Broader, Bolder Education Double Talk Hurts Credibility

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

February 25, 2016

Earlier this week, the “Broader, Bolder Approach to Education,” founded in 2008, re-launched with a big event in Washington, DC. As before, Broader, Bolder is positioning itself as a counterweight to those who they perceive as not acknowledging poverty as the root cause of educational disparities.

I agree with most of Bolder, Broader’s stated policy priorities: expanding early childhood education; remedying education finance inequities; ensuring the availability of health and nutritional supports for all students. If you take Broader, Bolder at face value on those things, they’re golden. When you scratch the surface a little, however, it’s pretty clear that things are not quite that straightforward. Here are 5 reasons why:

1. Broader, Bolder has created an army of “No Excuses” straw men who don’t think poverty counts when it comes to student success in school. However, what they portray as the “No Excuses” coalition is, in actuality, a group that seems to me to be acutely aware that poverty matters. The difference is that where Broader, Bolder sees a monolithic “No Excuses” crowd there are, in reality, individuals with diverse viewpoints who share a common conviction that demography is not destiny and who believe that big changes both outside and within the education system can give every poor child the opportunity to succeed.

2. In a column posted on Valerie Strauss’ blog at the Washington Post, Elaine Weiss, BB’s national coordinator, states that “No billionaires grace the Advisory Board.” As if Broader, Bolder is above power politics. As if Broader, Bolder is transparent about where exactly it gets its financial support. As if BB itself receives no support, directly or indirectly, from billionaires like George Soros via the Economic Policy Institute, BB’s partner organization, which also receives major funding from well-heeled teachers unions.

3. BB says it wants “holistic accountability systems” that “capture a wide range of measures of student well-being to reliably track of [sic] student progress toward readiness for college, careers, and civic engagement.” I’m ok with that as far as it goes. The problem is that in eight years, BB hasn’t gotten any more specific. The ten model accountability systems that education experts created and put forth in the space of about a month as part of a Fordham Foundation competition are all more detailed than anything on BB’s website. In that sense, BB’s approach to accountability is roughly the same as that of  2016 Republican Presidential candidates who want to “repeal and replace” Obamacare: They’ve beaten up on the program for eight years, but still haven’t come up with any substantive alternatives.

4. BB has an entirely different standard for accountability when it comes to accountability for public charter schools stating that: “The bulk of research finds that charters, on average, may confer negligible advantage for the students they target…” And yet such studies rely wholly on test scores, not the more “holistic” measures BB wants traditional public schools to be judged by.

BB is also glossing over the facts. Even at the national level, there are average positive effects on student achievement when one looks at disadvantaged groups of students served by public charter schools. Even more elucidating are the results at the state and local level. States like Arizona and Texas have charters that do worse on average, than traditional public schools. In other states and cities public charter schools are knocking it out of the park.

“What we really need – at the very least – are statewide curriculum frameworks and statewide assessment systems. Then, students and teachers in every school will know what kids are responsible for learning and whether or not they have learned it. And we should add statewide incentive systems that link getting into college or getting a job with achievement in high school. Once those things are in place, why limit charter schools to five or ten or a hundred? Why shouldn’t every school be a charter and enjoy the kind of autonomy now being offered to only a few?” From “Every School A Charter,” Former AFT President Al Shanker, New York Times

5) On public charter schools, BB is also rewriting history. BB asserts that the former, iconic AFT President Al Shanker saw the purpose of charters as “laboratories to test innovative ways to better meet the needs of a diverse student body.” That’s patently untrue (though the folks at BB aren’t the only ones who’ve created an alternative history). Shanker was in fact an early proponent of charters providing school choice and competition within the public system.

A lot of us would like to see less polarization in debates around education reform and greater effort on all sides toward finding common ground on policies that will ensure every child has the opportunity to learn to his or her utmost potential. The re-launched Broader, Bolder is sending mixed signals on whether it wants to be part of the problem or part of the solution.