I got my start in the world of policy and advocacy in Washington, D.C., first at the Progressive Policy Institute working on social entrepreneurship, and later at the Partnership for Public Service working on government reform. I loved both jobs, both because of the incredible people I got to work with and also the common mission of finding better ways to solve America’s problems. But I was also surprised in the transition to the Partnership for Public Service how different it felt to be working on solutions from inside government rather than outside. CHCOC. IASP. GS-12, Step 8. My head was spinning by the end of my first week.
As more and more education reformers move from entrepreneurial nonprofits to positions in departments of education, my conversations with them about the strange new world of government agencies has me thinking a lot about my time as research director at the Partnership. It seems clear that one of the big challenges on the horizon for education reformers is getting much smarter about government reform.
Social entrepreneurship is in the DNA of the modern education reform movement. The story of a young Wendy Kopp, senior thesis in hand, setting out to change the way we recruit American teachers through an entrepreneurial nonprofit has been repeated over and over again for the past 20 years with new waves of innovative nonprofits led by pioneering leaders. I love this part of our movement. It connects us to a worldwide push to find bold, pattern-changing solutions to persistent problems by working hard, taking risks and pursuing a vision of excellence.
Of course, nonprofits serving as trailblazers for new approaches to solving public problems has deep roots in American history. For example, Hull House, a turn-of-the-century charitable organization founded by future Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams, helped jumpstart a new approach to providing social services for needy families. But there is another part to this story, because Hull House is remembered not only for helping lift countless families out of poverty but also as a model, inspiration and advocate for many Progressive Era reforms (from immigrant rights to child labor laws to compulsory education), paving the way for Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal legislation.
That’s the moment we are entering now in education reform. Trailblazers like Rhode Island Commissioner of Education Deborah Gist are working against the odds to ensure that the pattern-changing ideas developed by social entrepreneurs actually change the patterns of how we provide public education in America. She is spearheading a sweeping reform agenda driving changes in everything from teacher preparation to teacher evaluations to parent choice to a new funding formula. Securing these changes requires more than just bold leadership, it takes a movement.
Sometimes that means advocates will need to stick up for state leaders as they fight for change or marshal the research on just what a difference strong state leadership can make. But it also means getting much smarter about the changes needed to ensure state departments of education have the systems, tools and talent to carry out the more ambitious mission they are being asked to take on. It’s one thing to pass an ambitious new teacher evaluation bill—and we are proud of the role MinnCAN played in doing so in Minnesota this year—but it won’t amount to very much if we don’t get the implementation right. That means not only making sure that the specifics of how we build these evaluation systems are chosen wisely, but also that the Departments of Education have the talented, committed and well-managed staff they need to make these complicated new systems work. We still have much to learn from what organizations like the Partnership for Public Service and other government transformation groups have done to reach this goal.
The role of advocates is going to get a lot bigger—and more challenging—in the years ahead as we add government transformation to the to-do list. As we continue to fight to create the policy conditions for breakthrough social entrepreneurs to thrive, we must also work to create the conditions in government agencies for an equally committed group of public sector leaders to ensure that these sweeping policy changes get results for kids.
Thanks to Flickr user sixes & sevens for letting us use the license plate image under a Creative Commons license.