Friday, May 1, 2009

Former Foes Unite in Battle to Bridge the K-12 Achievement Gap

STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINES — In April 2009, McKinsey & Co. released a report that rocked both the educational and business worlds, putting a $700 billion price tag on the "education achievement gap"—or the difference between the performances of high- and low- income K-12 students. The Economic Impact of the Achievement Gap in America's Schools concluded that the impact of this gap on the U.S. gross domestic product (GDP) was equivalent to a "permanent national recession"—a recession much deeper and longer-lasting than the current one promises to be.

The report received front-page coverage in major media outlets, "and certainly got everyone’s attention," said Jonathan Schorr, a partner at NewSchools Venture Fund, speaking at the 2009 Stanford Business of Education Symposium on April 30. "There was surprise that a respected business research organization would declare a crisis in education," he said and businesspeople were impressed that McKinsey had managed to calculate a dollar figure that actually measured the economic impact of that crisis.

This reaction was typical of the different perceptions that educators and businesspeople have long held about the U.S. educational system. "People who make the journey between the business and education schools know you are traveling across international borders with different languages, different cultures, different systems of beliefs, and different values," he said. And these differences are not exactly celebrated. "Businesspeople think educators are too nonlinear, fuzzy in their thinking, and that they use their hearts more than their heads," Schorr said. Educators, on the other hand, see themselves as "rivers of knowledge, bringing a wealth of ideas as well as actual practical classroom experience that benefits their students," he said. For teachers and educational administrators, "businesspeople are all head and no heart."

Schorr said the tension between these two groups resembles the battle lines journalist Michael Barone drew in his 2004 book Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for the Nation's Future. Barone’s thesis of division can also be viewed through the lens of politics, from the conservative right (hard) compared to liberal left (soft). In the educational universe, the battle is over such issues as who gets taught, what they are taught, and by whom, and how success is measured.

Acknowledging the divide, Schorr said today he's witnessing major changes by both sides crossing previously impenetrable lines. "The labels of 'hard' and 'soft' are starting not to fit, and a new space is being created where those categories are no longer useful," he said.

"I'm beginning to see alliances between liberal and conservative groups who are saying, 'We really have to find a way to get our kids to be more competitive,' and the people who are saying, "You don't understand what they've gone through just to show up," he said.

Schorr, a former teacher himself and a member of the founding group of Teach For America, also worked as a journalist and wrote about educational topics in such publications as the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and Washington Monthly. He also authored the critically acclaimed 2002 book Hard Lessons: The Promise of an Inner-City Charter School.

Today he is seeing what he calls a "fascinating coalition of political opposites." For example, he sees grass roots community- and church-based initiatives such as the Oakland Community Organization, which is "as soft as you can go," collaborating with the deeply conservative groups," he said. "These interactions that involve people from very different places in the political spectrum are going to happen more and more. We’ll be seeing some very strange bedfellows—all of whom, however, are passionate about the education of low-income kids."

A case in point: John Walton, the son of Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton, whom Schorr characterized as an "arch conservative" agrees with many self-described liberals that education is the biggest problem this country faces. "His conservative belief that hard work and opportunity are required to earn a place in this country, and his commitment to founding charter schools in low-income neighborhoods to achieve this, has led him to fund some very 'lefty' groups," said Schorr.

What signaled most strongly to Schorr that the barriers between hard and soft were breaking down was a meeting held in Denver the Monday before the 2008 Democratic Convention. "This was an education forum which would have, in the past, attracted maybe five or ten people," he said. "But this time we had a standing-room-only crowd of more than 500." One of the surprises of the evening occurred when Cory Booker, a Stanford graduate who is the mayor of Newark, New Jersey, and a rising star in the Democratic Party, announced that Democrats have been wrong on education, and that it was time to get it right. "It was impossible to stand in that cheering crowd and not feel that something had changed in a truly profound way in this country," said Schorr. Barack Obama’s subsequent election, and his rejection of tired dualities from the past, gives Schorr the confidence that we'll finally move past the same arguments debated for the past 30 years.

"Teachers want to improve performance. It's not a conservative or liberal issue," he said, quoting Obama. "We have to be willing to both embrace the idea of being truly held accountable with measurable results with children, and capable of embracing the children themselves. It's no longer a question of what side you are on, but what are you going to do?" he said.

Schorr is one of eight leadership partners of the NewSchools Venture Fund, a national nonprofit venture philanthropy firm in San Francisco that seeks to transform public education, particularly for underserved students, by supporting education entrepreneurs and connecting their work to systems change.