THE BLOG

Burning the Village to Save It

04/06/2015 01:51 pm ET | Updated Jun 06, 2015

Jorge Cabrera spent three years working as a community organizer for an education reform group in Bridgeport, CT. Now Cabrera is speaking out about a movement that he says is obsessed with charter schools, averse to real debate and in thrall to Ivy League leaders -- even if they've never led anything.

Jennifer Berkshire: You recount hearing a leader of the education reform movement state that sometimes *you have to burn the village to save it.* This strikes me as the kind of remark one might not want to make when there are villagers present... Did he get any pushback?

Jorge Cabrera: That remark was made by someone who is a rainmaker for the education reform movement. If you want money, you go and see this guy. When I heard that, I really felt like I was getting a peek into the mindset of this movement. As for the reaction, I think you have to understand the role that social pressure functions in these situations and how it works to stifle critical dialogue and debate. You're surrounded by a critical mass of people who, when someone says something, are all nodding along and saying *uh huh.* It sends a powerful signal to the one or two people in the room who want to ask questions or challenge the assumptions.

Berkshire: You've just put your finger on what seems like a key contradiction at the heart of the education reform movement. How is it that you can have a movement led by the *best and the brightest,* but for whom debate seems to be anathema?

Cabrera: The reform movement is shot through with this bizarre culture that doesn't look positively upon critical thought. I don't want to sound offensive but that's just the reality. I saw this again and again, that when alternate viewpoints were put out there, or even the idea of debate, they'd be shot down really quickly. The message is sent very strongly: you're off the reservation and you need to come back in. Education reform is a strange alliance. You have people who are highly conservative married to liberal democrats who want to do good and help children. I worked for Excel Bridgeport but we were part of a coalition with other organizations, such as ConnCAN, Families for Excellent Schools and Achievement First. And what you'd see happen is that when it was time to have a conversation about direction and how best to proceed, the leadership or the funders would steer the discussion in a particular way, to where they wanted it to go. Inevitably the conversation would end up circling back to charter schools as the panacea, teacher accountability, getting rid of tenure.

Berkshire: Let's role play for a minute. You be in charge of community engagement for an education reform group in a beleaguered city in an incredibly wealthy Northeastern state. Go.

Cabrera: Let's look at the way schools are funded in Connecticut because it's a mess. In Bridgeport in particular the schools have been underfunded for many years. I've been hearing from teachers and parents on the ground that schools are sharing nurses and guidance counselors...

Berkshire: OK -- I think I see where things went wrong. You accidentally said *funding* when what you meant to say was *charter schools.* What kind of reaction did you get?

Cabrera: People at the table, especially the leadership, were incredibly dismissive and said *that's not the real problem. The problem is that teachers don't have high expectations and aren't held accountable.* There was real resistance to even talking about an alternative strategy.

Berkshire: You draw a sharp distinction between authentic community engagement and *selling* a prepackaged education reform product to the community. Can you give an example?

Cabrera: The charter revision campaign that would have put the Bridgeport schools under mayoral control is a perfect example. My first instinct was to go and get the language and see what the measure would actually do so that I could inform the public what a *yes* vote meant vs. a *no* vote. I was very quickly discouraged from doing that. A New York City communications firm, SKDKnickerbocker, was brought in to *facilitate* community conversations. The PR firm immediately moved into campaign mode, which meant coming up with slogans, nice fliers, t-shirts, direct mail pieces and radio spots to get people to vote yes. There was a total abdication of any kind of thoughtful analysis of what the yes vote would mean. We were pushed hard to sell this to people and get them to vote yes by telling them *it's going to be good for schools, our kids are going to benefit,* but without any grounding in reality or real data.

Berkshire: As a proud graduate of an, ahem, lesser state university, I was thrilled to see you go after the Ivy League, and to the out-sized deference accorded to graduates of Ivy League schools.

Cabrera: You saw this almost fetish for the Ivy League within the reform movement. It didn't matter what your name was or what you had actually done. If you had graduated from an Ivy League school there were all of these incredibly positive assumptions that came with that. For example, it was assumed that you were a leader, even though you may have been very young and had little, if any, experience leading anything. And they also assumed that you were knowledgeable. It was shocking to me to see that a lot of these folks seemed to lack critical thinking skills, or if they had them, these skills weren't on display. I always kind of wondered, are these people just incredibly ill informed and need time to catch up? Or are they arrogant, meaning that they have an agenda and don't really care that they don't know anything?

Berkshire: Your *Reflections* piece generated a lot of buzz, and one of the most interesting responses I saw came from Neerav Kingsland, who seems to agree with you that reformers need to be up front about what -- and more importantly, who -- they're advocating for. Thoughts?

Cabrera: In so far as he's encouraging individuals and organizations to be clear that they are advocates for charter schools, he's right. But a charter-only solution is dead wrong. We need a more comprehensive approach to closing the achievement gap in urban centers like Bridgeport, including universal, high-quality preschool and inter-district magnet schools, which have a long history in the city and out perform charters. And, of course, in Connecticut at least, we need to begin with funding reform.

Berkshire: I come across versions of your story regularly these days. In fact I'm trying to help a young organizer extract himself from a reform group right now. Any advice for people who are considering going to work for one of these organizations?

Cabrera: I would encourage people to look at the ideology behind the work. Ask questions of the leadership and be direct. Are they spending all of their time attacking teachers? What's their definition of education reform? What is their ideology? Are they talking about a broad, multi-faceted approach to education reform or do they have a single solution to every problem? And if you end up working for a group like Families for Excellent Schools or ConnCAN, and find that there is already an agenda or a prescribed solution that you weren't aware of but are now being asked to implement, you're going to have to make the decision about whether to stay or not. In retrospect that's probably something that I waited too long to do. But I was a true believer -- I really was.

Berkshire: Last question. Do you think it may be necessary to burn the education reform movement in order to save it?

Cabrera: At this point I would say yes. It makes me a little sad to say that because I definitely know people in the movement who have good motives. I think the education reform movement needs to be challenged, first of all, about the definition of reform. Right now all it seems to mean is charter schools. And that's not the solution.