Just after the ball dropped on the new year, a Minneapolis Star Tribune article strongly suggested that 2017 will be the year of the progressive—when it comes to the city’s mayoral and city council races. In the glare of Trump’s victory, Democratic incumbents, including Minneapolis mayor Betsy Hodges, will face a growing pool of newly organized, newly emboldened progressive candidates. These candidates, the article points out, are stubbornly rallying around a laundry list of causes, from the Fight for $15 to climate change and racial justice.
Missing from that laundry list is any mention of public education. It may be because, traditionally, the Minneapolis Public Schools have been governed by an elected school board, beyond the purview of either the city council or the mayor’s office. Still, Minneapolis has not been immune to well funded, local and national school-choice interests and their attempts to bring more pressure to bear on the city’s schools. And the state’s legislature flipped to Republican control in the 2016 election, perhaps signaling a coming clash between lawmakers and the state’s pro-public education governor, Mark Dayton.
Part of the problem is that progressives have been slow to push out a well-defined vision for education. Nationally, forces of resistance have been awakened by Trump’s nominee for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, a billionaire advocate for taxpayer financing of religious education and the privatization of what she calls “government schools.” In Michigan, DeVos’s abysmal track record on education is impossible to ignore.
It is easy—and important—to be against DeVos, and easy, perhaps, to jump on the progressive bandwagon as a defensive move against Trump. But what does a progressive policy platform for education look like? Many of us know what we don’t want—more public subsidies for religious school tuition, more privatization, more testing—but are we as clear about what we do want? In fairness, this might be tougher to articulate, as the market-based education reform movement has skillfully and purposefully kept public education supporters on the defensive for years, often with the help of spendy PR firms. Here are a couple of places to start:
Schott Foundation for Public Education: The Boston-based Schott Foundation has been on the front lines, building a pro-public schools, social justice agenda. The Foundation offers invaluable resources and research to those interested in a forward-looking, progressive policy approach to education, and recently launched a “Grassroots Education Webinar” series (open to all) along with a New York City-based fund for girls and women of color. The foundation’s website, complete with helpful infographics and clear position statements, is excellent.
Another grant-making outfit to watch is the Sherwood Foundation of Omaha, Nebraska. This foundation is run by Warren Buffett’s daughter, Susie Buffett, and provides funding for early childhood education and the Omaha public schools. There is no whiff of “school choice” as the magic bullet for fixing inequality in education; instead, the Sherwood Foundation appears dedicated to supporting the schools that already exist. On the foundation’s website, Buffett writes that “children are born learning,” but our public policies often don’t adequately respect or support this.
Want data? Think small: In 2016, Finnish education expert, Pasi Sahlberg, co-wrote a piece on the “next big thing” in education: Small Data. Along with Boston youth advocate and policy wonk Jonathan Hasak, Sahlberg’s piece explains the difference between “Big Data” (think reams of test scores, spreadsheets, constant monitoring) and its quieter counterpart, Small Data. Big data is big business, Hasak and Sahlberg argue, noting that, “Beyond government agencies, there are global education and consulting enterprises like Pearson and McKinsey that see business opportunities in Big Data markets.” Small Data is a concept attributed to Danish writer Martin Lindstrom, who believes it is the smaller interactions between human beings that often reveal the “biggest trends.”
“In education,” Sahlberg and Hasak say, “these small clues are often hidden in the invisible fabric of schools. Understanding this fabric must become a priority for improving education.” Yes, but how? Sahlberg and Hasak admit there is no one “right way” to find or utilize Small Data, but they do offer a list of places to start, such as focusing on teamwork and collaboration in schools, as well as allowing students a greater role in “assessing and reflecting on their own learning.” This information should then be used to to make better “human judgments” about teaching and learning--something Sahlberg and Hasak say Big Data has not been able to do, despite its popularity with journalists and policy wonks.
These are just two avenues to explore when searching for a progressive, forward-looking policy framework for public education. Perhaps an education secretary as polarizing as Betsy DeVos will bring people together to work for a progressive vision of what we want from our public schools.