Are campus chapters of X just branches or local entities?

Earlier this month, Students for Education Reform chapters in New York City (at NYU and Columbia) planned to publicly protest the lack of an agreement on teacher evaluations between the New York teachers union and the city schools. In the last year, the city Department of Education and the United Federation of Teachers agreed on one piece of the thorny issues with evaluation, specifically agreeing to a bundle of changes that simultaneously allowed the union to start grievances on a small number of evaluations, gave teachers the right to an outside perspective (i.e., outside the power dynamics of a school and its principal) when an evaluation was negative, but switched the burden of proof on termination hearings from management to the teacher when the outside second look was also negative in the year after a negative evaluation. Right now, New York Governor Cuomo is apparently holding back a statutory increase in state support for the city schools until there is an agreement on implementing a statewide structure for teacher evaluations that includes some value-added measures from student test scores. It is the lack of that agreement, and the threat to the increased state support, that is the public target of the planned Students for Education Reform campaign at NYU.

In a recent blog entry, Diane Ravitch argued that this was an inappropriate attempt to pressure the union. I agree with some of the concerns she expressed, though I strongly disagree with Ravitch’s tone. Very briefly, the inclusion in evaluations of any test scores or statistic derived from test scores is a logistical snarl that is foolish to rush. Yes, the city has to fall in line with the state guidelines, but it is going to be difficult to do so. There are inevitably going to be things that go wrong with the process, and it makes sense to identify and minimize the predictable idiocies. Instead of congratulating the parties for its agreement a few months ago, SFER-NYU is pushing for speed on a matter where caution is warranted.

But Ravitch is wrong when scolding the students without more information. Let me put this into a broader perspective, about the long history of student groups and their relationships with national entities. On my campus you can find student or campus chapters of the NAACP, Amnesty International, and all sorts of national civic organizations as well as campus chapters of fraternities, sororities, religious campus groups, and other national organizations focused on college students. This is common, and what is also common is a tension between campus chapters of national organizations as local entities run by students vs. entities responsible to the national affiliate. In many advocacy-oriented student organizations, such as Amnesty International, there are suggested campaigns/actions that can be organized locally. But inevitably, an active chapter on a campus has a local flavor, local initiative–you know, something designed by students.

That student-initiated action is sometimes wise, sometimes foolish, and generally idiosyncratic, especially if the active members of a student group are young adults (the general age profile of a college or university’s students is not the relevant factor). Sometimes, students are right to push much further than “the adults” in a particular organization or movement. The college-student sit-ins in 1960 are a clear example of this. Sometimes, localism is destructive, as when rogue fraternity chapters violate the law and their national fraternities’ rules. And in many cases, local campus chapters are inactive through lethargy or leadership turnover. But in a truly student-run organization, there is inevitably some gap between the local and the national.

So, to Students for Education Reform and the planned campaign in NYC: the question on my mind is how much this campaign is student-initiated, and how much driven by guidance by Students for Education Reform staffers and board members interested in NYC politics. Because SFER is headquartered in New York, that is the obvious question for me.1 If NYU and Columbia students by themselves decided that the city needs an agreement to use test scores in teacher evaluations now by golly regardless of the difficulties (or pick more 2012-appropriate slang here), then that’s a group of college students taking a stance as they often do and we should want them to do. If students were pushed by SFER staffers or key members to do so, then students are giving up the capacity to make their own choices on public policy matters and thus their ability to learn about those issues independently.

My substantive question about tactics is why SFER-NYU is pressuring local parties instead of shaming the Governor for the threatened withholding of funds. Given the historical underfunding of NYC schools, and a prior decision of the state courts that such underfunding is unconstitutional, Cuomo seems the logical target. But I’m not a student at NYU or Columbia. Let’s let the students make their own policy choices, and that sentiment is intended for both Diane Ravitch and SFER.


  1. Note: Marc Porter Magee corrected my earlier assumption that SFER is an outgrowth of DFER, Democrats for Education Reform, which is also concentrated in NYC. From SFER’s website, it looks like the SFER board is heavily TFA-derived. []