Hard lessons in education reform - AEI

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Event Summary

Inspired by Frederick M. Hess’ new book, “Letters to a Young Education Reformer” (Harvard Education Press, April 2017), education reform leaders gathered Wednesday at AEI to discuss the lessons that aspiring reformers can learn from the triumphs and disappointments of modern school reform efforts.

Teeing things off, Jal Mehta of Harvard University interviewed Dr. Hess about the inspiration for the book: What reform successes and failures did he have in mind while writing? What are the antidotes to excessive federal intervention, blind passion, and groupthink? Dr. Hess emphasized that reformers should be wary of costly fads, judgment impaired by enthusiasm, and the tendency to dismiss tough work at the local level.

Jeanne Allen, Chris Cerf, Michael Feinberg, Neerav Kingsland, and Deborah McGriff reflected on momentous experiences in their careers that changed their thinking on contentious issues or prepared them to tackle major obstacles to turning their ideas into reality.

Derrell Bradford, Peter Cunningham, Howard Fuller, Alexis Morin, and Hanna Skandera shared advice for the next generation of reformers, from dealing with critics to empowering families and communities with more autonomy in local education matters.

–Paige Willey

Event Description

The past quarter century of school reform has been marked by triumphs, setbacks, and heated debate. Reformers have continually tried new ideas to transform schooling, from sophisticated technologies to dynamic funding models and everything in between. Many have had limited success, but none have truly revolutionized K–12 education. Given the opportunities and challenges facing the next generation of reformers, what are the lessons, strategies, and advice that can help them succeed?

Join AEI for a candid conversation with a dozen reformers who have seen it all. Celebrating the release of Frederick Hess’ new book, “Letters to a Young Education Reformer” (Harvard Education Press, April 2017), this conversation seeks to brighten the future of school reform by reflecting honestly on its past.

Join the conversation on social media with #EdReformLetters.


1:45 PM

2:00 PM
Welcome and introduction:
Gerard Robinson, AEI

2:05 PM
Initial remarks:
Frederick M. Hess, AEI
Jal Mehta, Harvard University

2:25 PM
Panel I: Lessons learned along the way

Jeanne Allen, Center for Education Reform
Chris Cerf, Newark Public Schools
Michael Feinberg, KIPP
Neerav Kingsland, Laura and John Arnold Foundation
Deborah McGriff, NewSchools Venture Fund

Jal Mehta, Harvard University

3:35 PM

3:50 PM
Panel II: Advice to young reformers

Derrell Bradford, NYCAN
Peter Cunningham, Education Post
Howard Fuller, Marquette University
Alexis Morin, Students for Education Reform
Hanna Skandera, New Mexico secretary of education

Frederick M. Hess, AEI

4:55 PM
Closing remarks:
Gerard Robinson, AEI

Adjournment and reception

Event Contact Information

For more information, please contact Paige Willey at [email protected], 202.419.5219

Media Contact Information

For media inquiries or to register a camera crew, please contact [email protected], 202.862.5829

Jeanne Allen is the founder and president of the Center for Education Reform. She has earned credibility among policymakers, business leaders, and the press for effective advocacy, grassroots organizing and coalition building, and compelling writing and public speaking. She is a frequent commentator in the media, appearing on broadcast and cable television networks and national and local radio. She has published hundreds of articles and commentaries in outlets such as USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, and The Washington Post, and she is a regular contributor to The Huffington Post and National Journal. Her book “The School Reform Handbook: How to Improve Your Schools” (Center for Education Reform, 1995) ignited parent-led efforts for education reform. Ms. Allen advised four presidential administrations and gubernatorial transition committees and served on numerous state panels and boards. She has been a leader in promoting innovative technologies to close learning gaps.

Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president of 50CAN and the executive director of NYCAN. In his national role, he recruits and trains local leaders across the 50CAN network. He previously served as the executive director of Better Education for Kids (B4K), where he worked to secure passage of the tenure reform legislation TEACHNJ. Before B4K, Mr. Bradford spent nine years with New Jersey’s Excellent Education for Everyone as the director of communications and executive director. While there, he also served on the state’s Educator Effectiveness Task Force. He frequently contributes to education debates in print, digital, radio, and TV media. He serves on the National Association of Charter School Authorizers’ advisory board and the boards of Success Academy Charter Schools, EdBuild, the Partnership for Educational Justice, and the Parent Coalition for Excellent Education. He is also a Pahara-Aspen fellow, and he is a former board member of We Can Do Better New Jersey and St. Anthony High School in Jersey City. He received a bachelor’s degree in English from the University of Pennsylvania.

Chris Cerf became superintendent of Newark Public Schools in July 2015 after serving as the New Jersey commissioner from January 2011 to February 2014. He has comprehensive experience in large-city school leadership positions, having served as deputy chancellor of the New York City Department of Education during Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s administration. During his career, Mr. Cerf has also served as associate counsel to President Bill Clinton and as a law clerk to Justice Sandra Day O’Connor. He taught high school history for four years.

Peter Cunningham is the executive director of Education Post. He recently served as assistant secretary for communications and outreach in the US Department of Education during the Obama administration’s first term. Previously he worked with Arne Duncan when he was CEO of the Chicago Public Schools. Mr. Cunningham is affiliated with Whiteboard Advisors. He serves on several nonprofit boards, including GreatSchools, which provides school-quality information to parents through a national online platform; the Montessori School of Englewood, a Chicago public charter school; Manufacturing Renaissance, a career education program that trains public high school students for jobs in manufacturing; Unbounded, an organization supporting teachers in schools that are transitioning to higher standards; and FoolProofMe, which is focused on financial literacy for students. Mr. Cunningham founded Cunningham Communications, which serves public, private, and nonprofit clients. He also worked for political consultant David Axelrod and was a senior adviser and speechwriter for Chicago Mayor Richard M. Daley. He began his career as a journalist with small weekly newspapers in New York. He earned an M.S. in journalism from Columbia University and a B.A. in philosophy from Duke University.

Michael Feinberg started his career with Teach for America as a fifth-grade bilingual teacher in Houston, Texas. In 1994, he cofounded the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP) with Dave Levin, and the next year he went on to found the KIPP Academy in Houston. He now supports KIPP regional and global development for the KIPP Foundation, along with continuing a board leadership role in KIPP Houston. Mr. Feinberg has been awarded the Presidential Citizen’s Medal, the nation’s second-highest presidential award for a private citizen; the Thomas Fordham Foundation Prize for Valor; the National Jefferson Award for Distinguished Public Service by a Private Citizen; the Charles Bronfman Prize; the Ashoka Fellowship; the McGraw Hill Prize; and the National Community Service Award from Spelman College. He holds honorary doctorates of humane letters from Yale University and Duke University, a master’s of education from National Louis University, and a B.A. from the University of Pennsylvania. He is a member of the Society of Fellows of the University of Houston’s Honors College.

Howard Fuller is a distinguished professor of education and the founder and director of the Institute for the Transformation of Learning at Marquette University. Immediately before his appointment at Marquette University, he served as the superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools from June 1991 to June 1995. His prior positions include senior fellow with the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University (1995–97), director of the Milwaukee County Department of Health and Human Services (1988–91), dean of general education at the Milwaukee Area Technical College (1986–88), secretary of the Wisconsin Department of Employment Relations (1983–86), and associate director of the Educational Opportunity Program at Marquette University (1979–83). He received his B.S. degree in sociology from Carroll College, his M.S.A. in social administration from Western Reserve University, and his Ph.D. in sociological foundations of education from Marquette University. Dr. Fuller has received numerous awards and recognitions, including doctorates of humane letters from Carroll and Edgewood Colleges, a doctorate of law from Marian College, and a doctorate of business and economics from Milwaukee School of Engineering. He is also a member of the Charter School Hall of Fame of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He is the chair of the board of the Black Alliance for Educational Options Action Fund and an advisory board member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools. He also serves on the Milwaukee Regional Board of Teach for America and the boards of Milwaukee Charter School Advocates and Education Cities.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of Education Policy Studies at AEI, where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. He is also the author of the popular Education Week blog Rick Hess Straight Up and has served as executive editor of Education Next since 2001. Before joining AEI, Dr. Hess was a high school social studies teacher. He has also taught at the University of Virginia, the University of Pennsylvania, Georgetown, Rice, and Harvard University. As an educator, political scientist, and author, Dr. Hess is often published in scholarly outlets, such as American Politics Quarterly, The Chronicle of Higher Education, Educational Leadership, The Harvard Educational Review, Phi Delta Kappan, Social Science Quarterly, Teachers College Record, and Urban Affairs Review. His work has also appeared in The Atlantic, National Affairs, National Review, The New York Times, USA Today, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and US News & World Report. His books include the forthcoming “Letters to a Young Education Reformer” (Harvard Education Press, 2017), “The Cage-Busting Teacher” (Harvard Education Press, 2015), “Breakthrough Leadership in the Digital Age” (Corwin, 2014), “Cage-Busting Leadership” (Harvard Education Press, 2013), “The Same Thing Over and Over” (Harvard University Press, 2010), “Education Unbound” (ASCD, 2010), “Common Sense School Reform” (St. Martin’s Press Griffin, 2004), “Revolution at the Margins” (Brookings Institution Press, 2002), and “Spinning Wheels” (Brookings Institution Press, 1998). Dr. Hess has also edited influential works on the Common Core, entrepreneurship in education, education philanthropy, the impact of education research, and the Every Student Succeeds Act. The lead faculty member for the Rice Education Entrepreneurship Program, Dr. Hess also sits on the review board for the Broad Prize for Public Charter Schools and serves on the boards of directors of the National Association of Charter School Authorizers and 4.0 Schools. Dr. Hess has an M.A. and a Ph.D. in government, as well as an M.Ed. in teaching and curriculum, from Harvard University.

Neerav Kingsland leads the Laura and John Arnold Foundation’s efforts to improve K–12 education. He is the former CEO of New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), an organization that is working to ensure every child in New Orleans is able to attend a high-quality public school. NSNO is playing a crucial role in the remarkable school turnaround effort in that city. As CEO of the organization, Mr. Kingsland helped develop the strategy for and lead the transformation of New Orleans’ schools. Students have made dramatic gains under the new system and are now achieving at the highest levels in decades. He has appeared throughout the country to detail the impact of New Orleans’ reforms and frequently writes on education policy for multiple national blogs. He is a graduate of Tulane University and Yale Law School.

Deborah McGriff is a managing partner with NewSchools Venture Fund, where she focuses on closing the demographic gap among students, executive leaders, and governing boards. Through leadership positions at NewSchools Venture Fund and EdisonLearning, she expanded access to innovative, high-quality charter schools for low-income and working-class students in 16 of the nation’s largest cities. She has served as board chair of Beyond12; board chair and executive committee member of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools; founder and vice chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options; president of the Education Industry Association; member of Harvard Kennedy School of Government Program on Education Policy and Governance advisory board; and member of numerous charter school boards, including a charter management organization in the National Charter Schools Hall of Fame. Her impact in the education reform movement was recognized in 2013 at The Center for Education Reform: Before It Was Cool Conference and by her selection as a Pahara-Aspen fellow. She began her career in 1970 as a teacher in New York City public schools. She was the first female assistant superintendent in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and the first female deputy superintendent in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. In 1991, Dr. McGriff became the first female general superintendent of Detroit Public Schools, where she successfully opened 25 choice and empowered schools. Crain’s Detroit Business named her 1992 Newsmaker of the Year.

Jal Mehta is an associate professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. His research explores the roles of different forms of knowledge in tackling major social and political problems, particularly problems of human improvement. He has also written extensively on what it would take to improve American education, with a particular focus on the professionalization of teaching. Mr. Mehta is the author of “The Allure of Order: High Hopes, Dashed Expectations and the Troubled Quest to Remake American Schooling” (Oxford University Press, 2013) and the coeditor of “The Futures of School Reform” (Harvard Education Press, 2012). He is working on two projects: a history of the effort to link social science with social policy to achieve social progress and a contemporary study of schools, systems, and nations that are seeking to produce ambitious instruction. He is coeditor of the Learning Deeply blog at Education Week, and in 2014 he was the top-ranked junior faculty scholar in the Rick Hess Education Week rankings. He is also the winner of the Morningstar Teaching Award at the Harvard Graduate School of Education and was recently awarded a Radcliffe Fellowship.

Alexis Morin is the cofounder and executive director of Students for Education Reform (SFER), a national student organizing nonprofit fighting to secure universal quality K–12 public education. She works with undergraduate student organizers who tell the truth about the injustices they experienced in public schools and fight for quality schools in their home cities. She leads the full-time staff in training students, building chapters, winning campaigns, launching new city branches of SFER, and securing resources for SFER. Ms. Morin was named to Forbes’ 30 Under 30: Education list in 2012 and 2013 and Time’s list of 12 Education Activists to Watch in 2012. Previously, she worked at Relay Graduate School of Education, Uncommon Schools, and DC Public Schools. She also served on the Nothborough-Southborough Regional School Board. She left Princeton University to build SFER full-time.

Gerard Robinson is a resident fellow at AEI, where he works on education policy issues including choice in public and private schools, regulatory development and implementation of K–12 laws, the role of for-profit institutions in education, prison education and reentry, rural education, and the role of community colleges and historically black colleges and universities in adult advancement. Before joining AEI, Mr. Robinson served as commissioner of education for the State of Florida and secretary of education for the Commonwealth of Virginia. As president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, he worked to ensure that children in low-income and working-class black families in several states and the District of Columbia were given the opportunity to attend good schools. Throughout his career, he has evaluated the effects of reform initiatives on parental choice and student achievement, advocated for laws to improve delivery of teaching and learning, and published essays on how to make good policy to give all children a chance at a good job and future. A proponent of the importance of education to civil society, Mr. Robinson has spoken before audiences in the United States, in China, and in the United Kingdom. He started his career by teaching fifth grade in a private, inner-city school. He is a member of many education-related boards. His issue brief for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools was cited in an amicus brief presented before the Supreme Court of Georgia in 2013. He has a master’s of education degree from Harvard University and a bachelor of arts degree in philosophy from Howard University, and an associate of arts degree from El Camino College.

Hanna Skandera serves as the New Mexico secretary of education. Previously, she served as Florida’s deputy commissioner of education under former Gov. Jeb Bush and as a senior policy adviser and deputy chief of staff at the US Department of Education. During President George W. Bush’s administration, she assisted Secretary Margaret Spellings with policy development and implementation, strategy, and communications. She also served as former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s undersecretary for education. Most recently, Ms. Skandera served as CEO of Laying the Foundation, a national teacher training program for teachers of English, mathematics, and science in grades six through 12. Before joining Laying the Foundation, she was executive vice president for Academic Partnerships in Dallas, Texas, which supports state college and university efforts to deliver high-quality, accredited online programs to students. Formerly, she was a research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where she authored and edited numerous books and papers, including “School Figures: The Data Behind the Debate” (Hoover Institution Press, 2003). She also taught education policy at Pepperdine University’s Graduate School of Public Policy. Ms. Skandera received her master’s of public policy, specializing in American politics and international relations, from Pepperdine University’s School of Public Policy. She earned her bachelor’s degree in business from Sonoma State University.

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