Symbols matter to social movements and leaders of social reform use symbolism strategically to advance their goals. Symbolism is a tool and effective movements highlight positive symbols while minimizing problematic ones. Lincoln and Martin Luther King, for instance, both used religion and the nation's founding to help bind the country together. Gandhi used powerful symbols like salt to capture attention while he, and subsequently King, used nonviolent methods to deny opponents easy targets.
More recently, both sides of the gay rights debate appreciate and employ the intense symbolism associated with marriage, which is why gay marriage is such a social battleground. President Obama cleverly deployed and minimized various symbols during his campaign but was less successful in avoiding the negative symbolism associated with the AIG bonuses.
Education reform is arguably the most serious structural social problem facing the country today. And, like other social movement, at its core the school reform debate is about changing power arrangements. As Education Secretary Arne Duncan remarked recently, "the education pendulum in the country has swung too far to adults" at the expense of students.
Given the scale of America's education problem, reformers do not want for compelling symbols. Yet the education reform movement has failed to organize itself around compelling symbols or imagery. For instance, almost half of all minority students fail to complete high school. That's a catastrophic figure that many Americans, policymakers, and even teachers are unaware of. The annual symbolism of half-empty graduations across America's great cities could serve as a rallying cry to dramatically improve schools. But it's a catastrophe largely ignored outside of reform circles.
Likewise, it's not just wonks and researchers saying that many of the work rules in teachers' union contracts are counterproductive; teachers themselves are rebelling against them in cities like Denver and Los Angeles. The list goes on. American education does not lack for problems and compelling symbols of them, but the reform movement still lacks strategies for deliberately using them to engage influential audiences.
Rather than using symbolism, the modern education reform movement has instead often allowed itself to be defined as a cloistered group of white dilettantes from Ivy League schools—counterproductive symbolism and off the mark. The flagship Teach For America program, for example, recruits teachers from a variety of schools across the country, most of whom stay involved in education after they finish teaching. Forty-five percent of school leaders and more than 1 in 3 teachers at the high-performing and high-poverty KIPP public schools are African-American or Hispanic. But the elitist perception has a powerful sting and marginalizes compelling leaders like Newark Mayor Cory Booker, Colorado Senate President Peter Groff, Colorado House Speaker Terrance Carroll, or groups like the Citizens Commission on Civil Rights.
In Washington, D.C., the schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, one of the most relentless and committed school reformers in the country, has been cast as a villain by her opponents because of symbolic missteps, perhaps most notably by appearing on the cover of Time clutching a broom. The result is that Rhee's opponents in Washington and nationally now steer the debate to just about anything involving Rhee except her actual proposals for improving the city's beleaguered schools.
The history of school choice offers a lesson for today's reformers. In the 1960s, school choice was not as contentious an issue as today and many reformers on the political left supported school vouchers as a tool for increasing educational equity. In the 1970s and 1980s, as school choice became more closely associated with conservative free-market ideas, the issue became more divisive. The economist Herbert Gintis has written of school choice that, "I just knew that if Milton Friedman (the conservative University of Chicago economist) was for it, and the teachers' unions were against it, I must be against it, too."
Not surprisingly, when the symbols of school choice in the 1990s became minority students trapped in failing schools in places like Milwaukee and Cleveland, the issue changed. Though still controversial, choice has expanded steadily ever since. In fact, Gintis wrote the passage above as the forward to a book about charter schools.