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HotSeat Interview: 50CAN Creator Marc Porter Magee

Marc Porter Magee is one of those guys you always see and chat with at education conferences, though not usually for long; he's always on the move, always working the back of the room or the hallway outside the boring conference panel. And his latest effort, 50CAN, a nationwide state education advocacy organization, has got him moving even faster than usual.  

image from snarkerati.comFive or six years ago a variety of folks trying to revamp the education system in the current style all seemed to come to the same (somewhat belated) realization that programs and services weren't going to be enough, even if they sounded amazing and showed great results (which they didn't always).  All that good work often didn't mean that much (or enough) that the existing system felt the need to change, and the privately funded programs didn't have any real chance of ever getting big enough on their own to make a dent in the overall results.   To gain any real, long-term traction they needed to get into the fray in ways that everyone else (trade groups, associations, labor) already did but that reformers had previously avoided -- advocacy, policy, and even politics.  Finally!  Nefarious! That's what they've been doing, many of them, since then.  They've had mixed results, of course, and some think they've picked the wrong things to fight for (to me, charter expansion and fighting LIFO seem particularly goofy things to push) but it's been a fascinating evolution to watch.  This new organization, 50CAN, is the most recent example but it won't be the last.  

On the HotSeat, Porter Magee compares the education advocacy movement to that of environmentalists 40 years ago (think Sierra Club), recaps what ConnCAN pulled off in Connecticut, talks trash about the other education advocacy groups (well, sort of), reveals what he'd do if one of the state affiliates went rogue (it could happen), and bravely quotes the movie "Ratatouille" (giving me the excuse to run this image).  Check it out, and tell us what you think or what I should have asked in comments. 

Why do we need another reform group working the political angle?

MM: The Sierra Club is 119 years old, the Environmental Defense Fund is 44, and Greenpeace is 40. By comparison, EdVoice is 10 years old, ConnCAN is six, DFER isfive. Education reform advocacy is in its infancy and the current crop of ed reform groups is completely outmatched by the status quo. It’s not a fair fight.

How is 50CAN different from the other groups like DFER and SFC that arealready out there?

MM: We pioneered a microtargeting model that predicts which citizens will be mostreceptive to the education reform message, which allowed us to triple ConnCAN’s membership. We create a dramatic, personal narrative around the work of reformers and produce report cards that influence the real-life decisions of tens of thousands of parents a year.

How about recruiting leaders and funding political candidates – or protecting champions when they get in trouble?

MM: One of RI-CAN’s three top priorities this year is to support Deborah Gist and her Race to the Top plan. We’ve done open letters, petitions, polling, a candidate questionnaire for Board of Regents nominees, media work and lots of community building – and it’s working.

Why start a state ed reform group in Connecticut, anyway, and what’d you get done in the first six years?

MM: When we launched ConnCAN in 2005, Connecticut was considered one of the most inhospitable places for education reform in the nation. Now, ConnCAN hasmore than 35,000 members and we’ve made education reform one of the driving issues in the state. In the past two years alone, ConnCAN helped secure the most significant overhaul of Connecticut teacher certification laws in more than 20 years.

What’s the teacher cert overhaul going to accomplish – tougher entry standards, ed school performance measures, tenure or evaluation changes?

MM: The 2009 law allows experienced teachers from other states to teach in Connecticut, keeps Teach For America on a path to growth, and removes roadblocks keeping excellent math and science candidates out of the classroom.

What were ConnCAN’s early lessons and turning points?

MM: You are going to make a lot of mistakes, you are going to get pretty roughed up, but if you believe in what you are doing and you stay true to your mission, you can win over even your strongest opponents. ConnCAN’s relationship with New Haven Mayor John DeStefano could not have had a rockier start. But eventually ConnCAN CEO Alex Johnston was invited by the mayor to serve on the New Haven Board of Education and help implement a breakthrough new teacher contract.

Why push charters if charters aren't any better than regular schools?

MM: If we’re really going to close the achievement gap, it’s going to be with a different kind of public education system than the one we have now. For us, that means greater choices for families, greater flexibility to encourage innovation,and greater accountability for results. We support state laws that expand high-performing charter schools and close low-performing ones down.

What's the funders' response been so far?

MM: As the great quote from Pixar’s "Ratatouille" goes, “The world is often unkind to new talents, new creations. The new needs friends.” 50CAN is fortunate to have a fantastic friend and national anchor funder in the Walton Family Foundation. The response from in-state funders in our first two states has also been very positive.

What if anything have you adjusted since the initial rollout, in terms of responding to funders or advocates’ feedback?

MM: We’re learning just how local politics are. It’s reinforced our early instincts that strong local leadership is going to be critical to our success. We are also learning how much time we need to put into the communication and collaboration between the state and national teams. There haven’t been any major changes to our approach, just hundreds of small adjustments and refinements of the model.

Who's going to be first in Wisconsin and how would you and Jonah (SFC) andJoe (DFER) decide it if you all wanted the same state?

MM: We’re already working in one state (Rhode Island) where DFER is also working, and later this year will be in a second, New York. We don’t currently operate in any states with Stand for Children, but given both organizations’ expansion plans it seems inevitable in the next few years. As for who will be first in Wisconsin, it probably won’t be 50CAN. 2011 is booked up and it’s not on the shortlist for 2012.

How crazy are you prepared to get, and how centrally-controlled will the state branches be? What if one of your state branches wants to, say, support astrike ban for teachers?

MM: Policy goals are set on the state level after a lot of back and forth between the state and national teams. If a state team proposed a strike ban, I suspect they would hear a lot of disagreement and I would put my faith in the decision-making processto produce the right result.


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