Horace Talks with Steve Jubb: How BayCES Has Built Alliances and Challenged the Status Quo

Brett Bradshaw, CES National’s Director of Strategic Communications, spoke with Steve Jubb, Executive Director of the Bay Area Coalition of Equitable Schools (BayCES), a CES National affiliate center, about the advocacy work that BayCES has done in the communities of Berkeley, Emeryville, and Oakland, California. BayCES assists schools, school districts, and community groups in the work of creating or redesigning schools to elevate overall achievement. A network of equitable, high performing, small public schools, BayCES taken the lead locally and in the national school reform movement in three key areas: equity through data-based inquiry and collaboration in classrooms, schools, and districts, personalization through small schools, and community partnerships to leverage district-level policy change and to build authentic school-community connections. BayCES has a staff of 40 and was founded in 1991.

Steve Jubb has served as the Executive Director of BayCES since 1996. In 1990-91, Steve received the Richmond Unified School District’s Teacher of the Year award for his work at De Anza High School, where he taught English and creative writing and served as assistant varsity football coach, teacher-leader, and trainer in Socratic Seminar. Steve has a BA in English and an MA in education from Stanford University, where he earned All West Coast honors as an offensive tackle blocking for Jim Plunkett on Stanford’s 1971 Rose Bowl team. He also holds a master’s degree in educational administration from San Francisco State University and he is fully bilingual with Spanish as his second language.

Brett Bradshaw: How did BayCES go about wielding influence to take policy action in Oakland, Berkeley, and Emeryville?

Steve Jubb: For one thing, we had to develop some basic credibility as an organization. We had to show that we could actually help the districts and their communities create schools that would be better than the ones that they had. Our initial partnership was with a powerful community-based organization, Oakland Community Organizations (OCO), precisely because we thought that they could push the political advocacy agenda. Typically, what an organization like ours does is to write policy papers, talk to the right people in leadership positions, provide policy guidance, etc. We’re a 501©3; we’re not even supposed to advocate for a political side or another.

Creating alliances with powerful groups to press for the conditions that we need is a key piece of our center’s work. Over the years, we have created a number of alliances and partnerships with other organizations. These alliances shift over time. You might be really close during a particular campaign and then drift apart over another one. It’s important to embrace that as part of the process. You need allies; you’re not going anywhere unless you can build an informal coalition. I tend to shy away from formal ones because then the relationship can be more important than the outcome. Instead, there should be an understanding that when your interests coincide you try to collaborate and when your interests come apart, you don’t waste a lot of time and energy trying to hold it together. We also build political relationships – we have relationships with the superintendents, the school boards, many community based organizations in which we work and we maintain them so when issues are identified, we can coalesce to address them.

BB: What are the tactics that you’ve employed to get the political work done?

SJ: One of our tactics is that we’re very intentional about relationships. We don’t organize in the traditional sense, but we do a lot of work in this organization to celebrate our relationships with people out in the world. This week we’re having our annual network dinner, which is purely a celebration of our relationships among schools and individuals, and we always invite our funders, the districts, and community based organizations to this annual event. It’s an intentional tactic: we want people to get in a room with three or four hundred people who feel a sense of connection to this organization. When we follow up later, when we need allies, we want to preserve the same three or four hundred person feeling. People generally want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and when you can convince them that there is some personal and spiritual benefit to being a part of whatever you’re a part of, you’re building networks and relationships that can become very important.

We also make sure we have relationships with our legislators. We make sure we have relationships with all of the key leaders in the districts that we serve. We make sure we have relationships with people who are oftentimes our opponents. We’re on a first-name basis with those people. We’re not friends, but we can call them and we can have our conversations of conflict when we need to have them.

Another tactic is to not get caught up in partisan politics, which is harder than it looks. Anywhere on the political spectrum, you have the possibility of doing good and doing harm. Just the fact that you have a certain set of values and a certain ideology doesn’t mean that you will accomplish your goals in the ways that you profess to carry them out. So I think that staying agnostic and open to the possibility that we can be wrong about certain things is really critical. And we look at policy from the point of view of how it helps or hinders what we’re trying to get done in our schools. Whether the policy came from the state administrator that nobody likes or it came from the school board member that everybody likes, I don’t care. I look at it to see what the impact will be on the schools.

BB: How does an organization like BayCES go about developing an advocacy agenda? Can you identify a couple of worthwhile outcomes?

SJ: Here in Oakland, Emeryville, and Berkeley, if we had made school system reform a left-right issue, we would be dead in the water, because neither the Republicans nor the Democrats, the progressives nor the conservatives, had everything on their agendas we believe would make a difference. As we look at school creation, at what would make a difference for success, we recognize that there is something to love and something to dislike in everybody’s agenda. And I started to think of ourselves as part of the radical middle. I realized that we weren’t going to genuflect and just stick with the politically correct left-speak about process and democracy and all that when we have a history in these communities of a lot of talk and no action. By the same token, we were not going to jump on board with the idea of charter schools that are based on the notion of competition reforming the educational system. We saw some value on both sides.

We realized that the only way that Coalition-style schools were going to survive in California’s policy environment is if they were part of a portfolio of schools developed with a commitment on the part of the district. Choice plays a really big role. If parents and students were given the opportunity to choose among good schools, to some degree we would have to embrace internal competition as a driver of equity.

Within this structure, you would have to have multiple models that are high quality, models that are either home-grown or are imported from outside and implemented to the degree that they’re competitive. Then you would have to look at the impact on the entire system. Districts, without some attention to the ways they operate, will almost always squash innovation organically. It’s not anyone’s decision; it’s just what they do. Districts will allow change to happen, but when it starts to bump up beyond the radar, heads get chopped off because of the constraints within which districts work. But the value that a district holds – which is its best position to hold – is as the guardian of equity from neighborhood to neighborhood. Districts don’t often do that, but they are better positioned than an individual school or network of schools to hold that value and act upon it.

One of the conditions in our districts for which we advocated was school autonomy. In order to get autonomy for schools, we had to learn to advocate for accountability for schools, which meant being willing to close schools, even the ones that we helped start, that we felt did not act responsibly to achieve their goals. What we’ve learned is that from a system perspective, you cannot have a new school strategy if you do not also include the criteria by which you’ll close schools. A strategy without these criteria is not only impractical – I think it’s immoral. What you’re saying then is, “We can have choice and we can create all these new schools, but we’re not willing to be held accountable to the standard.”

Ultimately, the action is in the classroom, and we all talk about this ad nauseum. However, in order to have the kind of emphasis on classroom practice that we wanted, we have to ask ourselves if it was reasonable to expect every single school to develop its own standards, its own assessments, and its own curriculum. In my experience, not all schools are able to do that, and if they do, if a key teacher leaves, half the curriculum leaves. I know that there are exceptions to this rule but that’s the point: it’s a rule, with some exceptions. In order for Coalition schools to survive and prosper, I think we do need some state-level common curriculum, common standards, and common assessments.

What we need at this time in our system are a few standards that are well-measured, that are really important, and for which we hold everybody accountable. What we have right now are too many standards than anybody could ever teach: the learning outcomes are too broad and not deep enough. Nailing down standards and benchmarks for student instruction to try to drive teacher practice is the right idea, but it’s confounded by the American desire to have everything all at once. I think the TIMMS studies are a really good indicator of this. Higher-performing countries tend to have fewer topics they teach in a year and they teach them more deeply.

BB: So how can a national organization such as CES help create conditions for schools to thrive and allow practitioners to educate students in the ways that are best?

SJ: First, it’s important to define the long term vision of what a transformation of the public education system really looks like. Does it look like districts of all CES-type schools? Or does it look like districts in which there’s a subset of CES-type schools that coexist with other types of schools through choice strategies? Do we see our work such that we’re just trying to exist as a network or do we define transformation as the world not needing us anymore?

It’s so hard to imagine what a high-performing equitable school system looks like with kids who are graduating with their minds well trained and well developed to confront not only today’s issues and problems but the challenges they’re going to face when they grow up. It’s hard to imagine that, yet I think if we don’t imagine that, I feel we’re on dangerous ground when we muck about in policy. We don’t all think alike in this country and we don’t all define similarly what an educated student looks like. Are we trying to build a platform while continuing to have a democratic debate over what an educated person is like, within which the Coalition is one voice, or are we trying to build a pluralistic system with a few things in common and a thousand flowers blooming? The answers to all of these questions determine where we go with our advocacy.

BB: You brought up a couple of issues you’d like to see on a CES national agenda. What are some other issues around which CES should develop advocacy efforts? What would help BayCES as a center and, perhaps, other CES affiliate centers?

SJ: There are some patterns that may justify a national advocacy agenda, such as looking for some way to embrace the accountability and attention of No Child Left Behind while still having some alternative assessments. I would be inclined to jump on that bandwagon if I felt that everyone understood how in some ways in the past insistence on alternative assessments legitimized a lot of bad practice in schools. I feel very strongly that if you have an idea and you try to push it on the world, you have to be responsible for both the intended good consequences and the unintended bad consequences. You have to take a hard line around quality, which at times has been a problem in our organization.

I do think that as an advocacy strand, finding ways other than bubble tests to evaluate the performance of students and schools is going to be critical to creating a high quality, democratic school system. For the federal government to bepromoting choice to such a degree while being so reductionistic in terms of what student achievement actually is and how it’s measured is clearly contradictory. For example, people in New York are able to choose schools that have a performance assessment system that has met some basic criteria for quality. However, by refusing to extend the ability of these schools to use this alternative assessment system to meet state accountability standards, the state is undermining the schools. The government can’t simultaneously pursue a choice agenda for parents, and then distrust their choices when they choose into something that the government doesn’t like. That seems to me to be the fundamental problem with No Child Left Behind. I understand why NCLB is they way it is. Policy, particularly when it’s made through lots and lots of compromise, is a blunt instrument and ultimately it is always local. What matters is how people interpret the policy and the actions they use to carry it out. So I do think there’s an agenda for the Coalition there.

I would like to see a sharper equity agenda which, to me, has been somewhat problematic in the Coalition. There’s been an assumption that a certain kind of education inspired by the Common Principles is always going to be equitable. I think we have to question that assumption. There are plenty of cases where a CES-style reform agenda does not result in increased equity, and in my view it’s because we are unwilling or unable to examine our expectations about the kids or our ideas about the families we’re serving. So for me I think the fundamental policy question for the Coalition is, beyond how we assess student achievement, what is our vision of an equitable school system, and what is our role in that?

We’re at a very challenging moment in America, and I think those of us with progressive values are at a crossroads. We need to imagine and work towards a world that doesn’t exist. When we talk about education for all young people no matter what their background, when we talk about having all of them be ready for work or college, citizenship, meaningful lives, we have to admit that’s not the world we live in right now. Since it’s not the world we live in, we are to a greater or lesser degree complicit in the inequity that exists, and if that’s true, what we have set out to do is irrational. Rationally, we look around us and say, “All kids can learn…except for the ones who have really severe learning disabilities, or except for the ones whose parents are on drugs.” We make exceptions in our minds, in part, because we don’t have any experience except in a very small world -maybe in one classroom – that tells us that we can actually have a system that does it differently. We all want to be humble in the face of this challenge, and responsible, and kind, and good people – and at the same time we have to admit that we could be wrong about a lot of things. Yet we still have to act boldly, and we have to take the risks necessary to take action on a problem that has been in existence for a long time.

There are a lot of places where we’ve made great progress in education. I think our primary challenge is not really about the “what” anymore but how to get the “what” to scale. We have to work relentlessly to take to scale the things that we know are working and be ready to change course if we have to.

BB: So what does the average CES practitioner do? What should the teachers and school leaders reading this interview take away to engage in action to take this to scale?

SJ: You can’t have a systemic reform under the radar. What I would say to the teachers is be really thoughtful about the person you elect to be your union representative. What I would say to parents and families is be really thoughtful whom you elect to your site committee. What I would say to CES center people is be really thoughtful about your relationships with other community based organizations. If you got into a problem, who would come to your side and would any of them represent the communities that you think you’re there to serve?

By its very nature, justice demands a political intervention of some kind. Sometimes that’s working within the system. Sometimes it’s working on the system. And only you – a person, team, or organization – can decide if it’s time to work with, work on, or even work against the forces in your communities. Education is political and we have to pay attention to who represents us. If you’re not actively taking advantage of the processes available to you for representation, then in my view, it’s immoral to criticize. Everything we do that challenges the status quo is political. Equity by its definition is political, because it’s going to challenge the status quo. Get involved.