School choice superfan Derrell Bradford and I chew over the politics of education reform, Success Academy and what’s behind Teach for America’s new rapid response unit.
EduShyster: I better begin by revealing to the world that you and I attended the education reform equivalent of prom together: the EdReformies! We bonded over vocabulary. I told you that one of my all-time favorite words is *dissemble,* meaning *to conceal one’s true motives, feelings or beliefs.* Do you recall what your fave word was?
Derrell Bradford: My most-used word back then was *ostensible.* I had to use it all the time to master using it. Right now my undercover word is *vociferous.* Somebody asked me the other day: *How do you respond to people who say that you’re doing ‘this, this, this and this?’* And I was just like *vociferously.*
EduShyster: You’re the head of the New York education reform advocacy group NYCAN. Governor Cuomo staked a tremendous amount of political capital on tying teacher evaluation to test scores, a system that he has now essentially thrown into the Long Island Sound. The New York Times reported that some of Cuomo’s wealthy donors, who include hedge funders, indicated that they wouldn’t criticize him publicly as he *unwound* his widely reviled teacher evaluation system. What gives?
Bradford: I’m not a hedge fund ally but I will answer that question in a way that may be coincident with what their feelings are. I’m a super strong supporter of school choice, primarily because it shaped my life, but also because I view it as another way to get a kid who ordinarily wouldn’t be able to get in front of an excellent teacher in front of one. So the chute of teacher evaluation policy is something I support because, despite what people may think, I value teaching. To me, teacher evaluation is at the absolute bottom of the food chain in terms of what makes impact and what’s actually doable. And above that are things like charter schools, tax credits, the annual reporting of data. I believe that really strongly. I think that in the effort to pass those policies here, the splash damage threatened all of these other things that are actually really important. Politics is what it is. Chris Christie has a great answer for why New Jersey ostensibly isn’t doing Common Core anymore. *We tried it. Everybody hates it. So we’re not doing it any more.* I think it does speak to the fact that when you implement a policy, sometimes the world blows up and you change course.
EduShyster: In New York—and in a growing number of other states—that change of course has been forced, in part, by the opt out movement, a cause about which you and are in vociferous disagreement. Make your case, sir.
Bradford: The argument I make on this is that it’s the neediest kids in particular are the ones who need annual assessments, because when you don’t have fantastic social networks, when you didn’t win the parent lottery, when don’t live in the right zipcode, this objectivity is the anchor for holding the universe around you accountable. That to me is what’s so dangerous about the opt out movement. If you look at it here in New York, it’s predominantly wealthy white parents from Long Island and Westchester. And I’m like look, *your kid is going to be fine because you have all the soft skills and connections necessary to make sure that Johnny ends up in the right place regardless of whether his scores are up there.* But kids in Bed-Stuy don’t have that. His or her performance on one of these things is going to be the only thing that either holds the school accountable or affirms that they learned what they were supposed to have learned.
EduShyster: I just released the first episode of my podcast series, Have You Heard, in which African American parents in Philly take strong exception to exactly this argument. They say that the problem in cash-strapped districts like Philly is that there are no longer the resources available to assist the kids who the tests show need extra help. They see opting out as a way of forcing their schools to be accountable to their demands as parents and tax payers.
Bradford: I actually get what they’re saying. People want to assert control over their schools in ways that they don’t think that they can. And opting out is the thing that is closest and most easily leveraged. I would say that the problem here is that at some level what’s being diagnosed here is the symptom, not the disease. The real problem is that whether or not the data is there, school districts have inertia and power to not change it. We’re having this discussion about how parents want their schools to perform different and they actually have very few tools to enforce difference at any level, whether or not it’s in district or out of district. I’m not unsympathetic to that. My thing is that that’s not a problem with testing, that’s a problem with school bureaucracies, and so let’s unleash different kinds of forces on school bureaucracies or unleash people from school bureaucracies so that they can seek the kind of education that they want. So they don’t want testing, they want to be in places that are built around different kinds of pedagogies—go for it.
EduShyster: I’m going to seize upon something you just said and repeat it: *different kinds of pedagogies.* You’re a major proponent of school choice (note that I didn’t say *vociferous* as I didn’t want to overdo it), but it’s getting hard to ignore what seems like a contradiction in your movement. On the one hand, the talk is always about more choices for individual parents, but all the big money bets are on the expansion of charter networks, like Success Academy in NYC. Do you see this as a problem?
Bradford: First of all, full disclosure: I’m a board member of Success Academy and a vociferous advocate. But my opinions are my own. I am concerned that the tendency has been to say: *we have winners. Let’s double down on winners.* For me personally, that’s problematic. And I say that even as I’m happy to see Success scale until no one wants to go to it anymore. Chartering power is meant to do more than one thing. It’s meant to help create networks of practice that are replicable. Another thing it’s meant to do is give people in communities the chance to make the school that they want, and that’s really important. So this is a legitimate concern to me, that people want to bet on the former almost to the exclusion of the latter. I would argue that when a charter schools fails, that’s a good thing. You never want a school to fail, but the premise of chartering was that you get creativity, freedom and autonomy in exchange responsibility and if you didn’t meet your goals we were going to close you. That premise is what makes chartering different from district schooling. Because of that, people have a bias towards doing the things that they don’t think will fail versus doing things that may fail. As long as failure is seen as a black mark rather than a byproduct, you’re going to find people doing what they think works.
EduShyster: The CEO of Success, Eva Moskowitz, has been in the news a lot lately. I’m actually a big fan of Moskowitz because she comes right out and talks about the practices of her schools and why she thinks they’re necessary. As in this letter to the Wall Street Journal where she explains that Success can’t allow for the possibility that kids might daydream. It feels profoundly unfair to me that your zipcode, or even your neighborhood within a zipcode, determines whether or not you get to daydream.
Bradford: That is a very compelling argument you just made there. In a place where you’re not betting on winners and losers, there might be a bunch of people who decide that they don’t want Success anymore. Even if lots of folks don’t think that a model that has those behavioral norms isn’t the right one, it is for somebody. You have some people who just believe that more progressive education is the way to go, and in doing that they’re basically saying that *no one else should have anything different* vs. saying *we believe there should be space for this and we understand that other people may not value that the way we do.* Which is why you need to continue to have this churn. This is why it’s so important that we’re not always betting on one thing and trying to make it the only thing because then you don’t have any space for this other stuff that we’re talking about.
EduShyster: You told me a while back that you see one goal of education reform as severing the automatic connection parents make between neighborhoods and schools. Even typing this causes me to become agitated (!!!), but I also have to give you props for owning where your vision leads. Many of the education reformers I talk to don’t seem to have thought much at all about what the policies they’re advocating for mean for neighborhoods.
Bradford: Look, there’s nothing that would make me happier than if all of the neighborhood schools worked, because it would be so much easier to let people buy into their neighborhood schools in the way that they feel like they should be able to. But I feel like the notion of high-performing neighborhood schools is rooted in creating the circumstances that normally allows neighborhood schools to be high performing, which is to say they’re overwhelmingly segregated, they tend to be in rich districts and they tend to be exclusive because you have to live close to them to get into them. So when people are yelling that *we need a community school that works,* well, if your community looks like Princeton, OK, but if your community looks like Paterson, not so much. If power of any sort is zero sum, whenever you elect to leverage one part of it, there are positives and negatives for the other parts of it. In the case of the neighborhood school, maybe the school does what you want, or maybe you could leave. The real thing to me is that any person should have both of these options. What should not happen is that one person has the right to say *I don’t think you should be able to opt out of the power arrangement I prefer.* Which is what is what is at the heart of the exchange we’re having.
EduShyster: Last question—ish. In addition to your NYCAN cap, you also wear a Teach for America toque. In fact you’re heading up TFA’s new *rapid response unit* aimed at responding rapidly to critics, in whose ranks I often number. Tell us about Corpse Knowledge. My bad—I mean Corps Knowledge.
Bradford: Teach for America gets a bad rap that it doesn’t deserve and somebody needs to stand up for that. If it was Habitat for Humanity or City Year, everybody would be coming off of the bench saying *it’s wrong for you to attack young people who believe in service.* We think that’s important. Teach for America for me is a way that some folks get involved in the world in a way that they otherwise might not. Some of them go on to teach. Some of them go on to do other really amazing things that have nothing to do with teaching. So they taught for America and now they’re trying to save it. Or they’re trying to change the world in meaningful ways. And we believe that the experience that those people had as Corps members is really important to why they have chosen to do those things. Because of that, we want to have those people talk about the other things they do.
EduShyster: I will admit to being a bit confused here because the high-minded goal is actually kind of appealing, and yet an awful lot of the *rapid response* fire power seems to have ended up trained on TFA alum-turned-critic Gary Rubinstein. Full disclosure: I consider Gary a pal.
Bradford: Mr. Rubinstein’s position on TFA is well known and very public, and part of making a safe space to support the efforts of Corps members and alums is also about challenging what we feel are mischaracterizations about TFA and the motivations of folks who support the program. That said we agree with him on one thing: folks who are teaching shouldn’t get blasted for teaching, and that means Corps members too.
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