Audacity and Humility: Becoming a Participant Observer in Students for Education Reform

Image from Students for Education Reform (Facebook). Harvard University.

After a week of rumination and reflections relayed to mentoring professors over the lunch hour, I am finally sitting down to write this post. I meant to begin right away–hammering out my thoughts and concerns compiled after three days of a student Summit at an Ivy League. I envisioned my reaction to two 12-hour days of college-age think-tanking, community building workshops, and keynote inspirations unfurling easily. Still, I find that even a week away from the experience, I am still full of contradictions.

This Fall, I made education reform into a senior project for my independent major. Inspired by conversations in a Leaders for Social Change program this summer (a title we constantly acknowledged as controversial and overbearing) with my current co-chapter leader Katie, we signed on with Students for Education Reform–determined to raise awareness about the growing American achievement gap. Because we have both done research on various education reform organizations in the past (i.e. Khan Academy, Teach for America, and standardized testing,)  we were careful to be critical. We understood that no organization can perfectly fit any person’s values and goals completely. And yet, at some point we knew too that it’s important to get on board with a support system that can facilitate change.

We are part of a generation that recites Gandhi: Be the change you want to see. We are told by parents and educators and politicians that the fate of the world is in our hands. We read tweets and headlines and newsfeeds, all the while uncovering what we think… and how we fit in.  We are a cohort perpetually analyzed as disengaged.

Throughout these past three years spent crafting an individual major, my path has continued to return to education. I have studied paradigms and injustices and triumphs in its systems. I have been tangled in the complexities of classrooms and curriculums–discouraged and invigorated. I do not pretend to know everything, but I know that there are things I want to say.

As I move forward into the uncertainties of my senior year and the post-college “real world,” Students for Education Reform (SFER) is a life experience and a platform. As a co-chapter leader for a national nonprofit organization, I am constantly observing and accommodating–teaching myself to navigate and compromise in unfamiliar space. I am enthusiastic, but cautious. Compelled, yet critical. This perspective, I believe, is one of the best things I’ve received from my Liberal Arts degree. Never stop asking questions. 

Last weekend, Katie and I flew to Boston for a whirlwind weekend featuring SFER chapter leaders from across the country. We boarded the T into Cambridge with questions and reeling minds.

Before I delve into the goosebump-inducing speeches, cringeworthy movie scenes,  and 12-hour day of programming housed within the Harvard building of student activities, I should tell you a bit about SFER.

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“On campus, our chapter leaders are responsible for building a small, effective leadership team; developing young leaders to come behind them; increasing campus awareness of the achievement gap and need for systemic reform; creating a campus coalition for education reform that includes minority affinity and social justice groups; placing students in internships with mission-aligned organizations; and turning out undergraduates in support of ambitious, pro-student legislation. ” –

With the lofty goal of ending the achievement gap and giving students a very clear voice, SFER also has several principles and values to back them up: (as cited on their website
1. High expectations. We believe that all students, regardless of race or background, are capable of achieving at a high level. While we recognize the challenges of poverty and support programs that take steps to alleviate them, we believe that a great education is the first step for a student to succeed — a school must not abandon its primary mission of providing an excellent education for its students.

2. Quality school choices and community engagement. We believe that parents and students should be able to select excellent schools that enable students to become active, informed citizens. Parents and students deserve access to meaningful information about the quality of their local schools, and school systems must provide parents and community members with avenues to participate in their children’s education.

3. Great teachers and leaders. We believe that great teachers and leaders are central to a thriving school, and as students, we value our teachers enormously. We believe that great teachers deserve to be respected and recognized, and that teaching our nation’s children is a privilege, not a right. We believe that schools and school systems must have the ability to attract, support, and retain the best teachers possible.

4. Rigorous standards and meaningful assessment. We believe that students deserve clear, high standards and rigorous, meaningful assessment to accompany a culture of high expectations. We believe that transparent and effective use of data can give teachers vital information about how to meet individual student needs.

5. Fiscal transparency and accountability. We believe that students deserve school systems that spend public dollars on improving instruction and effective practices that raise student achievement. We believe that systems should display more transparency in where and why dollars are spent and in evaluating the efficacy of those expenditures.

The values that make these principles possible: Growth and Dignity, Tenacity, Audacity and Humility, Collaborative Leadership, and Voice. 

Together, these principles and upstanding traits for change are pretty easy to support. Reading through SFER’s online materials for the first time, I found my inner voice chiming in with yes! after every other line. SFER’s mission and approach reflected so many of the things I had studied–bridging connections and authors and theories to give me a sense of purpose. When I first chatted via Skype with the Director of Minnesota SFER Chapters, I felt inspiredThere were butterflies. I could see it all unfolding–the post-grad work with a non-profit that was making waves, eventually working my way into a teacher residency or fellowship program, and “making a difference” in my very own classroom, engaging in conversations about how to shift our system closer to my idealist dream….

I was swept up in the momentum of this promising shiny student-faced organization. It was August, and I had the world at my feet. By September, I was reminded of the importance of checks and balances.

In the first week of school, my efforts to make SFER St Olaf an official student organization in full swing, I sent an excited email to an education professor I respect completely. She taught me to address the issues from all sides. Many Thursday afternoons were spent walking me through my own contradictions to prove a point: There were no easy answers or silver bullets. Together, we had explored the works of Diane Ravitch, Wendy Kopp, Jonathan Kozol, and Waiting for Superman. As we explored the uncomfortable nooks and crannies of KIPP charter schools, teachers’ unions, and the US definitions for “success,” she shared personal anecdotes and cautionary tales. She did not tell me what to do, but gave me the tools to figure it out for myself. This summer I was happy to tell her about my upcoming journey with SFER. I  hoped she would approve.

The response I received was not the one I expected. My mentor was concerned and emotional when it came to my decision to join this seemingly “corporate” piece of the education reform movement. She urged me to approach my membership with the same thoughtful consideration I had approached the topics of our independent study–exploring SFER’s hidden corners and unearthing its critiques. I quickly realized that I had jumped in quickly. However, I didn’t want to withdraw my participation in the organization that proved so instantly inspiring.

Combining my first instincts with learned skills of “complexification” (an invented term by another favorite professor,) I began to do my research. I brought together the SFER Minnesota Director and my cautious mentor for a coffee session of de-briefing. I decided to focus our St. Olaf chapter locally–meeting students where they  stand, and extending our understanding of community, State, National, and global circles in time. Encouraged by members of SFER Carleton, the Minnesota Director, my professor, and my co-chapter leader, our branch of Students for Education Reform became an “umbrella organization” model–helping existing organizations passionate about education and education reform unite in order to create the most long-lasting and informed impact.

I did not want to be an organization whose sole purpose was to get people angry about systemic issues, protest outside of the capitol, and relentlessly chant “change, change, change!” 

My concerns about SFER coming into the Harvard Summit included:

  • Where is the money coming from? Who am I not allowed to offend?
  • Who am I speaking for?
  • What does “advocacy” really mean? In order to be a part of this organization, do I have to play a part in changing legislation? Or is it acceptable to focus on direct service and community engagement?
  • As a part of this organization, am I affiliated politically? What kind of autonomy will we have as the St. Olaf branch? Will we be given the freedom to adapt to our Northfield community and St. Olaf culture?

After successfully getting lost on the Harvard campus, (seeing plenty of historic sites in the process) Katie and I were seated at round tables with 20-somethings whose energy was palpable. At every seat a notebook was open. Reminders and achievement gap-themed event ideas were scribbled furiously in margins. Everyone talked with their hands. Smart phone contact lists were added to consistently throughout the evening, and we became fast friends (with the added help of at least 4 “icebreakers”) with those sitting around us.

That first Friday evening set the tone for the next two days–a schedule of storytelling, inspiration, and development of an education reform tool belt for future change. We heard first from the two women who founded the first SFER chapter at Princeton. In a series of twenty 20-second slides (an innovative teaching medium for a generation of multitasking and shortened attention span,) Co-Founders Catherine Bellinger and Alexis Morin regaled us with their journey from the naive and idealistic passion of college freshmen to current position as leaders of an organization supported by big names like Teach for America, KIPP Charter Schools, Breakthrough Collaborative, and the New Teacher Project. They began with a magazine mockup featuring educational news, and ended up helping pass bills (like the one that ensures all 3rd graders in Massachusetts can read) and directing more than 100 chapters of a pipe dream that grew into something real. Watching them speak, I still found it hard to believe how much they’d accomplished. How had they managed to live social lives? In any case, they were impressive. They had their speech down. They knew how to move a room. This was the recurring thread. Everyone has a story–the key is knowing how to tell it.

On Friday night we were treated to a free pre-screening of the film Won’t Back Down–a production by Paramount Pictures and Walden Media (featuring Hollywood big names Maggie Gyllenhaal and Viola Davis) that puts a very emotional spin on the hot debate of “parent trigger laws.”

The screenwriters knew how to tell a story that gets a reaction. There was a Teach for America character who managed to elicit giggles from every education-reform minded audience member with his stereotypical

Image from

glee. An oversimplified battle between unions and under-served children and parents played out as Gyllenhaal’s character continually ran from unkempt apartment to unkempt school to uplifting rally–all in the name of saving her daughter from a seemingly unstoppable drain of public education. Of course, there was also the archetypal “transformative teacher” character played  to a T by Viola Davis. I’ll admit that tears were shed, but there was a gag or two as well.

I see movies like Won’t Back Down and Waiting for Superman and Race to Nowhere, and I see possibilities to make people angry. This sounds pessimistic, but it is important. One thing I learned from my weekend in Cambridge is that anger is a valid strategy. For many of the chapters of SFER in various states, this is a key piece of energy. From the upcoming rally planned for the University of Minnesota campus featuring the voices of unsatisfied parents to the now infamous faces of union picket lines in Midwestern spaces like Chicago and Madison, inciting passion is an effective first step. After all, it’s what hooked me.

Though my personal “theory of change” involves diving into issues headfirst and taking the time to “unpack” assumptions and social norms and always ask why, I can respect that anger tactic. However, I think it needs to be backed up with conversation and complexity. I was impressed to see the literature that was released to us in pamphlets prior to the beginning of the movie. Featuring tailored tips for teachers, parents, and kids, the brief handout was an answer to the “what do I do with all of this inspiration and anger?” question that often follows provocative films. If we show this film on our St. Olaf campus, it will be as an agent of conversation.

I am quickly realizing that I could write a blog post about every one of the 10 events I attended in my weekend with SFER National. I could tell you about the tremor in Howard Fuller’s voice as he told stories about the “four kinds of parents” he’s encountered in his experience as superintendent of Milwaukee Public Schools. I could tell you about the effective design of discussion-series, the overlap of user interface design and education reform in the format of a lesson-sharing site for teachers across the country, the confusing and convoluted nature of too many jargonist acronyms, and the story of the woman who helped to close the achievement gap in New Orleans by 50% in

Kira Orange Jones: Prominent Education Reformer in New Orleans. Image from SFER Facebook.

the first 5 years following Hurricane Katrina by doing what she was most afraid of: running for office. I could outline the conversations that took place over QDoba burritos and aluminum foil encased Thai takeout ranging from immigration injustices to rural classroom resources and what it means to be an advocate “for the kids.”  I could do all of this… but I won’t. I will opt instead for the simple takeaways that come to my mind first–the images and subplots that were recounted when I was asked “So. How was Harvard?”

I remember Howard Fuller as he turned to the group and told us “this is the Civil Rights movement of your generation.” I remember the frame of social justice as effective and the demands for “advocacy” and “action now” as isolating. I remember that every time I spoke up in a workshop or a meeting it was to plea for the systems thinking approach that I have gleaned from my Liberal Arts perspective–confident playing devil’s advocate and always preaching my local to global approach.  I remember the sense of relief that came with realizing I could work outside of the lines of a very strict looking Memorandum of Understanding– organizing and communicating creatively.

On the note of communication, I remember that perhaps the most effective tool in the reformer belt is that of listening. To get anywhere we need to listen first. This sounds easy, but it is a step often pushed aside. We need to listen, get uncomfortable, be okay with knowing that we don’t know everything (not even close,) harness the power of truth in narrative, make connections, and locate the barriers in education before we “fix them.” We need to network endlessly, hear people with different opinions from our own (something I myself have struggled with at a largely homogeneous place like St. Olaf,) and move forward with both audacity and humility.

Unsurprisingly, I left the SFER summit with more questions than answers. Flying back toward the Twin Cities skyline, I outlined applications for a future in Education, meetings with potential campus partners, and dreamed up ideas for events that might inspire and activate change. I imagined TED Talks 10 years down the road, and underlined every other sentence in Paul Tough’s 2012 book How Children Succeed.  I pictured myself as a Teach for America educator in a pre-K classroom–helping children “get ahead” before they are forced by circumstances beyond their control into perpetual levels of academic decline and categorization as “behind.” I weighed pros and cons. I compared fantasy and reality. I felt like a part of the quirky “SFER family” that unfurled across three days.

And yet, as is true in the dynamics of any family, I didn’t agree with all of the overtly enthusiastic members. I was perturbed at times and pushed beyond my comfort zone. In this family, I am not a big fish in a small pond. In fact, I am not especially special at all. This is what makes the experience worthwhile. As was true in my experience as a student at St. Olaf, I need to find my own niche. I need to uncover what I believe and do something with it. I need to make many mistakes. The results of this next year (and the years after that) are unknown.

The opportunity to join SFER presented itself at the drop of a hat last August, and by next August there’s no telling where it will have taken me. It’s cliche, but there’s that little ringing voice in the back of my head: Someday, we might change the system. We just have to be conscientious about the way we do it.


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8 Responses to Audacity and Humility: Becoming a Participant Observer in Students for Education Reform

  1. Pingback: A new perspective from a current SFER member « Teacher Under Construction

  2. Pingback: Another perspective from inside @SFERnational « @ the chalk face

  3. Pingback: More Students Questioning SFER’s Principles « Teacher Under Construction

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  5. Pingback: An SFER Chapter that gives me hope « Teacher Under Construction

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