Gretchen Guffy is a past member of the 50CAN team. 

Many of us at 50CAN are still reflecting on last week’s 50CAN U campaign boot camp, a week entirely focused on learning about the necessary components of an effective state legislative campaign: great research and policy, communications and mobilization and advocacy support. Personally, I’ve been reflecting about what it means to pick policies worth advocating for.

As the VP of Policy and Research, I worked closest with our newest NYCAN and MarylandCAN executive directors during campaign boot camp to identify three to four policy goals to include in their respective policy agendas for the 2011 legislative session. We discussed a range of options – from proposing parent trigger legislation, to promoting expanded virtual learning opportunities and to getting rid of quality-blind layoff systems – and used the following questions to guide our conversation: Can we build a movement around this policy? Can we pass this policy into administrative or legislative change? And, most importantly, will this policy make a meaningful and positive change in the lives of kids?

During these conversations, I kept reflecting back on something Denis Calabrese of the Arnold Foundation said during his session with us: When you set out to do something, you have to know what it will look like when your goal is achieved. In other words, you must know when your job is done and  when you can walk away knowing that the problem you set out to solve has been fixed.

For us, we will know our job is done when the gap between the academic performance of low-income students and their wealthier peers is closed; when all high school seniors possess a basic understanding of our democratic system of government; and when all kids have the confidence to achieve what they set their minds to.

In the face of persistent achievement gaps, uncertainty around the federal role in education (ESEA reauthorization), and a menu of strategies (some good, some not so good) promising to “fix” the system, it is difficult, and at times impossible, to imagine our job of reforming the nation’s education system as ever complete. But that’s also why it’s so important that our goal – to close the achievement gap and ensure great schools for all students – remains central to our policy agendas and rooted in our principles of accountability, choice and flexibility. We can never ask ourselves enough: Will the policies we are proposing or setting out to change really help close the achievement gap and will they create great schools for kids?  

We hear and say the phrase “there is no silver bullet for education” often. And it’s true—there is no one magic fix for the system. That’s why at 50CAN we devote so much time and effort to researching and supporting only the state level policies and levers that we believe will bring us closer to our ultimate goal of fixing schools and closing the achievement gap. Because the policy landscape varies from state to state, the things we choose to advocate for vary by state, too: a new principal evaluation system in Minnesota, pension reform in Rhode Island, eliminating the charter school cap in Maryland and opening paths to alternative certification in New York, for example. But regardless of the means, our end goal is always the same.

50CAN’s president and my boss Marc Porter-Magee recently wrote,  “An advocacy campaign is built to change the world for the better. Beautiful advocacy puts the need for results at the center of its work while leaving behind the extraneous elements that detract from this goal.”

In the policy world, there are a lot of “extraneous elements” floating around. It’s my job to vet new research and policy ideas and make sure we only get behind the ones that will help us reach our ultimate goal: providing great schools for all.


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