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Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

4 Reasons I’m Wary of School Reform’s Pivot to ‘Practice’

By Rick Hess — January 28, 2019 4 min read
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Amidst the ebbs and flows of school reform, big shifts are underway. One involves education advocates, analysts, and assorted policy-centric do-gooders increasingly seeking to downshift from “policy” and instead focus on educational “practice.”

What’s going on? Interest in policy and foundation funding for policy advocacy have shrunk in the past few years. Polarizing fights and the stubborn insistence that middle America sit down and shut up have engendered backlash and left public officials leery of “reform.” Meanwhile, the advocates and analysts want to stay relevant. They’ve rightly judged that promoting the same things they were pitching five years ago would be pointless. And they need to raise funds from foundations which have pivoted from policy to practice. Thus, they’re seeking to reinvent themselves as hubs of “good practice.”

There’s a potentially healthy correction here. After all, I’ve spent most of the last decade arguing that too much emphasis on enacting policy and too little concern for what happens in schools and school systems have hobbled well-meaning reforms. Indeed, I’ve written a couple books (like this one or this one) based on the premise that school improvement is well-served when it’s fueled by savvy educators. Yet, for all that, I find myself with some serious concerns about the sudden pivot to “practice.”

First, I don’t find those hoping to lead this pivot to “practice” all that clear about what they mean by “practice.” Is it anything that teachers do in classrooms? Is it school- or system-wide directives (e.g., “policies”) regarding pacing, assessment, or pedagogy? Does the shift away from “policy” mean that policies governing things like attendance, homework, or grading are being relabeled “practice"—or does the shift from policy include those as well? Meanwhile, much talk of “practice” seems geared to repackage familiar policy priorities—like teacher preparation or big data systems—in more saleable garb. I’m always wary of education enthusiasms when I’m unsure what the “it” is.

Second, I don’t know that a lot of the folks newly eager to talk “practice” (however defined) have much credibility on that score. Heck, when I’m out yammering to audiences of educators, I take pains to note that those of us who work in Washington office buildings and haven’t been in front of a K-12 classroom within memory just don’t have much business talking about instructional practice. The striking thing is that some of the folks now working to position themselves as arbiters of practice seem relatively unfazed by their lack of credibility when it comes to pedagogy, curricula, or research.

Third, I’m struck how savvy policy “experts” can suddenly turn into naifs when it comes to discussing “best instructional practices.” I mean, when someone starts telling an experienced policy advocate that a proposal isn’t sufficiently “evidence-based,” the policy wonks tend to roll their eyes. They know that, in reality, the research is typically mixed, findings are subject to interpretation, and reasonable people can usually disagree about what the “evidence” demands. Yet, these same policy hands are now offering up these same dubious talking points when it comes to practice. There’s a rule of thumb here: We’re always most confident that there’s definitive evidence when it comes to things that we’re least familiar with.

Finally, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli has encouraged reformers, analysts, and advocates to approach issues of practice with “humility.” That advice isn’t bad. But it elides the question of what these folks have to be humble about. After all, one usually counsels a friend to show “humility” when that friend knows so much that she risks turning off listeners with her know-it-all demeanor. When that same friend fears that she’s treading on unfamiliar terrain, we rarely need to counsel humility. Indeed, the idea that a bunch of people whose core competency involves analyzing accountability systems, crafting white papers, penning op-eds, and talking to public officials need to remember to be humble as they seek to steer classroom practice is, if you think about it, pretty goofy. The problem with casually advising “humility” is that it seemingly conflates practitioners or researchers who actually know something about instructional practice—and thus have something to be humble about—with advocates who don’t.

All that said, we advocates, analysts, and assorted talkers do have a constructive role to play when it comes to practice. We can serve as a check on some of the silliness that inevitably bubbles up out of ed schools or practitioner groups, examine and explain the ways in which rules and routines stymie good practice, and push for the kinds of system changes that can facilitate good practice. But the talkers should take care not to imagine that we should be captaining “Team Practice,” or be the stewards of its funds. This isn’t due to some overdue splash of humility, but simple respect for the limits of our knowledge and competence.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.