SHIFT PARADIGM | by Mark E. Weston

Education-related associations, advocacy groups, and front-line challenges.

Do education-related organizations work for you? Or do you work for them? Do they even work for education? Tens of thousands of education-related organizations exist worldwide. Most fit into two general categories—professional associations and advocacy groups. Professional associations are comprised of people who take on similar tasks. Advocacy groups seek to influence public opinion or policy. Nearly every educational role or issue has an association or advocacy group. If you perform education-related work then you probably belong to at least one.

Associations and advocacy groups typically have a goal to benefit their members (you!). That goal is reflected in their documents—by-laws, mission statements, job descriptions—that set forth their purpose, design, and governance. These guide their work and how it is carried out. Staffing and activities, for example, should advance their purpose and directly benefit you.

What benefits have you realized from the education-related organizations to which you belong?

I asked this of several teachers and principals, educators on the front line of learning.  To a person, they consistently reported two benefits: a great annual conference or convention (often in a fun location) and an informative magazine, newsletter, or web site. A few respondents serve on a board of an association or group and they reported additional benefits of paid travel, networking opportunities, and speaking engagements.

One specific and crucial benefit the educators did not report was getting genuine help resolving the front-line challenges that they face every day in classrooms and schools. When I probed, they said that their top challenge is how might they—with limited time, energy, expertise, and funds—facilitate high levels of learning among all their students all the time.  Since they did not report front-line challenges being taken up by an association or advocacy group to which they belong, it is not surprising that no public report has been made about such organizations significantly affecting the overall educational system (except, perhaps, in peripheral or indirect ways). After further probing, all said their organizations should accept some responsibility for helping members’ resolve school house challenges in ways that add up to overall improvements in instructional quality and learning outcomes.

The comments that educators did (and did not) provide suggest two scenarios worth pondering. One is a possibility that even though an organization may aspire to benefit all its members, an individual member might not, for a variety of reasons, actually accrue advantages beyond the aforementioned “benefits.” In this scenario, aspiration and benefit, back-line and front-line, organization and member are misaligned.

Another possibility is more disconcerting. What if the organizations—which in the name of their members collectively generate and spend hundreds of millions of dollars, convene thousands of events, send countless communiqués, and advocate endlessly for educational issues—are, individually and collectively, incapable of genuinely helping members resolve front-line challenges? Ironically, both scenarios lead to the same place; questions whether belonging to an association or advocacy group will benefit a member in meeting such challenges.

What might those questions mean for you?

Not much, for example, if modern, digital technologies flatten your association or advocacy group and bring you, challenges, and it closer together for the purpose of meeting those challenges. No questions need be asked if membership and staff share operational control of the organization, generate and process feedback about the work you perform, and prioritize which challenges get taken up. If these things are occurring, then front-line challenges are being addressed. You and your organization are co-evolving.

That means: when your circumstances change, the organization adapts—and vice versa. For instance, if revenues go down, members step up by recruiting new members and raising additional funds. And if a new front-line challenge surfaces, then the organization adapts to meet it.

Sharing control and responding does not happen spontaneously. They result from members and organization having a similar professional understanding about the work they perform. This is only possible when relevant, digital technologies are applied in distinct and intentional ways in the design and operation of an organization. When that is done, the what, why, and how an organization accomplishes things and addresses the frontline needs of its members is quite different from the what, why, and how most organizations ordinarily do things. Within these differences resides the identity of the boss. And what you get from your association or advocacy group is determined by the boss.


Mark E. Weston Ph.D. is co-author of The Learning Edge: What Technology Can Do to Educate All Children. He resides in Dunwoody, Georgia. Contact him at and @shiftparadigm on Twitter.