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Kennedy School Review

Topic / Education, Training and Labor

Will a Social Movement Save American Education?


In February 2011, Teach For America’s 20th Anniversary Summit convened the cast of all-star education reformers of our generation. Although these leaders left us inspired, their rhetoric raised more questions than it answered.

In the opening session, former Washington, DC, public schools chancellor Michelle Rhee initiated an ever-quickening series of rallying cries, exhorting 11,000 Teach For America corps members and alumni to recommit ourselves to the sustained effort to provide all children with the quality education that they deserve. Rhee called on education reformers everywhere to organize ourselves, coordinate our efforts, and present a unified front in the fight for educational equity. She passed the baton to former New York City schools chancellor Joel Klein, who cautioned that incremental change is not enough; we need radical change. Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) cofounder Dave Levin gained momentum from Klein and, in a JFK-like moment, asked what we can do to serve the revolution. Finally, Harlem Children’s Zone founder Geoffrey Canada reminded us that Martin Luther King Jr. told all of his followers that they should be willing to die for their cause. This is like war, Canada told us, and by committing to the revolution, we are committing until the end.

The summit took place the day after Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak capitulated his control over the country he had led for three decades. As if by design, speakers took full advantage of the power of metaphor, calling the present our opportunity for an “Egypt moment” in the American education movement. The most poignant comment of the day, however, did not come from an education reform rock star; it came from breakout session panelist and Grammy-winning recording artist John Legend, and it came in the form of a question: simply, “Who are we revolting against?”

No speaker at the summit seemed to be able to name a villain for the revolution narrative. Celebrity political analyst James Carville named “ignorance” the enemy. Recognizing that ignorance is not a tangible target, Atlantic Monthly reporter Amanda Ripley tried to advance Carville’s argument by vilifying “vehicles of ignorance” such as “people who don’t have the right facts.”

Earlier in the day, I had also listened to other reformers’ answers to Legend’s question. But they mentioned only ideas. According to Canada, the enemies are many, including the ideas that “some students can’t learn” and “poverty determines educational outcomes.” It seems a far cry to compare Egyptians who revolted against a decades-long dictatorship to an unorganized collection of American education reformers who oppose a set of ideas. So is there really a social movement in American education right now?

I do not pose this question because I doubt education reformers’ collective capacity to make change. Regardless of what we call it, the energy that has swept the education reform community in the past five years exceeds the energy we have generated in the previous five decades. I ask whether there is a social movement because the only way that education reformers can capitalize on the store of energy we have built up is to correctly classify that energy and to strategically target our energy through the most effective channel, which could be a social movement, a legal campaign, government-led change, or some combination of these or other channels. If we truly want a social movement, there are some things that we may want to do differently.

The Birth of a Question

The question of whether a social movement will save American education became urgent for me because of my work with the YMCA (also known as “the Y”). I am proud to consider myself a member of a unique cultural clique within the YMCA movement. For decades, the Y has attracted, united, and trained young, idealistic leaders and empowered us to solve social problems creatively. I have played many roles within the YMCA, including a volunteer position student-directing a campus branch and a position on a national advisory board for young adult involvement. In November 2010, I initiated the YMCA Leadership Experience, a four-day program in which young leaders develop their leadership skills by exploring their values. Ten young leaders were chosen to attend the Leadership Experience based on their potential to step into roles that large numbers of local Y leaders from the baby boom generation are vacating as they begin to retire.

On the second day of the Leadership Experience, I took the group to see the education film Waiting for Superman. After the movie we gathered in a cozy conference room in an urban Indianapolis YMCA facility to share our reactions and elicit strategies for what role young YMCA leaders such as ourselves should play in providing opportunities to children who otherwise would not have them. The ensuing conversation shocked me. Having grown accustomed to a YMCA culture of endless ideas and idealism, I anticipated a barrage of suggestions of all sorts: new programs, marketing strategies, and advocacy campaigns, among others. Instead of being energized by the possibility to tackle a new social problem, however, the inspired young adults sitting around our table seemed overwhelmed by the densely tangled web of problems that pervade urban education.

It is only natural to be overwhelmed by a problem that is, after all, overwhelming. The achievement gap between low-income, often minority, students and their more affluent peers begins early in life. By age three, children of professional parents know about 1,100 words; children of parents who receive welfare know about 525. The number of words children know closely corresponds to their IQ (Tough 2006). Fast-forward to graduation day, and, in the past thirty-five years, the gap between the high school graduation rates of White students and their Black and Latino counterparts has not converged. What’s worse, official data published by the U.S. government downplays the gap by including as high school graduates the group of predominantly Black students who receive their GED while in prison (Heckman and LaFontaine 2007).

This achievement gap affects all Americans. While our nation struggles to educate minority and low-income students, nations like India and China are positioning themselves to take over as the new global economic superpowers. For example, according to a 2007 report, India and China combine to produce 135,000 engineers per year and that rate is growing rapidly, whereas the United States has stagnated, producing only 60,000 (National Center on Education and the Economy 2007). We need all of our students to become highly skilled workers if the United States is going to continue to compete in the global economy.

Considering this picture, the group of young Y leaders I took to see Waiting for Superman reached an unsurprising conclusion. In the consensus that emerged from the hopelessness that pervaded our windowless room in an urban Indianapolis YMCA, the young, idealistic overachievers deemed the ability to improve academic opportunities for our nation’s youth uncharacteristically outside of our locus of control. Only a revolution can reform American education, they decided.

Academic Thoughts about Social Movements

Since revolutionaries attempt to overthrow the government and institute a new regime, education reformers do not actually want a revolution in the traditional sense (for a more detailed description of the qualities of a revolution, see Goodwin 2001). What they want is a social movement. The idea that only a social movement can reform American education is not new. In academic circles, the notion surfaced as early as 1982, when revered civil rights leader Robert Moses initiated the Algebra Project. The Algebra Project grounds its efforts to organize communities for quality education in the idea that algebra in middle school is the gateway to citizenship. Algebra, the reasoning goes, teaches the abstract thinking skills that students must learn in order to be able to participate in the economy during the technological age. Moses likens math illiteracy among Blacks to the denial of the right to vote during the 1960s:

Math illiteracy is not unique to Blacks the way the denial of the right to vote in Mississippi was. But it affects Blacks and other minorities much, much more intensely, making them the designated serfs of the information age just as the people that we worked with in the 1960s on the plantations were Mississippi’s serfs then. (Moses and Cobb 2001)

In 2005, scholar Jean Anyon reaffirmed Moses’s call for a social movement grounded in the rhetoric and lessons of the civil rights movement. Anyon argues that present-day conditions in Black communities mirror conditions before the civil rights movement in the 1960s: “The vast majority [of Blacks] have again been economically disenfranchised, this time by policies that regulate the terms of an information economy and remove opportunity from urban communities” (Anyon 2005). To end economic disenfranchisement, Anyon argues, new policies must eliminate the social forces that operate through such mechanisms as the housing market, which concentrates poor families in isolated geographic areas. Only then will low-income students and their families be able to access both educational and economic opportunities.

Recent research suggests Anyon may be right that only a social movement can catalyze the kind of comprehensive reform that will dramatically restructure schooling in America; less ambitious reform efforts almost always fail. The National Center on Education and the Economy (2007) likens visiting schools to practicing archeology, where analysts discover layer after layer of failed reforms that were never officially discarded. University of Chicago researcher Charles Payne (2008) explains that reforms are implemented in waves whenever new politicians are elected; new politicians, eager to demonstrate their solutions, implement new reforms before schools have the time to discern whether old reforms might work. As a result, reforms not yet out of their toddler years pile up in schools whose teachers and leaders become increasingly overwhelmed and demoralized.

Anyon (2005) notes that several aspects of the machinery necessary to mobilize citizens around education are already in place:

  1. Schools occupy both the physical and psychological center of neighborhoods and communities.
  2. There is a history in America of Blacks making the claim that access to a quality education is a civil right.
  3. Parents face personal incentives to press for quality education for their children.
  4. Teachers and administrators have access to community members that they can help organize.

The grassroots organizing tradition of the civil rights movement, after which both Anyon and Moses model their modern social movement strategies, represents a particular movement building theory, called political process theory. According to this theory, social movements form to make policy demands on the state.1 Leaders of social movements first concern themselves with mobilizing structures, which consist of organizers and the mechanisms by which they bring masses of people together. Anyon, for example, envisions organizers working with teachers and administrators to unite community members through a combination of meetings, rallies, petitions, and other events. Second, social movement leaders make claims on the government. Importantly, leaders derive these claims from the masses so that the claims they make represent the desires that the masses already have. Finally, social movement leaders look for windows of opportunity, like elite allies or conflicts within government, to press for their claims.

Mainstream Plea for an Education Revolution

Recently, revolutionary calls have begun to come from mainstream politicians and socially oriented citizens groups with little connection to academics like Anyon and Moses. After Rhee resigned from her post as chancellor of Washington, DC, public schools, former city council member Kevin Chavous urged citizens across the country, and particularly in DC, to internalize Rhee’s sense of urgency and to mobilize. Now, Chavous argues, Rhee’s often-criticized top-down leadership can no longer inhibit the masses from participating in the struggle to close the achievement gap (Mathews 2010).2

Rhee seems to have learned from her mistakes in DC. She describes StudentsFirst, her new organization, as “a national movement to transform public education” in this country and recognizes that “parent and family involvement are key to increased student achievement, but the entire community must be engaged in the effort to improve our schools” (Rhee 2010). These ideas stand in stark contrast to the ideologies that guided her efforts in DC, in which she appointed an elite, exclusive force to guide reforms.

Rhee’s new initiative is unlikely to become a traditional social movement in the ways that my YMCA colleagues imagined. American civil rights leaders demanded the right to vote. In South Africa, Nelson Mandela and the African National Congress demanded the right to participate in a South African democracy. In contrast, StudentsFirst makes no specific demands on the government; rather, Rhee (2010) promises to “put pressure on elected officials and press for changes in legislation to make things better for kids” and to support politicians who align with her organization’s policy agenda. Social movements rally around concrete demands for a specific action; they don’t rally around policy agendas. In addition, StudentsFirst does not offer people who join the opportunity to actively and personally put pressure on the government to adopt policies for children, whatever those might be, like the characteristic meetings, marches, and rallies that have made successful social movements in history.

At the local level, organizations are beginning to engage citizens in organizing projects. Parent Revolution, for example, might be considered a combination lobby group and grassroots organizer. After successfully lobbying for a California law that allows a group of at least 51 percent of parents at any school to trigger dramatic changes at that school—including changes to the budget, teaching staff, administration, and school structure—Parent Revolution has entered its grassroots phase in which it organizes parents to pull the trigger at their children’s schools (Medina 2010). It is unlikely, however, that Parent Revolution would spark a larger social movement. Since parents who become organized only make claims at the school level, Parent Revolution is not positioned to mobilize a mass of people who can make claims on a statewide or national level.

The New Wisdom on Social Movements

Marshall Ganz’s (2010) theory of social movements integrates political process theory with other structural theories and cultural theories. His integrated theory consists of four phases. In the first phase, organizers establish relationships of mutual trust and reciprocity with community members. It is these relationships that form the foundation of social movements. In the second phase, organizers mobilize the community through public narratives that explain why only this community can act, and why it must act now. In the third phase, organizers outline the rights or actions that the movement will demand from the government. Organizers must construct demands broadly enough such that the organized population supports them. Finally, in the fourth phase, organizers lead the mobilized community into action through public displays targeted at public officials with the power to change unfavorable policies.

Purely macrostructural social movement theories like political process theory suggest that social movements are affected only by social and economic forces. These forces influence the extent to which a population is repressed and create windows of opportunity during which a weak state might be more susceptible to a social movement. Ganz’s theory accounts for beliefs held by other social movement theorists as well. Rational choice theorists, for example, would support establishing relationships in the first phase of building a social movement, since each individual must consider the personal costs and benefits before they join. Ganz accounts for culture as well, since organizers must establish relationships and mobilize community members in accordance with the values of the particular culture of the population being mobilized. The issue itself is not enough to mobilize a population.

Chances for a Successful Social Movement

Of all the theories considered in this article, Moses’s model has the most potential to spawn a national social movement around education. The Young People’s Project—which Moses’s son, Omo, began in the mid-1990s—recently initiated a listening tour around the idea of quality education as a constitutional right. While this initiative is still in its infancy and would take many years to develop into a full-scale civil rights–style social movement, it has all the right pieces. The Young People’s Project and the Algebra Project are both committed to establishing roots in a community and empowering local citizens to make and act on demands. In Baltimore, high school students who participated in the Algebra Project organized a successful movement to receive repayment for a $110 million deficit that the state of Maryland owed Baltimore Public Schools (Perry et al. 2010). The national movement is still in its listening phase. As Theresa Perry notes in her introduction to a compilation titled Quality Education as a Constitutional Right (2010), “We don’t have an agreement of what constitutes quality education.” Once the listening phase is over, the Moses family and their colleagues and organizations will be in the best position to spearhead a social movement for quality education, whatever that entails.

Timothy McCarthy, director of the Human Rights and Social Movements Program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, warns that a few additional complications might inhibit a social movement in education. First, communities often organize to make claims on government because they have been excluded from legitimate political channels for achieving the changes they desire. In the case of education, however, communities often support the powerful politicians, like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, against whom they would normally make their claims. Social movements cannot form if there is no one to whom a community can make their demands.

Second, Anyon makes the case that parents would face tremendous incentives to mobilize in order to fight for an adequate education for their children; however, her argument dramatically oversimplifies the situation. Communities are frequently torn between policies that promote their children’s education and policies that promote the interests of adults, since school districts usually employ and award large contracts to community members. It might be more difficult than Anyon originally considered if a movement is to organize community members to support policies that would adversely affect them economically.

In early November 2010, my YMCA colleagues proposed a question: can a social movement save American education? Maybe, but it is not likely. Here is the challenge: leaders and organizers must facilitate a national dialogue in which they unite communities behind a specific demand directed toward a specific government entity that is capable of fulfilling that demand. In other words, all of the members of the education reform all-star team have to truly work as a team, with one voice. And they need to give us a voice too, not just represent our voice. With an empowered network of thousands of education reformers led by a guiding coalition with one voice, maybe we actually can make radical changes in American education, one specific demand at a time.



1 The descriptions of social movement theories I present here come primarily from James Jasper (2010).
2 Chavous actually characterizes the achievement gap as three distinct gaps: “the education deficits between children of color and [W]hite children, between all low-income children and children of means, and between all U.S. children and children from other industrialized nations” (Mathews 2010).


Anyon, Jean. 2005. Radical possibilities: Public policy, urban education, and a new social movement. New York: Routledge.

Ganz, Marshall. 2010. Leading change: Leadership, organization, and social movements. In Handbook of leadership theory and practice: A Harvard Business School Centennial Colloquium. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Business Publishing.

Goodwin, Jeff. 2001. No other way out: States and revolutionary movements, 1945-1991. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

Heckman, James J., and Paul A. LaFontaine. 2007. The American high school graduation rate: Trends and levels. National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 13670 (

Jasper, James. 2010. After the big paradigms: Social movement theory today. In Passion and purpose: Action theory of social movements (

Mathews, Jay. 2010. Signal on D.C. education reform from Gray’s camp. Washington Post, September 28.

Medina, Jennifer. 2010. At California school, parents force an overhaul. New York Times, December 7.

Moses, Robert P., and Charles E. Cobb. 2001. Radical equations: Civil rights from Mississippi to the Algebra Project. Boston: Beacon Press.

National Center on Education and the Economy. 2007. Tough choices or tough times: The report of the new Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Payne, Charles. 2008. So much reform, so little change: The persistence of failure in urban schools. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Perry, Theresa et al. 2010. Quality education as a constitutional right: Creating a grassroots movement to transform public schools. Boston: Beacon Press.

Rhee, Michelle. 2010. What I’ve learned. Newsweek, December 6.

Tough, Paul. 2006. What it takes to make a student. New York Times Magazine, November 26.


This article was originally published in the 2011 edition of the Kennedy School Review.

David Shepard is a 2012 Master in Public Policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, focusing on education and urban policy. He previously taught middle school math in West Philadelphia through Teach For America.

Photo source: LABI