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Derrell is the executive vice president of 50CAN where he advocates to improve educational opportunities and options for families across the country. Derrell also recruits and trains local leaders across[…]
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yes. every kid.

DERRELL BRADFORD: There are lots of times when I go out and I talk to people, and I have a little game I play I'll say, "Who in here has more than one kid?" And then somebody will raise their hand and I'll say, "I bet sometimes you look at one of your kids and you're like this one is mine and other times you look at the other one and you say I don't know where you came from." Those kids breathe the same air, they eat the same food, they live in the same house, they have the same parents, guardians, they have wildly similar experiences, but the demands of their individual learning can be night and day. And the way that we've organized our current education system is not one that is meant to be dynamic enough to meet those needs. And it was also built for a less distracting time, and our kids today they grow up in the most distracting time in the history of history. So, it is our belief as an organization, as people who work on these issues and are trying to, again, build toward more dynamism, that personalization or the closer the education is to the child in terms of proximity and in terms of specialization are ways to optimize what we should be doing in the system or systems of the future. And as a society, look, at different times we prize different things. In the early part of the 20th century, we had the fewest number of high school graduates in the world and then we had the most because there was a point where as a country we decided to prioritize high school graduation and it was a massive lift and we did lots of things to make that possible like tracking, like comprehensive high schools, which like bells and whistles like sorting and AP and all these other things that we've kind of come to know, which were meant to do something else, which was like sort people who were going to go to college and then translate everybody else into a workforce that doesn't really exist anymore, so those things were the best things we had then. I think our country, our kids, our families they want something different now and we'd like to help them build that.

If you're old like me, and if you're younger than me but older than everybody else, like a lot of the senior staff, you have a longer view on how to get things done than lots of people do in the current political moment. And if you work on education policy you can remember that the set of ideas that are most well known, assessments and measuring progress, like reforming the way teachers are trained and paid, charter schools and choice all these other things, they started in the Clinton administration and then they were organized in a more tangible way through a partnership with George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy and that became No Child Left Behind. And then they were sort of gassed up in the Obama administration and we'll call that the Obama Duncan Consensus. And in all of these phases you had Democrats and Republicans, for wildly different reasons, like urban Democrats who were deeply concerned about under-performance for kids of color in cities primarily and a lack of choice in those places, lots of conservatives and free-market Republicans who believe in competition and choice and who are anti-monopolist working together to build the framework that gave us the improvements of the last 20/25 years, particularly in urban education, but broadly in kind of American education forever.

At 50Can, and for me specifically ,we think that's a feature, not a defect. And we believe, especially as an organization that is half in red states and half in blue states basically, we're in Tennessee and we're in New Jersey, and what swims in Tennessee is not what swims in New Jersey. We believe it is essential to hold the center on this, not just because our experience tells us that when people with differing views work together amazing things can happen, but also because there are kids in Southwest Baltimore where I'm from or on some corner in downtown Chicago or someplace off in rural Mississippi who desperately need solutions that cannot wait for our partisanship to resolve itself. In my mind, the modern education reform consensus and what we're trying to build now is one of the best examples of what happens when people can put their individual challenges aside to make the country better and we don't want to see that go away. We think that's the best of us as a people, and we're looking forward to trying to build a new consensus that looks like that now.

The most important thing about evolution is keeping the best elements of what happened before and recognizing things that have been troublesome or problematic and growing beyond them. And politics evolves, policy evolves and in the best cases it gets better in both instances. And when I think about what our states do, when I think about bigger conversations about the future of our kids and our country and who we want to be as a nation, and how we want to empower every kid to become the best version of themselves, I think there's some things that we did or have done or have tried that have been really good and have changed the lives of lots of kids wildly and for the better. But, we also need to evolve. And as much as this is a troublesome moment in the history of the American experiment I try to stay optimistic about what is possible because it is also the most advanced moment in the American experience. We can talk to more people; we can make more change; we can consolidate the ideas of folks; we can build things from the bottom up that help very specific groups of people faster and better and with the benefit of everything that we tried before better than we ever could have at any point other than this moment. So, it's an anxious time. I know I'm anxious. I know our states get anxious, too. But it is an important one and I hope we come out on the other side of this with something that's much better for our students. They need us to.