Public protests are not policy workshops

I’m not at the Save our Schools march today in D.C. but I am reading coverage (including the Twitter feed for #sosmarch). I think a number of observers such as John Merrow and Patrick Riccards are both right and wrong in arguing that the march organizers don’t have specifics to carry an argument. It is true that in this march, there are folks whose views are not entirely clear, and there are some clear examples of where attendees disagree on important issues–I recently read a tweet from an attendee who was opposed to letting Pedro Noguero speak.1

But this event is not really about focused policy issues.2 As an historian I generally don’t look to public marches and rallies as being about wonkish things. Of course, I could be wrong, and if any of you have video of town-hall meetings or rallies in 2009 and 2010 where people started up pro-IPAB3 chants, please let me know and I will acknowledge my error. But public protests are malleable events, not policy workshops, and their meaning is determined by participants who usually have multiple perspectives.4 Rallies are just not generally designed for Capitol Hill bill markups, and there was no clear causal line an historian can draw between a rally on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in summer 1963 and the passage of specific civil-rights legislation in the following two years. I think it would be a mistake to judge any public protest event by how cohesive and actionable its written (or online) materials are.

One instead looks at whether there is any evidence of an event providing evidence of or an organizing impetus for something specific. Things that matter in this regard are attendance, the providing of opportunities to plan either before or after the event, organizational followup, and so forth. In the case of Save our Schools, from the pictures tweeted thus far this afternoon, it looks like there are hundreds rather than tens of thousands of attendees, so the relevant questions for the long term are about the organizing opportunities rather than massive crowds. From Kenneth Bernstein’s twitter comments on a pre-march meeting yesterday, it was partly speeches and partly small-group discussions, with tomorrow slated for a four-hour organizational meeting.5


  1. “I wish Pedro wasn’t speaking. He’s a charter guy and I lobbied to remove him from the stage,” tweeted by a blogger who goes by the moniker The Frustrated Teacher. []
  2. Update:Sara Goldrick-Rab has pointed out on Twitter that none of the guiding principles mention higher ed. For that matter, they don’t mention early childhood ed, either. []
  3. Independent Payment Advisory Board, which is a key mechanism for controlling health-care costs in the Affordable Care Act []
  4. Okay, maybe policy workshops also have constructed meanings, but the goal is usually more focused. []
  5. I fully expect tomorrow to end up with a statement of general principles that is no more specific than what is currently online. Again, I’m not sure that means much given the huge success failure of education policy manifestoes in the past few years. []

One response to “Public protests are not policy workshops”

  1. Brian Hirst

    I hope that the organizational meetings will be the start of a focused, national response to the “reformers”, because, IMHO, the rally showed how unorganized we in public education are. I attended the rally and agree that there were more likely hundreds of people there. I did not go on the march because I was embarassed and angry that there were so few of us. On my return home, I asked my state NEA association why our web site had no information about the march. I learned that the NEA had not decided to support that SOS March until June. There was nothing that I saw on the NEA website that mentioned the march let alone urged teachers to attend.

    The state in which I live just recently passed a bill allowing charter schools to form. Barring a complete turn around in the approaches of Obama and Duncan, I think that we need to work on a very local level with school committees and communities to make changes in the schools so that parents will not feel the need to send their kids elsewhere.