The other day I was talking gun policy with a friend and she asked why I wasn’t saying more enthusiastic things about the prospect of gun safety measures being enacted this year in Congress (I’m supportive of 2nd Amendment rights but think rights also mean responsibility and that should be reflected in some reforms to our gun laws, but I’m pessimistic about the short-term prospects for impactful solutions absent a change in the political landscape on the issue, that’s a decade-long project, not a short political window). Her question, though, highlights an interesting tension in my work and Bellwether’s work – call it the clash of head and heart. Given that – according to our own market research – there is some confusion about what we do at Bellwether, it’s worth a look.
What I mean by head/heart is that everyone at Bellwether is driven by a strong desire to see better outcomes for kids – especially those least well-served today – and only do work that fits with that mission. We sometimes disagree internally about the best way to do that but there is absolute fidelity to the underlying goal – along with a few other attributes it’s a predicate to work here. That’s the heart part. But people don’t hire us for our hearts, they hire us for our heads. That’s why the roster of who we work with runs the ideological, political, and practice gamut from Sesame Street and the National Education Association Foundation to Google, The Walton Family Foundation, states and school districts, along with several of the most successful charter school networks in the country and organizations that are not on board with charters at all. (Yes, we also believe the tendency of too many in education to only want to work with those with whom they agree overwhelmingly signals the immaturity of education politics).
A few examples illustrate the head/heart clash:
*I’m strongly in favor of a federal-state partnership to expand access to pre-k education for low-income kids and have worked off and on around that issue for more than a decade. I’m also skeptical of the path forward for pre-K in Washington given our current politics.
*I like educational technology and am hungry for transformational ideas, yet I think ed tech and digital learning is being oversold.
*For several reasons I support giving parents more educational choices than most have today, including charter schools. But the record of charters to date is mixed (there are some obvious reasons why) and has included some surprises. On choice more generally, the most in-depth research efforts (some of which I’ve been involved with) show a very mixed and complicated picture.
*At Bellwether we think the teacher evaluation systems used almost everywhere until recently were irretrievably broken, some of us are also skeptical of some of what’s happening now to reform them and think it could set efforts to improve evaluation back.
*While not a Bellwether project, the entire Whiteboard “Education Insiders” survey is predicated on expert analysis about what is likely to happen not what people want to see happen. It doesn’t work otherwise. And survey research is perhaps the best example of all this – you can be disappointed with the results a survey or poll show, I often am, but you’d better be able to read and analyze them in a clear-eyed manner if it’s your job to do so.
The unsophisticated misread skepticism about the prospects of something happening as opposition to it. Others just wish you just wouldn’t say something sometimes or maybe say it differently. After I noted that when the dust settled in Chicago Karen Lewis came out on top some people wanted to know why I’d give her cover, or even praise! Or some wished I had a different take on the implications of 2012 down-ballot races for education reform. In each case the answer is simply that it was my best judgement of the situation. I’m not a fan of Karen Lewis but she pulled something off there, and it’s noteworthy and had effects associated with it that impact our field. And if thinking that our education system is seriously screwed-up and needs dramatic change makes you a reformer, then I am one, but that doesn’t change that those who think that way had trouble at the ballot box in November.
The bottom line is that our judgement and analysis (and the exceptional skills of our strategy and talent teams) is why people hire us – and that’s an important distinction, we’re not just blogging or opining or taking pot shots, we’re hired and paid to try to get it as right as we can and have a responsibility to do so. To borrow from David Coleman, in the spaces we operate in nobody really cares what you feel or what you want. They care about what you can tell them to help them understand their situation and get better at what they’re doing. To the extent their needs overlap with our mission, we work with them. But that work has to be rooted in facts, evidence, and analysis, not in what your heart wants. We’re not always right, of course, but when you’re wrong it better not be because you conflated what you wished would happen with what was likely to happen when you were tasked with providing your best analysis and judgement.