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The Education Gadfly

Editor's Note: This week we launch the first in a biweekly series highlighting education reformers. Every two weeks we'll pose the same questions to people working to bring about meaningful education reform--most of them from outside the Beltway. We kick off our feature with Alex Johnston, CEO of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN).

Alex Johnston is Chief Executive Officer of the Connecticut Coalition for Achievement Now (ConnCAN). As ConnCAN's first employee, Alex launched what is now regarded as one of the nation's leading state-level education reform organizations. In the five years since, he has led ConnCAN's effort to advocate for state policies that will ensure every Connecticut child has access to a great public school. So far in 2009 ConnCAN has achieved two major legislative victories through its ???Mind the Gaps' campaign: overhauling the state's teacher certification rules and opening up stores of longitudinal student achievement data to the public. Legislative leaders and the governor have expressed support for the campaign's third goal???securing funding for the expansion of high-performing public charter schools???but the outcome still hangs in the balance pending final budget negotiations to close an $8 billion state budget deficit.

Alex previously served as director of operations at the New Haven Housing Authority, working as a member of the management team tasked with turning the agency around from the brink of receivership. A graduate of Harvard University, he studied at Oxford University on a Rhodes scholarship and received a D.Phil. in politics from Oxford's Lincoln College, where he studied the impact of government funding on non-profit service providers. Alex lives in New Haven, Connecticut with his wife Caroline and their dog Nelson.

What drew you to working in the education field and what path did you take to end up where you are now?

I was in college during the LA riots of 1992, and seeing how quickly our society could pull apart at the seams really made me want to focus on addressing the underlying inequalities that produce such fragile ties in the first place. I was doing a lot of work with Habitat for Humanity in inner city Boston at the time, and that in turn led me to focus my undergrad studies on affordable housing and the politics of exclusionary zoning in the suburbs of Boston. After a diversion to grad school overseas, I landed back in New Haven, Connecticut for a stint of couch-surfing with friends while I finished up a doctoral dissertation on the impact of government funding on non-profit housing providers. I then took all that book learning and put it to the test by signing on to the management team that was charged with turning around the New Haven Housing Authority from the brink of receivership. It just so happened that one of those friends whose couch I'd been staying on was Dacia Toll, the founder of the Achievement First network of charter schools???and so I got a unique perspective on the incredible power of these schools to transform their students' lives because so many of her kids were coming right out of the very same housing developments that I was managing. Rewarding as it was to help the housing authority's residents reclaim their communities from years of neglect, once I began to appreciate how powerful schools could be in turning the cycle of poverty on its head, I was hooked.

And so about five years ago I was fortunate to connect with ConnCAN's founding Board Chair, Jon Sackler. Together with an array of business, community and higher education leaders we founded ConnCAN on the premise that we need more than pockets of excellence to close Connecticut's worst-in-the-nation achievement gap. We need statewide policies that allow educational innovations like Teach for America or Dacia's schools to spread far and wide. And those policies will never be enacted unless we create the political will for them by building a movement of education reformers. We've been at it ever since, from the early days when it was just me and my dog working out of my house to today, when we've got a fantastic team of ten, and we're well on our way to building a powerful, statewide movement for education reform.

How would you change education in America today?

Fundamentally! And I believe that ultimately, the only way to do this is by building the public will for bold reform at the state level. This is where the rubber really hits the road in both policymaking and funding for our public schools. Ironically, it is precisely because the new administration has put so much emphasis on trying to drive a national education reform agenda through a historic influx of stimulus funding that the role of the states is more important than ever. Even with the stimulus, the reality is that the federal government picks up only a fraction of the tab for the nation's public schools, while the states still have the ultimate say on all kinds of fundamental education policy questions, from curricula to funding formulas and from teacher certification to graduation requirements.

So changing the nation's course in public education actually means changing education policy and practice across all 50 state capitals. And that means building advocacy organizations like ConnCAN in every state, and leveraging their efforts as part of a coordinated national reform strategy. We're fortunate to be part of a new national umbrella organization called the Policy Innovators in Education Network (PIENet) which is beginning to take on this challenge. Convened by a bipartisan group of national education policy think tanks with funding from Gates, Joyce and several other national foundations, PIENet is now linking the existing state level reform groups in more than a dozen states such as EdVoice in California, Advance Illinois, and Vision 2015 in Delaware. Not only are we continuing to make progress advancing reforms in our own states, we're also looking to leverage our collective experience to help advocacy start-ups in new states.

What advice would you give to a person who's brand-new to your area of the education world?

Some of the best advice I've ever gotten is that excellence in any human endeavor is the sum of the difficult conversations that we're willing to have with each other. And as an advocate for kids who are being grossly disadvantaged by adult politics, following this advice means establishing an organizational culture that practices disciplined urgency. Some of the toughest calls you will have to make are about how much heat to apply, and how much to temper this heat with political pragmatism. Because the minute things really start getting hot, you'll have tons of folks, including some of your own friends and supporters, telling you to cool it???that a direct confrontation with such powerfully entrenched interests as those defending the educational status quo can only be counterproductive. But of course, if you're not willing to make things uncomfortable for others (and for yourself), you're not going to be much of a change agent. But neither should you fall for the ideologue's self-indulgence: satisfying yourself by merely howling in the wilderness against injustice???you have the obligation to engage as a political pragmatist because there are too many kids waiting for you to deliver results for them tomorrow. So keep your hand firmly on the thermostat???and understand that while you are not seeking out conflict for its own sake, your job is not to build consensus among all of the stakeholders, it is to drive systemic change.

Which other educational innovator do you most respect and why?

Howard Fuller [Chair of the Black Alliance for Educational Options]. He has worked tirelessly to put students first, both inside the system as a big city superintendent and outside it as an advocate???and he has been incredibly generous with his time, travelling all over the country with encouragement and inspiration for all the rest of us. And his willingness to initiate and sustain those difficult conversations, including within the education reform community itself, is legendary.

Who is an Education Change Agent in your area? Let us know at [email protected] or [email protected] and perhaps he or she will be featured in this space in the future.
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