A bicoastal board member, just 20, tells it like it is

Andrew Blumenfeld

This is the fourth post in a series by guest bloggers who know first-hand the strengths and flaws of America's dominant form of education governance: the local school board. Each author will draw on their personal experiences to answer the question posed for the Board's Eye View Challenge: Can school boards improve schools?

Andrew Blumenfeld is a senior at Princeton University. He began serving a four-year term on the school board in La Cañada, California in December, 2011. Andrew is also a founding member of Students for Education Reform.

When I decided to run for a seat on the La Cañada Board of Education in Los Angeles, I needed to be aggressive. That I had graduated from this district was certainly a mark in my favor. I suspected that benefit would be overshadowed by two concerns: (1) that graduation happened only two years prior (I was twenty years old), and (2) I was a junior at Princeton University—as in, New Jersey.

Luckily, my passion could be characterized as “aggressive.” As a student, I had been frustrated by the uneven quality of the education in my district; I was tired of some standardized test scores blinding leadership to problems; and I had recently become a founding member of Students for Education Reform—an organization allying college students with the plight of student-focused education advocacy.

Considering the entrenched adult interests in education politics, it’s tempting to imagine anyone not “with us” is “against us.”

Education reform is meant, primarily, to improve student learning in the classroom. Yet, I think we betray that important principle when we overlook the room for improvement in otherwise “high performing” schools and districts, like my own. La Cañada is a K-12 district serving about 4,000 predominately white and Asian students. Nearly all our students will graduate, but, unfortunately, there are still great disparities in the quality of our program.

I stand for a great teacher for every student, and I won’t turn my head because a school or district performs well in the aggregate. Kids don’t experience school in the aggregate. Research that proves there is greater variation in teacher quality between classrooms in the same school than there is between schools ought to smack “good” schools particularly hard in the face.

So after beating out another challenger and unseating an incumbent by only ten votes (of nearly 7,000)—as well as racking up countless frequent-flyer miles—I’ve found myself a student and an elected official, bicoastal, and intent on making a difference.

Less than a year in, I can’t say I can offer something amounting to wisdom. But the learning curve is the steepest I’ve ever climbed, and Peter Meyer’s article on his frustrations resonated. Perhaps both burdened and blessed with the youthful vigor, optimism, and naïveté that keeps me bouncing from airport to airport, I am not merely undeterred but emboldened by challenges I have found with governing from the Board.*

By far the greatest epiphany was the moment I realized my four fellow Board members weren’t bad guys. Considering the entrenched adult interests in education politics, it’s tempting to imagine anyone not “with us” is “against us.” I was confronted not with the caricatures the education-reform blogosphere had primed me to confront—unthinking union puppets, die-hard ideologues, or even idiots—but instead, I found myself face-to-face with the stunning banality of enabling.

I have found serious and compassionate colleagues that care deeply about students. But the very same nature of boards that seeks to create stability, unity, and strength is also responsible for neutering efforts to make changes; they quietly enable sameness—both the tactic and the end game of status-quo defenders.

As one of the public faces of a district, the pressure as a board member to be a good spokesperson is immense. Home values, enrollment, businesses—they all rely on the success of schools, and so the expectation to put the district’s best foot forward is real. The pressure is internal, too. Having asked others to entrust in me their children’s futures, it is as much faith in my capacity to deliver as it is fear in the same that weighs on me when recounting the work of the schools I was elected to oversee.

Another such pressure is the peculiar “collective responsibility” of being a board member—a phrase often repeated, primarily as a way of reminding me I have no individual authority. Both the rhetoric and the statutory reality around the powerlessness of individual members are numbing.

These qualities of board governance are clearly not explicit obstructions to reform, but rather, examples of how such governance tends to favor stay-the-course oneness, and frown upon deviation, which we readily associate with change-agents. No one has ever reminded a member of his/her “collective responsibility,” for example, as a way of encouraging advocacy.

Knowing the right end does not dictate the means of getting there.

Rather than come to these conclusions to understand defeat, I use them to rethink “aggression” when it comes to governing on a board of education. Militancy in fervor might always be appropriate, but the battle plan must look different when combating simple opposition, versus the more complex and subtle biases towards the status quo. Determined to defy conventional wisdom of board impotence, I remind myself of a few things in the face of these pressures.

First, I am not a gadfly anymore. Communities need gadflies, and watchdogs. But I can’t merely call “foul” or agitate—I have a new role, one that involves healing and growing. If I wanted to be an outsider, I wouldn’t have bothered running. But I did. Now I need to appreciate both the work of outsiders, as well as what makes that work distinct from mine.

Second, personalities matter. A corollary: Believing they shouldn’t is a weak shield against the fact that they do. A board is people. People like some people more than others. They trust some sources more than others. They succumb to different pressures than others. If “aggression” means making the same argument about the same issue to everybody all the time, then it is a masturbatory aggression that does that argument no favors.

This leads to the third reminder: Putting the interests of students first is more straightforward in principal than in execution. Knowing the right end does not dictate the means of getting there. “Students first” is a healthy mantra, but it shouldn’t hide the complex truths behind it: There are competing student interests; there are competing interests between different groups of students, etc. This demands prioritization and strategy, and those unwilling or unable to develop a crystal clear reform vision—to guide through turbulent waters of reality muddied by challenging trade-offs—should think twice about getting into education.

I may believe I am on the right side of a battle to reformat agendas to improve transparency. But if that fight, win or lose, right or wrong, makes me more gadfly than governor—if it leaves colleagues bitter, such that I meet greater resistance when building consensus on improving teacher evaluations—then I have lost my way. Battles are costly, and everyone has limited capital. Fights can’t just be worth fighting, they have to be more important than other fights.

My musings have just begun and I continue to scale the precipitous learning curve with all the eagerness of a college student. It’s too early to list successes and failures, though there have been both. But as I continue this curious double-life I find myself counting my blessings. The best part of being both an elected official and a student at the same time? I never forget to keep learning.

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*Editor's note: Blumenfeld says he arranged his school schedule to accommodate four-day trips home every few weeks and hasn’t missed a board meeting. Travel, he says, has been paid for by his campaign committee with fundraised dollars, “in accordance with California law governing the use of campaign money,” he says, “as well as by frequent-flyer miles donated by generous constituents.”

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