open source training. One key element needed to help aspiring advocates start campaigns is a much easier, less expensive and more open way to get education advocacy training. What’s needed is both greater breath of training to cover more topics and greater depth to allow for true mastery of the materials. A more robust system would allow for more project-based learning, provide more opportunities for mentorship and support the building up of experience by working alongside professional campaigns.
Crowdfunding. Another huge barrier to starting advocacy campaigns is fundraising. The number of funders—individuals or foundations—willing to support advocacy campaigns is quite small. The result is that few campaigns get funded through these avenues and the campaigns that do get funded tend to fit the “professional” template. One approach to better supporting citizen advocates would be to better leverage crowdfunding platforms to help small campaigns get the early support they need to get off the ground.
Peer-to-peer marketplace. A third major barrier for aspiring advocates is campaign support. In a professional campaign, this problem is solved by hiring full-time teams of skilled experts. The cost significantly limits the number of campaigns that can be supported each year. One alternative would be to leverage a peer-to-peer approach by connecting aspiring writers, designers, researchers and organizers to leaders with promising ideas. The funds raised through crowdsourcing could be used to provide small payments to these peer contributors, facilitated through an online platform.
The larger professional campaigns didn’t spring up overnight; they emerged from philanthropic investments in a support system that helped them grow. If we want to truly democratize education advocacy, we will need to make a similar investment in a support system that can scale.
That’s a lot of things to build, but these support systems don’t all have to come together at once to start to make a difference. At 50CAN, we have been piloting some of these ideas and we hope to accelerate our efforts in the months ahead. There are a number of other talented groups doing the same. If you have projects under way that could contribute to this effort, we would love to learn about them. Please drop us a line!
And don’t forget to join us in the conversation about education advocacy on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram.