Education Reform’s Women — and the Credit and Opportunities They Deserve

By 04/28/2015

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When the history of this era’s urban-education reform movement is written, four big policy innovations are sure to get attention: the nation’s first voucher program, first charter law, first mayor-controlled charter authorizer, and first “extraordinary authority” unit (the RSD).

The people mostly responsible for these have two important things in common.

First, unless you’re an old hand in this business, you may not know of them.

Second—Polly WilliamsEmber Reichgott JungeTeresa LubbersLeslie Jacobs—they’re all women.

Unfortunately, those two facts are probably related.

Much has been written recently about the social forces pushing women below the radar in professional settings. In an excellent NYT piece, “Speaking While Female,” Sheryl Sandberg (Lean In) and Adam Grant (a Wharton professor) argue that “speaking up” at work generally helps men but not women.

“When a woman speaks in a professional setting,” they write, “she walks a tightrope. Either she’s barely heard or she’s judged as too aggressive. When a man says virtually the same thing, heads nod in appreciation for his fine idea. As a result, women often decide that saying less is more.”

This is a prevalent theme in the much-referenced Talking from 9 to 5: Women and Men at Work. It argues that women are acculturated to avoid coming across as domineering, but when they “use conversation strategies designed to avoid appearing boastful…they may be seen as less confident and competent than they really are.”

Cokie Roberts has a new book, Capital Dames, about women and the politics of the Civil War. In an NPR interview, she notes that things haven’t changed much 150 years later. Then, women had to be “covert” about ambition. Now, “they can be overtly ambitious, carefully….It’s still very difficult for a woman to have the word ‘ambitious’ attached to her. It’s not meant positively when it’s attached to a woman.”

One ripple of this phenomenon is the underrepresentation of women in idea generation and public advocacy positions. For some time, there have been efforts to install more female voices on newspaper opinion pages. Some assumed that the problem was that editors were disproportionately rejecting submissions by women.

But women were “pulling themselves out of the discussion,” notes Catherine Orenstein, head of the Op-Ed Project, which aims to grow female thought leaders. Though often highly qualified to lead public debates, they “will in some way discount themselves and their knowledge.”

Indeed, Gail Collins, the first female editorial page editor of the New York Times, notes, “One thing that’s been consistently true is that women don’t put their hands up as often as men.” Collins realized that men submit far more unsolicited pieces. Importantly, this issue is at the very heart of the famous book on gender and negotiations, Women Don’t Ask.

Because of all of this, professional women don’t get the credit they deserve. More than three in four U.S. teachers are women, but seven of nine secretaries of education have been men.Seven of the ten largest districts are led by men. A majority of state chiefs are men. Many of the most prominent bloggers are men; fifteen of the top twenty-five education policy people on Twitter are men. Five of six Education Next editors are men. Conference keynotes are stillmale-heavy.

Of course, this is not uniformly true. We have major female public figures like Wendy Kopp,Michelle Rhee, and Eva Moskowitz; our sometime-adversaries include the formidable Lily Eskelsen GarćiaRandi Weingarten, and Diane Ravitch. A number of women, such as Sara MeadRobin Lake, and Kathleen Porter Magee, are shaping the discussion through excellent research and writing.

But there are many others—like Williams, Reichgott Junge, Lubbers, and Jacobs—who haven’t gotten the attention and credit they deserve for major accomplishments. To name just a few: Jeanne Allen, Mashea Ashton, Harriett Ball, Linda Brown, Nancy Grasmick, Kati Haycock, Kaya Henderson, Rebecca Nieves Huffman, Deb McGriff, Carrie Walton Penner, Vicki Phillips, Nina Rees, Ari Rozman, Hanna Skandera, Kim Smith, Margaret Spellings, Dacia Toll, Virginia Walden Ford, Kate Walsh, and Joanne Weiss. This list could—and should—go on and on.

I admire these women, many of whom I consider colleagues or friends, and I want them to get their due. But this is also personal. I wonder about the chances my mom (a former teacher) didn’t get; the credit my wife (a Ph.D.) hasn’t gotten; and the opportunities my daughter won’t get.

I don’t mean to suggest that success only looks like an externally facing role or public accolades (this post by TNTP’s Rozman is perfect on this point). I think opportunity means enabling people to be and do what they want. I’m just arguing that gender continues to constrain the ability to make and live out those determinations.

But there are hopeful signs. Not only are women leading—in internal and external roles—many of our field’s organizations, female voices are becoming increasingly prominent in the debate. I just did a quick scan of the last ten posts from Ahead of the HeardCRPEEducation PostFlypaper, and TNTP; twenty-four of the fifty most recent authors were women.

We have miles to go. But these are important steps toward ensuring all of our colleagues are recognized for their invaluable contributions.

—Andy Smarick

This post first appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper blog.

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