Compelling more people to care about ed reform requires compelling narrative

Today in his piece, ?Understanding upper-middle-class parents,? Mike asked one question in particular that stood out to me: Can affluent parents (who are satisfied with their own kids' schools) be energized to fight on behalf of school reform for the poor? He goes on:

[That] question, it seems to me, will soon be answered by Michelle Rhee's new endeavor, Students First. Rhee's potential donors and supporters surely include many well-educated, well-to-do parents; she is encouraging them to contribute money and time in order to fix the schools of other people's children, not their own. (Teach For America alumni?sensitized to the plight of inner-city education?will play a key role, I would bet.) The gambit is whether a ?social justice? pitch to fix urban education can resonate?and be sustained?with people with the resources to engage politically, but without a personal stake in the fight. Time will tell whether Rhee can pull it off. (Emphasis added.)

I've grappled with this question for a long time, not just when it comes to education reform but when it comes to improving urban communities generally. Mike is right that Teach For America, to some extent, has been able to accomplish just that ? engaging young people, the bulk of whom do not come from poor communities, to jump into the fight for educational equity. Here's where I think the discussion should dive deeper.

Whether Students First can effectively tap into this base and compel the middle-class to develop a stake in the fight says more about SF's (and Rhee's) strategies around mobilizing and messaging than it does about whether the middle-class generally can be mobilized. The answer to the first seems like ?maybe.? The answer to the second question, to me at least, is?YES. And I think more energy needs to be devoted to the question of how we do it better.

Several years ago while in grad school I developed an obsession with HBO's The Wire. It kept me up many mornings until 3am. I couldn't stop watching the narrative of inner-city Baltimore, its youth, gangs, police force, politicians, reporters, innocent bystanders, teachers, drug addicts, social workers. I wept more during that series than seemed normal ? seeing the gang/drug culture reminded me so much of Camden, where I had taught.

But I wasn't moved because I had some basic background knowledge/experience with urban hardships. Plenty of friends I knew ? who had no such experience ? were captivated and moved by it, too. This is the power of messaging, of creating a narrative within which we can begin to identify with the ?other America? that David Simon (creator of The Wire) talks about frequently. During the height of my obsession with the show, Simon came to speak at Princeton. This was his most powerful message: Most of us don't know about the ?other America? reflected in The Wire, in North Camden, East Columbus (Ohio) or in pockets all across the country. Once you meet characters who live it each day ? whether via your flat screen, a book or article, or in person via volunteering and getting involved ? your worldview will shift. To give a shit about policies or legislation or advocacy ? enough to actually do something - you need to be able to conjure up a human face to those issues. (This is a paraphrase. David Simon swears a lot.)

When it comes to education reform, the middle-class/suburban/affluent mass needs to hear a clearer and more consistent narrative. Education reformers need to do a better job of sharing it. Too often we get caught up in wonk-ish debates or attribute ?reform? to polarizing figureheads with whom we identify or loathe, and forget to put a human face on issues of educational inequity. (This is one thing TFA does very well, and probably why they have record-breaking numbers of applicants each year.)

So to me, the question isn't whether the affluent can be compelled to join the fight, and stay in the fight. It's how can we as education reformers put a human face on educational inequity such that we can mobilize more of the community to care? There are groups doing it, namely educational advocacy organizations like Students First, 50CAN, Stand for Children, and other members of the PIE Network. Theirs is important work; if we can't translate the problem into one that elicits emotion and spurs action, then it should come as no surprise if affluent communities remain largely unaware of education in the ?other America? and politically inactive.

- Jamie Davies O'Leary

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