Voices from the Idaho EdNews Community

A Q&A with a national reform expert

Joe Williams, executive director of Democrats for Education Reform

Joe Williams, the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform, has built a reputation as one of the most effective strategists and coalition-builders in the national education reform community. He is an analyst and public speaker on education policy and politics who has reached thousands of listeners in audiences from coast to coast each year.

He also is one of the most prolific writers and commentators in the education reform world, often tapping into his experience as a newspaper reporter and author to make the case for reform. He previously worked as an award-winning education journalist for the New York Daily News and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Williams lives in New York City where his children attend the city’s public schools. This week he’s in Boise as the keynote speaker for the Ed Sessions 2.0 luncheon. The event is full but you can watch the live videocast.

Here is a Q and A with Williams about education reform and Idaho:

What does education reform mean?

It has come to mean a lot of different things, but primarily it is about finding ways to improve and modernize our public education system so that it continues to live up to the promise of providing every child an opportunity to succeed in achieving the American Dream.

Is education reform a partisan issue?

Sometimes it feels that way, and it certainly does take place within a historically partisan context. This is very much shifting right now, as some past alliances and allegiances are splintering. My party, the Democratic Party, has tended to be a strong vocal supporter of public education, which served it (and public education) well for a long time. The demands on schools have changed over the years, and, unfortunately, our exuberance for the public education system and our long-standing alliances to interests within that system ended up putting us in a position where we were ignoring obvious problems which were emerging. The public saw the problems, but we were so busy patting ourselves on the back for being pro-public education that we started to fall out of step. Republicans meanwhile have their own complicated issues with regard to education reform, many of which are rooted in their feelings about funding public schools, the role of the federal government in education, and their faith in the marketplace.

Where are the best education reform efforts taking place and why?

Believe it or not, we are seeing a lot of our best education reform efforts happening in urban America, because they were the first to fully understand and appreciate that some things had to change. We are seeing the widespread creation of new public school options for families — schools that can start with a clean slate and built from the ground up around the needs of their students. We are seeing smarter human resources policies, and better partnerships between labor and management. We are seeing more discussions about the role that quality should play in public school systems where quality and achievement were irrelevant concepts in the past.

You support policies that stimulate the creation of new, accountable public schools while simultaneously closing failing schools. Where are these policies being created? What does it look like?

In places like New York City, we’ve seen the creation of hundreds of new schools in recent years. Some are public charter schools, but many are new, small public high schools. (My son attends one, called Brooklyn Latin.) These schools are working because teams of teachers and administrators have been given the green light to innovate, to build schools based on concepts they believe in. I used to worry that too much emphasis was being placed on the size of the school, but the closeness between students and teachers in these small schools is powerful.

What kind of role should the teacher’s union play in education?

Teachers unions play a crucial role in representing teachers who often work in some of the craziest bureaucracies this country knows. They worry about issues of pay and benefits (and basic fairness issues) so that teachers can concentrate on their work with children in the classroom. The union also has an important voice at the table where decisions are made. I would argue, though, that it isn’t good for anyone (including teachers) if teachers are the sole voice. Their smart use of political power over the years had tremendous short-term gains for teachers but has put public education in a sometimes difficult spot with the public.

You talk about empowering school principals and then holding them accountable. How can lawmakers make that happen against union opposition?

Unions have a job to do, but so do elected officials. Lawmakers aren’t owned by unions. They are free (and obligated) to make decisions with the best interests of public education at heart.

What is the best way to hold educators accountable?

Transparency. We should be open about what is working and what isn’t working. But we have to get people used to the idea that focusing on “continuous improvement” is not an attack on the people who are doing this work in classrooms with our kids.

What are your thoughts on the Common Core State Standards?

It is sort of amazing that this has moved as fast as it has. I’m not a curriculum person, so I’ll defer to educators on that. But it seems to make sense that we have a national understanding of what it means to be an American student, what every fifth grader should be able to do, whether they are in Boise or Boston.

What should Idaho do with failing districts?

First step is to decide whether or not it is willing, as a state, to do everything in its power to turn things around. If the will isn’t there to do dramatically better, Idaho should stick its head in the sand and pretend there is nothing wrong. It’s much easier and cheaper to just let failure continue. If Idaho decides it is serious, the next step is to get effective leadership in there who understands the need to do things profoundly different. Empower that leader to do what will be needed to save the district from itself.

What should Idaho do with successful districts?

Get out of the way, keep an eye on them to make sure they continue to succeed, and bring busloads of folks there from failing districts to see that it can be done.

What determines success?

I think “success” changes with reality. It may seem unfair to schools, but simply walking around with a high school diploma doesn’t get you as far as it used to. And this is not a knock on the old days, just a reminder that the world continues to change and education becomes more and more important as it does so.

How do state leaders find the balance between funding and innovation?

Funding and innovation are great “deals” that can be made with taxpayers, as in “public funds” and “teachers innovate.” I actually am worried about our ability going forward to keep asking taxpayers to dig down deeper to fund schools the way they are now. I think it is incumbent upon all of us to think about framing this as a request to the public to fund innovation. The hope is that taxpayers will feel better about supporting public education if they feel the money is being spent smart and in ways which lead to better results for kids and greater efficiencies for teachers.

Do you have any advice for Idaho?

Be willing to get this discussion out there into the public square in ways which capture entire communities. Everyone has a stake in what happens in our schools, so inside baseball stuff isn’t always helpful. Shoot for honest discussions about the good, the bad, and the ugly. Be open-minded about what it will take to get our schools to their A-game. Be humble enough to know that your answer may not be right, but smart enough to learn and adjust along the way.

How do Idaho Democrats affect positive change in schools?

Look for deals to be had with Republicans. I think the “reform in exchange for funding” ethos that the Obama administration has pushed is a good guidepost. But don’t let the Democratic Party miss out on the kinds of real discussions on education that the public has been having for years. The more we Democrats act like there is no problem, the more less relevant we are in the discussion with real people.



Joe Williams

Joe Williams is the executive director of Democrats for Education Reform. He is an analyst and public speaker on education policy and politics. He previously worked as an award-winning education journalist for the New York Daily News and Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Williams lives in New York City where his children attend the city’s public schools.

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