Robert Pondiscio Calls the Social Justice Bluff

That look on someone's face When you call their bluff

Several months ago Robert Pondiscio started a little storm within the education reform movement by raising alarms regarding the movement’s heavy leftward tilt over the last several years.  I joined the fray emphasizing that the social justice takeover of ed reform organizations was politically foolish since state-based Republicans are the ones who do almost all of the work in actually adopting meaningful ed reform.  I tried to address the political foolishness of alienating your key backers while making futile attempts to woo one’s opponents by providing some basic lessons from political science.  And Matt Ladner warned ed reformers against marching into a political dead-end alley.  Many others added their two cents, including Max Eden, Rick Hess, and Derrell Bradford.

But Robert Pondiscio — the man who sparked this debate — has topped all of us with the post to end all posts on the social justice wars in ed reform.  It is part of an excellent forum that Education Next has organized on the topic.  Pondiscio accurately describes the angry reaction of white ed reform leaders to his original piece and their call to remedy the fact that “The leaders of reform organizations are mostly white, and mostly from backgrounds of relative privilege, creating a stark contrast with the communities, and leaders, of color that demand rapid improvements in their schools.”

In his new piece Pondiscio calls their bluff.  If creating greater diversity among ed reform leaders is a priority for these white social justice leaders, why don’t they step aside and let more people of color take their jobs?  They say actions speak louder than words, unless, as it appears, these leaders care more about words than actions.  The failure of these national organizations to cause much action in changing state policies seems to reinforce the point.

Here’s the heart of Pondiscio’s piece:

The founder and leader of Education Post is Peter Cunningham, who was an assistant secretary for communication at the U.S. Department of Education under Arne Duncan, with whom he also served when Duncan ran Chicago Public Schools a decade ago. Cunningham has worked in PR, politics, and for small weekly newspapers but never, to my knowledge, as a teacher. He’s also a middle-aged white man. He is, in the argot of social justice thought, deeply privileged….  But if Education Post is serious about “elevating the voices” of the communities it serves, at some point it should be run—should it not?—by someone representative of those communities.

What about now? What about right now? What about Marilyn Anderson Rhames?

I ask this not to be mischievous, but to call the question and settle one of ed reform’s most sensitive debates. When I published my now-infamous piece earlier this year, it prompted, in addition to Rhames’ piece and others, an “open letter” signed by 170 “white education leaders” (including, not incidentally, much of the staff of Education Post) who took serious exception to my critique and lamented reform’s failure to put people of color in leadership positions.

“The education reform coalition has a problem,” the letter started. “Unlike other historical movements dedicated to the urgent betterment of social conditions, the most prominent leadership and voices of the school improvement coalition have not been representative of the communities that the effort hopes to serve. The leaders of reform organizations are mostly white, and mostly from backgrounds of relative privilege, creating a stark contrast with the communities, and leaders, of color that demand rapid improvements in their schools.”

All true, but this elides an awkward truth. Closing the achievement gap will take decades. Closing the leadership gap can be done this afternoon. All it takes is for the “white, privileged leaders” who signed the letter to recruit a person of color and step aside. The right person, like Rhames, might already be on staff, already contributing to the movement as a foot soldier or subordinate but not occupying a position of leadership or authority.

My paramount concern, almost completely unaddressed in the outsized reaction to my piece, remains that a militant leftward tilt in education reform endangers the longstanding bipartisan political support that has long fueled the movement. Neither do I believe that the only children poorly served by their schools are from families of color. But it makes little sense to bemoan “the extraordinary flaws and shortsightedness in our own leadership for letting the field become so lopsidedly white.” This is, as Teach For America likes to tell its corps members, within your locus of control. Those who signed the “open letter” may believe they are standing on principle. But if their theory of change rests on diversifying leadership, they are mostly standing in the way.

I invite those leaders to step aside for the greater good. No more open letters. No more manifestos. No more virtue signaling on Twitter. Either you are serious about the need to diversify the leadership of the reform movement, or you are not. It simply will not do to congratulate yourselves for being “brave leaders” and cluck earnestly at conferences about the need for education reform to “look like the communities it serves” year after year, while blocking exactly those people from the positions you insist they deserve.

To be clear, I continue to question whether the ed reform movement at large is properly viewed as a race-focused “social justice” movement or a broad school improvement initiative benefitting all children, thereby serving social justice ends. But let’s not quibble. If diversity of leadership is integral to your theory of change, why not practice within your organizations? And why not do it now?

Our infant nation survived George Washington relinquishing power and returning to his fields at Mount Vernon. Ed reform will survive without its current cadre of self-flagellating white leaders.

What – what exactly – is stopping you?

5 Responses to Robert Pondiscio Calls the Social Justice Bluff

  1. matthewladner says:


  2. Terry Stoops says:

    A great line: “Closing the achievement gap will take decades. Closing the leadership gap can be done this afternoon.”

  3. Bob Bowdon says:

    Could be RP’s best ever piece.

    • sstotsky says:

      It would be useful if Rob spelled out some evidence for either posssibility: viewing “the ed reform movement at large as a race-focused “social justice” movement” or as a broad school improvement initiative benefitting all children, thereby serving social justice ends.” So far, whatever we call reform at the national level hasn’t delivered either. Or am I missing something?

  4. Greg Forster says:

    You guys have got this all wrong. Rich white liberals are the vanguard of the proletariat. They have to monopolize money and power for the greater good. Justice and equity are coming at a later stage of history!

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