As an educator and strategic planning facilitator over the past four decades, Tom Olson has advised 13 different states on their education reform efforts, and has consulted with more than 500 local district and state strategic reform projects. He also served as a volunteer member on several Stand for Children (SFC) State Task Forces, and was a board member of the SFC Political Action Committee. He wrote the following letter to Jonah Edelman, the founder of Stand for Children, joining Susan Barrett as a former member now speaking out publicly about how the organization has profoundly changed.
I’ve viewed the video of your recent presentation to the Aspen Institute about how you view your recent Illinois Stand for Children “successes.” Well, former friend and colleague, your behavior and approach in that video is final justification of all the reasons why my wife and I cancelled both our sustaining memberships in Oregon Stand for Children 15 months ago.
Like your mother [Marian Wright Edelman, founder of the Children’s Defense Fund], whom I deeply respect and admire, my involvement in grass roots social justice advocacy goes way back to the1960’s. Continuing this quest, early in the last decade I joined Oregon Stand for Children as a volunteer. I saw the future of public education seriously threatened by politicians who were de-investing in public education, while creating more mandates for phony “accountability;” Based on excellent research work, the Oregon Legislature and Governor adopted the Oregon Quality Education Model. It called for an investment of more than $8 billion biennially to truly deliver the quality education our children deserve. Stand for Children appeared to be committed to engaging volunteers like myself to help Oregon deliver on this moral purpose promise, and build school systems’ capacity to help all children succeed in school and as adults.
As you well know, I came to be a very active Stand volunteer and advocate for the organization. I devoted well over 2,000 hours to Stand’s causes throughout much of the decade, serving on numerous Stand task forces, the State Strategy Team and your PAC Board; participating in very active lobbying for Stand priority legislative agenda items; successfully advocating funding for Stand for Children from non-profit philanthropic organizations, and leading and growing the local Canby Chapter of committed volunteers for two years.
But, in 2009, a number of us began to observe a serious erosion of your commitment to true grass-roots operations. In February 2009 you gave a speech to the Portland City Club which clearly signaled this shift. Stand was clearly abandoning serious efforts to advocate increased financial capacity support ala the Oregon Quality Education model. Based on that speech (not on any advice from any of us volunteers) you and your paid staff began to talk about the need for poorly-defined “reforms”—while clearly downplaying the need for additional support and capacity building for our schools.
A State Task Force was then convened. Several subcommittees were charged with focusing on topics like teaching, time and accountability and assessment. Unlike previous Task Force reports, you only produced an abrupt “executive summary” report with generalities that at best confused the membership. The hard substantive work of the task force volunteers never saw the light of day. Beyond confusion, many of us were worried about this significant strategic shift.
One of the “reforms” you and your staff began to tout was a call for legislation to create more “flexibility” for schools. This was obviously a thinly disguised attempt to erode negotiated teacher contract agreements and to create more charter schools. It was clearly modeled after some Colorado legislation you had pushed as you shifted to demanding attention to a national agenda supported mostly by corporate and Wall Street millionaires. Fortunately the Stand-pushed legislation on this failed miserably. A number of us warned you and your staff that it would..
Stand volunteers were also lectured about the need to support “getting rid of all those bad teachers” and get tougher legislation about teacher evaluation. Unlike previous Stand grass roots priorities, there was no statement of guiding principles; no careful research to define the problems; no review of research about the impact of these reform shibboleths you and your staff were pushing.
At the same time, without even consulting or informing your local Chapter leaders, you launched a process to interview a small number of local teachers across Oregon. You hired inexperienced and naïve interviewers to query these local teachers. There was no scientific sampling. The questions were clearly framed to get the answers you wanted to hear about “tougher” teacher evaluation and other of your “reforms” copied from other states. And then you and your staff pretended that Stand had captured an accurate voice of the State’s teachers.
Several volunteer members (including me) offered our blunt suggestions to your staff about the troublesome lack of guiding principles to guide these reforms– as well as absence of a clear definition of the issues, and total lack of evidence to support the “reforms.” Our suggestions fell on deaf ears.
At the same time, we saw you edge out one of the most competent facilitative leaders I’ve ever known, Holly Pruett. By this time, Holly was the Oregon Stand for Children Executive Director. But, mysteriously, a new “player”, Sue Levin, arrived to begin help you firm up your top down “reforms.” She initially served as the “coach” of the State Race to the Top Team. When we asked if she was now a Stand staff member or a Stand consultant, staff members said that they simply didn’t know. When we read a draft of the Race to the Top proposal, we attempted to provide constructive advice, which, again, was rejected out of hand—particularly by “coach” Sue Levin.
Abruptly, Holly announced her resignation as Executive Director, surprising all the volunteers. We saw no open process to secure her replacement. You did not engage the grass roots volunteers in advising about priority job criteria, no did you engage them in any search or interview process.
Then you anointed Sue Levin as Holly’s replacement. We were appalled that she had virtually no experience leading grass roots organizations. Instead, we were told that she had a truly impressive background as an “entrepreneur” (a phrase we began to hear you use quite frequently during your transformation during 2009-10). Levin had been the founder and CEO of a womens’ apparel company, Lucy, Inc. Prior to that, she had been a Women’s Sports apparel VP at Nike, Inc. Grass roots leadership experience? Absolutely none. Connections with millionaires? A whole bunch.
Several of us seriously questioned Levin and staff about the direction Stand was taking—particularly in shutting down the once very open dialogue and advice-seeking among the membership. In a face-to-face meeting with her, we were sternly lectured not to communicate our opinions via email to the State Strategy Team. We were even given Levin’s twisted view of email protocol! In the same meeting, we also sought Stand’s support for deeper attention to advocating how to remove the well-known learning barriers presented by poverty. Levin told us in no uncertain terms that “Stand isn’t about fighting poverty.” This lecture and admonition was arrogant and demeaning. It was clear our new “leader” was clearly from the “my way or the highway” leadership school.
After this meeting, our local Chapter leader was banned from participating on the State Strategy Team. Pretty soon, Stand’s paid staff support for our Chapter disappeared. The final straw for me was when Levin asked our local Chapter to endorse a political candidate within 24 hours. While I was personally highly supportive of that particular candidate, our Chapter had not been represented in the interview process. Other chapters had been. The next day, my wife and I resigned our memberships based on the obvious clear, sad demise of the Stand’s once-proud grass roots decision-making and the shift to trying to “sell” your ill-advised national agenda.
I have kept silent about my membership termination. Until now. You went public in the Aspen Institute video with your beliefs as a leader. It is hardly a demonstration of “principled leadership.” Your follow-up apology to the Aspen debacle is unconvincing— particularly in light of the obvious 2009-10 transformation in your perspective.
You know and I know that there is not one shred of solid evidence that tougher teacher tenure rules, teacher evaluation using student test scores, or more charter schools (code word “flexibility”) will make a damn bit of difference in preparing our kids for future success. You also know, and choose to ignore, the research on the kinds of true capacity building that will make a difference. Yet you continue to push the fads that the millionaires club continues to cheer on and pay for.
I will use all the energy I have to fight this growing national threat to public education. After all, there IS a moral purpose for our public education system, one that the vast majority of teachers commit to daily. They do this not by sleazy deal-making in the interest of others, nor by painting our education system as a “failure.” Rather, they do this through amazing commitment and performance in the face of the growing swell of teacher-bashing. Wouldn’t it be great if Stand’s leadership returned to advocate for greater support for teachers—instead of just painting public education as a failure and yelling at those on the front lines? Worse than the yelling is the Aspen video’s disgusting depiction of Stand’s willingness to simply cut political deals and pay people off in the interest of others.
Sadly, Tom Olson, Former Stand for Children member