The death and life of great American education organizations

Why do the woes of the Education Commission of the States (ECS) put me in mind of the late Jane Jacobs?

Jacobs wrote what may have been the 20th Century's most influential book on urban planning, The Death and Life of Great American Cities. It appeared in 1961 even as bulldozers were destroying neighborhoods and historic buildings in the name of "urban renewal" and "civic progress" to make room for public housing, fancy new developments, sports arenas and such. Boston's West End was leveled in 1959. New York's grand Pennsylvania Station lasted five more years before the wrecker's ball hit. All the while, uber-planner Robert Moses was gearing up to drive an expressway through Greenwich Village and Washington Square.

Jacobs's book began to put a stop to Moses's plans, and more. She argued that living, breathing neighborhoods require a diversity of people who actually dwell in them and make them tick, who watch out for one another's children, for each other's welfare, and for public safety. Greenwich Village and Boston's North End were-and largely remain-testaments to her beliefs, as do many small towns and more than a few suburbs.

She was insightful. But it is also true that neighborhoods, towns, even entire cities, sometimes outlive their raison d'etre and more or less disappear. Recall the classic "ghost towns" of the west, after the mines ran dry. Villages on the northern plains where nobody under 60 wants to live today. The town in Japan that recently shut itself down because it had no young people left. Big swaths of Detroit. And others.

So, too, with organizations. Sometimes their function is no longer needed. Sometimes their energy, membership, or funding sources dry up. Sometimes they get into other kinds of trouble. They aren't immortal. Nor should they be, any more than dysfunctional schools that nobody wants to attend. Like neighborhoods and cities, the world of organizations is a dynamic marketplace of its own.

Which brings me back to ECS. Two national education groups worthy of mention have closed their doors over the past two years, and there are hints that ECS may follow suit.

The Council for Basic Education (CBE) ceased operations in 2004, half a century after its founding. (Read Diane Ravitch's tribute here.) It ran out of steam and out of funders; but above all it lost its moorings. CBE was a classic "cause" organization, the one significant group in America that steadfastly and eloquently made the case for intellectual development as the primary mission of schooling and for a solid liberal-arts-style curriculum for all children as the means of achieving it. As it tried to broaden that single-minded cause, it marginalized itself, like a Pope who decides that he also wants to be a Buddhist.

The other deceased group is the Education Leaders Council (ELC), which imploded in recent months, a decade after its founding. (You can read Gene Hickok's fine account of that founding here.) As he wrote, the ELC was born "to tap a rising sentiment within the country for dramatic change in education. Taking its direction and strength from the grassroots...the council advanced a number of reforms that at the time were seen as controversial. Today, these reforms have become almost commonplace."          

The ELC was a classic oppositional organization. Its mission was to offset the establishment thinking of another group (the Council of Chief State School Officers [CCSSO]) and the tepid reforms of the Clinton administration, as well as the long policy legacy of a Democratic Congress that had ended just a year earlier.

It withered primarily because its worldview prevailed. CCSSO mended its ways. The Bush team brought accountability and (to a lesser extent) choice to federal policy-and brought people such as Hickok into high office. ELC's contrarian voice that seemed urgent in the mid-nineties was redundant ten years later.

But ELC also lost its moorings. It got greedy and took too much federal money, which it managed badly. Its board fell into internecine warfare and its management structure was weak. It had a good run but outlived its usefulness.

Now we read that ECS is foundering, hemorrhaging staff, and running down its bank account. (See here.) ECS dates to 1965, formed as an "interstate compact" whose motto is "helping state leaders shape education policy." Born with the Great Society, it pledged to "encourage and promote local and state initiative in the development, maintenance, improvement and administration of education systems and institutions in a manner that will accord with the needs and advantages of diversity among localities and states."

Today that looks mighty bland, but recall that this happened before the governors revved up as education reformers, before A Nation at Risk, before "the chiefs" were more than a cautious old-timers' club, and just as Uncle Sam was beginning to dispense K-12 dollars. State policymakers needed a place to get together and compare notes.

ECS provided such a place, and along the way it became a valued information clearinghouse. Its annual meetings were absorbing. It also became the initial grantee for the National Assessment of Educational Progress, running that brand-new endeavor on behalf of its private and federal funders. (When I arrived at the White House in 1969 as a junior education staffer, one of my first callers was ECS chief Wendell Pierce, the former Cincinnati superintendent, keen to brief me on this interesting new testing project.)

The research, analysis, and databases that ECS disseminates remain valuable, but in recent years the organization itself has been eclipsed by the energetic education policy work of state-centered organizations such as the National Governors Association and Achieve, and their periodic "summits," and by proliferating ed-policy think tanks and research outfits of every stripe. Instead of senior policymakers at its conferences, one tended to encounter staffers, interest group reps, and vendors of various goods and services.

I don't know whether ECS will limp through. But forty years may have been its useful life cycle. If it did not exist today, there'd be no great need to invent it.

ELC, on the other hand, is being reinvented in a very different way, by people who disagree with everything it stood for-individuals and groups that take it as their mission to "save public education" from the forces of testing and accountability on the one hand, and school choice on the other. In other words, the "oppositional" role that ELC was born to play is forever with us, but today's opposition groups (e.g. Citizens for Effective Schools, People for the American Way) have the opposite ideology because, as Hickok commented, ELC's values have become "commonplace."

As for CBE, we still need something like it to combat the overwhelming pressure on the education system to settle for reading and math skills and an instrumental rather than intellectual view of education. I don't know what form that should take- surely different from CBE, not a resurrection-but Fordham is committed to exploring this territory and to help bring about whatever makes the most sense.

As we mourn the passing of Jane Jacobs and re-read her wise words, let us recognize that organizations, too, have life cycles. Just because one was once needed doesn't mean it still is. We should make room for the new (and successor) organizations yet struggling to be born.

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