Nuts and Bolts – Breaking Down Step-by-Step What to Do When Someone Attacks You Because of Your Support for Charter Schools

Good morning, CharterFolk.

I’m heading off for a spring break with the fam next week. I look forward to picking up again the week of the 29th.

Before I go, I wanted to get this post off to you which is another in response to Sonia Park’s column from a few weeks back about Playground Politics. I said in a follow up comment that I would have some specific suggestions for people about how to navigate a discussion when people attack you because of your support for charter schools. Those suggestions follow, but before I get to them I wanted to make a few introductory points.

First, I want to underscore that what I present below was learned over a long period of hard knocks. For ten years I was in a position where it was routine for me to be attacked for my support of charter schools. So I ended up having these conversations more frequently than other people, and I gradually learned what worked and what did not. I also consciously chose to have as many conversations as I could. This is why I really liked phone-banking and canvassing during elections. It gave me other opportunities to engage directly with many people and to learn. One thing I encourage our world to do is simply have more conversations with people outside our immediate orbit. Those discussions will help you get better at talking about our work, and as you do, you will be contributing to a broader word-of-mouth campaign that is actually incredibly important for building public support for charter schools.

Secondly, I want to be clear that there is a category of people for whom no good approach to a discussion will work. You all know the kind of people I’m talking about – those whose self-interest is woven into charter school opposition, and others who have become idealogical in their resistance. Please don’t think I’m offering you some magic potion to win over these folks. When you encounter them, my general advice is to not even waste your time.

There is, though, a relatively new group of people who profess themselves to be opposed to charter schools. They are generally folks who are not that well informed and simply parrot the rhetoric they have learned from self-interested opponents. They are a group that used to be softly with charter schools but whose opinions have blown in the wind as our adversaries have sharpened their attack over the past decade. These are the folks for whom the approach I recommend below is most useful.

As it relates to the two different groups, the challenge is that the second one – johnny-come-lately’s who aren’t actually that knowledgeable or committed in their views – often initially present themselves to be very much like those in the first. So you often have to do a little bit of exploring before you can properly assess which group people are actually coming from.

Finally, I want to underscore that, while what I present below looks lengthy, it’s actually not in terms of conversation time. I’m not in the least recommending that CharterFolk go out and try to have hour-long conversations with people. Done correctly, the entire exchange I describe below can happen in 10-15 minutes. What makes it look long is that I am going into each moment in detail to explain why it’s important that you include essential concepts that can often be covered quickly, sometimes in a matter of just a few seconds.

Let’s get to the recommendations. I present them in 10-steps.

  • Step 1 – Do Not Accept the Frame of the Other Person’s Criticism
  • Step 2 – Establish Clearly Your Deep Personal Commitment to Public Education
  • Step 3 – Assert that There are Equity and Excellence Problems in Public Education, Leading with Equity
  • Step 4 – Seek Agreement
  • Step 5 – Assert that Problems in Public Education Are Long Standing
  • Step 6 – State that You Have Come to Support Charter Schools After Having Tried Other Options
  • Step 7 – Provide Testimony that Many Charter Schools are Succeeding, Leading With Equity
  • Step 8 – Insist that Charter Schools are Ultimately About Helping All Kids
  • Step 9 – Project a Desire to Include More Teachers, Principals and Others
  • Step 10 – Educate About Charter Schools

Each are described separately below.

Step 1 – Do Not Accept the Frame of the Other Person’s Criticism

I wish this were more intuitive and straightforward to us, but it’s not. I see it over and over again. Someone provokes a discussion with us based upon some criticism or scandal that has recently appeared in the press, and we then dive into the discussion with that as the general frame.

Mistake. Don’t do it. Your are setting yourself up for failure.

You have to re-anchor immediately.

The question then becomes, “To what?”

Step 2 – Establish Clearly Your Deep Personal Commitment to Public Education

This is a something that I simply wasn’t crisp about for a long time, and it cost me in many conversations. After a while, I realized I needed some broad societal good to re-anchor to. I tried things like “Opportunity,” or “Civil Rights,” or “Social Justice,” but none of them really clicked.

Finally, I seized upon “Public Education” itself, and I quickly began to recognize how much better a starting point it was. There’s something about the notion of public education in our society, especially for the types who are likely to attack you in a super market or on a playground. It resonates with many on a deep level, and presenting yourself as firmly in the tradition of supporting that ideal is as strong a starting point for establishing rapport and shared values as any I have found.

How you express your deep personal commitment to public education is so important that it is worth thinking through how you do it. For me, I have found huge credibility in the fact that both my parents spent their entire careers working in public education. I use language like: “In the family where I grew up, the deepest religion in our house was a commitment to public education.” I use the statement both because it happens to be true and because I have found it to be empowering. If you come from a family or any other background that has shown a multi-generational commitment to public education, I strongly encourage you to share that early in your discussion.

As to your own personal commitment, you are strongest, of course, if you can talk about how many years you have worked in public education. That’s why I broken record that I spent seven years working in a traditional public school in Los Angeles, and a couple more in a superintendent’s office.

Not everyone has direct experience working in public education. Some can talk about family members who have, or can talk about volunteer work or other contributions made to public education. There are obviously many other ways to do it. Just be sure you’ve chosen your way carefully. It sets up you up for moving to Step 3 which is actually the highest stakes moment in the entire 10-step discussion.

Step 3 – Assert that There are Equity and Excellence Problems in Public Education, Leading with Equity

You see why it’s so important that you establish that you are committed to public education?

The next thing we have to do is talk about why it’s even necessary that we have charter schools in the first place, and that requires that we make the assertion that there are problems in public education. If you make that assertion without having first gone through Step 2, you leave yourself open to the accusation that you’re really trying to destroy public education. And as soon as you’re trapped in that box, I’m sorry folks. The conversation is essentially over.

We spent time and resources at CCSA trying to figure out how to surface our criticism in a tone-right way. The polling-tested message that I used over and over again for years was: “Our public schools are not performing as well as they need to and should be improved.” It was language designed to surface a concern without sounding too harsh. Eventually, though, I learned that it wasn’t optimal to lead with a criticism of how public schools perform. Far better are criticisms focused on the fact that public schools are inequitable. There are all sorts of ways to do it.

Over time, I gravitated to a statement highlighting that our public education system inequitably allocates educational opportunity, providing better schooling to kids from families with means, and worse opportunity to those without. If you feel like you might have the other person going with you, you can then feather in a performance piece, maybe something about how school quality varies, or how too many schools are one size fits all. What you don’t want to do is personalize an attack. Don’t blame any particular people and/or groups. The enemy here is the nameless faceless system that holds people back and underserves the kids and communities that need great public education most.

Step 4 – Seek Agreement

At this point, I advise people to stop and to see if you can get agreement with your conversant that you share a common starting point for the discussion. Literally, ask them whether they agree that our public education system has inequities within it that need to be addressed. If you get a nod, you know you are on the right track, and the rest of your conversation is set up to go much better. Also, if at any point in Steps 5-10 you find disagreement arising, you can always come back to the agreement you established in Step 4. Having a shared understanding that there is a problem that needs to be addressed is far better than starting all over again from scratch.

Step 5 – Assert that Problems in Public Education Are Long Standing

But don’t get ahead of yourself. Don’t go charging directly into some celebration of charter schools. There are other steps you have to progress through before that.

First, you should make the point that public education’s problems have been around for a very long time, and society has proven unable to fix them. This both begins to build the case that the problems we confront in public education are systemic and intractable and, even more importantly, they have been around for far longer than charter schools have been around. This is important because you may find later that your conversation partner tries to assert that charter schools are the causers of problems in public education that we are actually a response to. Having the historical record previously established helps guard against a general societal amnesia about public education that our adversaries often attempt to take advantage of.

Step 6 – State that You Have Come to Support Charter Schools After Having Tried Other Options

Again, this is one I learned over time. The charter school solution can often look like a bank shot. Why go to all the work of doing something more circuitous and difficult when it would be far simpler just to go directly to existing traditional public schools and make them better? That pathway is so intuitive to people, they need to hear from you that you have experience trying it and have ruled it out for good reason.

Now, obviously, I’m not suggesting to anyone that you lie about something. If you came directly to charter schools without ever having given thought to how you might try to fix an existing school, I wouldn’t claim otherwise. But most of us in one way or another have been part of some earlier effort to make an existing school better. If you have been, stress it here, and make your frustration plain that the hard work you and others put in did not result in the lasting change you sought.

For me, I am able to refer to having beat my head against a wall within LAUSD for the better part of a decade trying to do internal district reform, only to be derailed again and again. I am also able to refer to both my parents who spent more than thirty years trying to make traditional schools better only to come to nothing in the end. So when I turn the discussion to address why I got started in charter schools, people can see I exhausted all other options before doing so. To the extent you can credibly present your own journey to charters similarly I encourage you to do so.

Step 7 – Provide Testimony that Many Charter Schools are Succeeding, Leading With Equity

Now we come to the step in the process that most of us are better at: talking about our experience in charter schools and how we know our schools are certainly helping kids. It’s what we often want to talk about first, but if you can delay it until after having first accomplished Steps 1-6, you will find that the impact of your story is so much greater. My two pieces of advice here would be to:

a) think about your audience and highlight the part of the charter school success story that would most resonate with them. Schools excelling with low income students? Innovative schools avoiding cookie-cutter approaches? Vocational programs? Kids getting into college? Whatever you sense they care about most is where you should go. It’s one of the great strengths of our movement. We have so many different kinds of schools making progress on so many different challenges. And if you just don’t know your conversation partner well enough to know what might resonate with them best, then just go with what you know most deeply and speak from the heart; and

b) remember that equity is the better starting point generally. Given the wide number of charter schools that are making progress with students coming from groups who have been historically underserved by our public education system, and given that many people who tend to attack charter schools often have equity as a primary lens for looking at education matters, I would encourage you to highlight the equity stories that you know the best. It’s the strongest entry point we have for changing the opinions of those who have a limited understanding of what charter schools are all about.

Step 8 – Underscore that Charter Schools are Ultimately About Helping All Kids

This now sets up the most difficult moment of the whole discussion because, if your conversation partner is at all familiar with the Establishment’s attacks against charter schools, he or she will likely pivot to saying that charter schools might actually be doing better with “some kids,” but it doesn’t matter because the growth of charter schools makes all other schools worse.

This is the most difficult moment because advocacy knuckleheads like myself have not in the past done a good job of driving a public narrative showing how our movement’s purpose is to make sure that absolutely all students become fundamentally better served. This is why I am beating the drum here at CharterFolk and elsewhere that our advocacy organizations need to begin advancing values-aligned policy agendas so that people finding themselves in Step 8 have much firmer ground to stand on.

Until that happens, you really have no choice but to take on yourself the burden of advancing the narrative of the charter school movement. It starts, of course, by presenting ourselves to be a movement, thousands upon thousands of CharterFolk contributing to something bigger than ourselves in hope of improving public education not just for some kids but for all. It can sound incredibly hippy-dippy, but in the end, it will come down to your own personal credibility. To what extent do you have stories of yourself and many others who you know in charter schools doing extraordinary things for kids because you all feel part of something bigger than yourselves and are motivated to help all kids? Having those most compelling stories at the tip of your tongue may prove the difference-maker at this key juncture in the conversation.

Step 9 – Project a Desire to Include More Teachers, Principals and Others

Of course, any case you build that we seek to improve public education for everyone will come down to a recognition that charter school people (CharterFolk) can’t do it ourselves. In order for the scope of change to occur that we want, we will need thousands upon thousands of additional teachers, principals and people from all walks of life joining the cause. To the extent that you can present yourself as deeply aware of the heroic efforts that educators in traditional public schools are making on behalf of their kids and can reinforce how deeply committed you are to helping all educators succeed at even higher levels by getting out of their way the impediments that hold them back, the better you project a tone of inclusiveness that sets up the final step in the process. Of course, the best way to project that inclusiveness is to let the person that you are talking with know that we’d actually like him or her in our movement as well.

Step 10 – Educate About Charter Schools

Many times, I have had conversations along these lines when someone will simply stop the flow and say something like, “Can you tell me again what a charter school is?” It’s the moment when they basically confess that they haven’t really understood what a charter school is before coming to conclusions they are now beginning to re-assess. Sonia’s piece does a great job of showing how moments of opportunity arise to finally educate other people about what charter schools are.

What the communications pros and others have told us is absolutely right: If we can just get the public to understand what a charter school is, the vast majority of people will come our way. The problem is that our opponents know this and they have invested in efforts to convince people, especially the kinds of people that will attack you for your support of charter schools in the supermarket or at the playground, that there is a kind of moral authority behind the opposition to charter schools that should make it unnecessary to even attempt to understand what they actually are.

So instead of leading with what a charter school is, my experience tells me that we should be trailing with it. Make your explanation of what a charter school is your closing statement, not your introduction. Once you have done that, you are finally in a good position to take on whatever issue your conversation partner may want to dive into, including perhaps their initial criticism which sparked the discussion in the first place.