Q&A with Derrell Bradford

August 2019

with Derrell Bradford

Get to know Derrell Bradford of The Line Editorial Advisory board

The Line is proud to have an exceptionally talented group of education leaders serve as advisors to the publication. We have brought together some of the brightest superintendents from across the country; experts in leadership, management and education policy; think tank scholars; and former union and nonprofit leaders — all educators at heart. Each brings a unique voice to The Line, shaped by personal and professional experience, expertise, ideological leanings and passion. But all are united in their dedication to finding common ground that advances the future of public education.

Derrell Bradford is the executive vice president of 50CAN: The 50-State Campaign for Achievement Now, and the executive director of its New York branch, NYCAN, with more than fourteen years working in education reform policy and advocacy. In his role, Derrell trains and recruits local leaders across the country to serve as executive directors of state CANs, advocacy fellows and citizen advocates. He leads the National Voices fellowship, and is also a member of the organization’s executive and leadership teams.

Derrell previously served as the executive director at Better Education for Kids. At B4K, Derrell worked to secure passage of the tenure reform legislation TEACH NJ. B4K’s advocacy also led to electoral victories for reform-minded candidates across the state. Prior to B4K, Derrell spent nine years with New Jersey’s Excellent Education for Everyone (E3) as director of communications and then executive director. While there, he also served on the state’s Educator Effectiveness Task Force.

Derrell frequently contributes to education debates in print, digital, radio and TV media. He serves on several boards dedicated to putting the needs of students and families first, including Success Academy Charter Schools, EdBuild and the PIE Network. He is a former board member of We Can Do Better New Jersey and St. Anthony High School in Jersey City.

Q: Tell us about the work that you do at 50CAN.

A: When I joined the network in 2014, I ran 50CAN’s campaign in New York, NYCAN. My lane, specifically, was media and communications along with some lobbying and policy. I was working on charter and choice issues, mostly, along with some teacher quality initiatives.

A couple of years later, I took a role on our executive team. And in doing so, added two other pieces to my work. One of them was the management of states. So, for about a year, I had five of the states from the network. I mentored the executive directors and gave them strategic support. The one good thing about being one of the oldest people in the network is that I have tons of time to make sure younger people don’t make the mistakes I’ve made.

As part of the executive team, I help steer the organization by answering questions about direction, policy, fundraising and personnel with the other members of the team. Additionally, I still participate in advocacy efforts in New York while focusing on education reform issues at the national level. I visit lots of states and speak to lots of different organizations that are trying to improve education locally.

I also run our training programs: 1) “Advocacy 101,” which is our framework for figuring out how to tackle a problem of advocacy; and 2) “National Voices,” a seminar that focuses on three areas — education policy, media and communications, and civil debate and discourse. To me, the education reform movement is the creature of people who came together for different reasons to accomplish a set of important goals. And I, for one, think that that is not a defect of the work but a feature. The goal of these training programs, and “National Voices” specifically, is to make sure that people from different sides of the aisle with different beliefs continue to talk with one another.

…the education reform movement is the creature of people who came together for different reasons to accomplish a set of important goals.

Our work at 50CAN is about two things. First, we’re committed to identifying and supporting local people who are trying to improve education through advocacy. And we are enormously sensitive to local context and leadership, which is why our campaigns all look very different. Second, we endeavor to support our advocates in continuing to improve educational opportunities given to kids based on their local expertise and local circumstances.

For example, in New York and New Jersey, I have spent a lot of time working on teacher evaluations and tenure reform. Those are issues that matter to me so those are the issues that NYCAN focuses on.

As an advocate, I believe the biggest lever is empowering low-income parents with better educational options than they had before. It’s expanding opportunities for kids in Camden, where I used to work with the “Renaissance Act” and similar programs that helped the local superintendent while giving families a way out if they didn’t like what was presented to them. That mix is a good one.

Across the 50CAN network, you’ll see similar campaigns and victories. For example, in Connecticut, our executive director, Subira Gordon, helped pass a bill that changes teacher recruiting and hiring policies so that it’s easier to hire minority teachers. In Georgia last year, our executive director worked to make sure low-income students could take the AP exam for free while also improving charter funding policy. As a result, there were 19 petitions to the state’s charter commission — the most ever.

Q: On the 50CAN site, your picture is labeled with the word disruptor, how so?

A: My tolerance for messiness and unease is much higher than everybody else’s. When I’m thinking about education policies and what we could be doing, what I find myself looking for often is what I call the sublimating step. How do we get from ice to water vapor without going through the water step? That’s what Napster did in the 90s when it blew up traditional music distribution channels, namely the record store. Napster leapt over a step so fast and powerfully that there was no way to unmake the change. The industry instead ended up building on it, which gave way to iTunes and Spotify and all of these other things. I’d like to think we are able to make these same kinds of leaps in education reform — thus the disruptor moniker.

My other nickname is sensei, which I got when I took over training for the network.

Q: Why is it that education never seems to be central to the platforms of politicians? How do we change that?

A: The reason why it’s not front and center is that it’s actually front and center. The role of education in politics is a catch 22 because every person will tell you that you need to get the politics out of education except education is always politics. Education is about three really important things in our society: 1) money, 2) our vision for the nation, and 3) our vision for our children. When you put those three things next to one another, it is impossible to not have a powerful or intense conversation about who’s in charge. The way we determine who’s in charge is through the political process.

Education is about three really important things in our society: 1) money, 2) our vision for the nation, and 3) our vision for our children.

I think, it would be great to have people more engaged on how we improve the policy environment for education in a way that isn’t just about money so that there’s actually opportunity for greater progress.

That said, the time and the effort required by any legislator, who always has another election looming, to be a constructive player on education policy often is not worth it. That sort of legislator navigates the dance of how he or she can “give and get” without getting in the way of the other. That’s how most elected officials would describe their optimal relationship with the education lobby. What’s the least I have to give outside of an annual budget increase to get your maximum support. Although, that’s probably not optimal if you are a low-income kid in Baltimore who goes to a school that’s the wrong fit for you.

Q: What do you believe is the value of education? And what has shaped your beliefs?

A: The purpose of education is to help every child become the best version of themselves. Education is the most personal thing because you only have one chance to get it, and once you have it, it can never be taken away. I grew up in the same neighborhood in southwest Baltimore that most people know for two reasons. One, because it is the setting of some of the best television ever made, that being “The Wire.” And two, because a boy named Freddie Gray died there and the neighborhood caught on fire as a result.

I attended my neighborhood school. Many years later in life, I realized that as a child I overheard conversations about whose address we would use so that I could go to a middle school I wasn’t zoned for. I later went to a gifted and talented program on the other side of town, and later one of the richest middle schools in the city, which is in this beautiful neighborhood north of Hopkins. That school was, ironically, the worst experience for me. With a scholarship, I finished my last six years of secondary education at the St. Paul’s School for Boys, which was the best thing that ever happened to me. My whole life has been about choice.

There were kids on my block who had all the potential in the world. They could have done anything and everything except that they did not have the experience I had in school.

They could have done anything and everything except that they did not have the experience I had in school.

I went to the University of Pennsylvania. I’ve had a good life so far. If school had not happened the way it did, I may well have been some other version of me, and probably not as good a version. And so, when I’m thinking about the work that I do, I’m all about making sure that the barriers I’ve circumvented are not in place for another kid. I care about this deeply. Just like 50CAN’s mission, I went to a school that I never would have gotten into if we had to live nearby or had to know the right people or pay tuition. That fundamentally changed my life. I just want every other kid to be able to make those decisions that, like I said, help them become the best version of themselves.

Q: Who are your role models in the education space and why?

A: I’m sure 80 people would tell you this, but Howard Fuller has been a real mentor and friend to me. My old boss who passed away in 2009, his name was Dan Gaby, is another. Dan was executive director of a nonprofit called E3 that Cory Booker co-founded. He was like a father to me. He taught me everything I could know about politics and a lot about life and a ton about education. He is still truly here with me all the time. Shameless plug: I think Hanna Skandera is a real bright light for her focus on making systems work while continuing to keep the mission first. Eva Moskowitz, Success Academy’s founder, is also a tremendous educator and politician. I am also on the Success board. And only because I know it will shame her, Rebecca Sibilia, who founded and runs EdBuild. I chair EdBuild’s board. It’s been really impressive to watch Rebecca’s little dream about fiscal policy analysis turn into a platform that presidential candidates are fighting about. She’s surfaced important issues like school finance and district boundaries and similar issues.

Q: What’s on your summer reading list?

A: I’m finishing listening to “Democracy in Black and White.” It’s very provocative. “The Righteous Mind” by Jonathan Haidt is also on my list. And, I am interested in revisiting the Brown v. Board of Education decision as a pretext for better discussions about school integration policy, and why it is or isn’t desirable based on who or where you are. And, normally, I would be reading some good piece of fiction because I’m like a child on the inside, but I don’t know what that is yet.