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5 School-Improvement Tips for Civic and Community Leaders

By Rick Hess — October 17, 2017 4 min read
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I was down in Shreveport, Louisiana, last week to talk school improvement. I had a chance to visit with the usual mix of thoughtful business, civic, philanthropic, political, and educational leaders. They were wrestling with the same frustrations as their counterparts in so many communities. While the personalities and particulars vary from place to place, the melody tends to remain the same. Given that, I felt moved to scratch out a few points I regularly share, and which some folks seem to find at least modestly useful. (If you’re interested in seeing all this spelled out more fully, check out Letters to a Young Education Reformer or my old brief “Partnership is a Two-Way Street.”)

1. Stick with it through thick and thin. There’s a habit for business and civic leaders to dip in and out of school improvement, depending on personalities, shifting agendas, local pressures, and their level of frustration. While understandable, this coming and going breeds distrust. As a result, those in schools don’t believe that community leaders mean what they say, that they’ll follow through, or that they know all the gory particulars of what’s really going on. In the places that do this well, community groups and local business leaders keep their oars in the water year after year. This means they have strong relationships, know the ins and outs, and forge trust. Those are the things position communities for long-term success.

2. Too much reform breeds reform-resistant schools. While it may not always be evident to outsiders who are eager to shake up schools and school systems, educators are buffeted by an endless whirlwind of programs, policies, and reforms. This fosters cynicism, causes educators to suspect that it’s more about appearances than real change, and leads them loath to take any new reforms seriously. After all, while the new superintendent can insist that this is about “REAL! LASTING!” change, a veteran teacher has likely already heard this same speech again and again. And, while the teacher may have believed it the first time, the experience of pinwheeling from one curriculum, technology adoption, program, or turnaround strategy to another has usually beaten that out of them. Delivering reform that will count requires breaking that cycle.

3. Beware of the music man. Every community leader has sat through plenty of talks, sessions, and dinners with celebrated advocates, experts, or reformers—each and every one comes armed with a transformative program and evidence that it “works.” And, time after time, these programs are introduced locally, yield a promising pilot run, but ultimately deliver tepid results at scale. Everyone gets frustrated, laments the implementation challenges . . . and then the cycle begins again. Here’s the thing: pretty much every pilot program works. They work because of the enthusiasm, committed leadership, support, tender loving care, and autonomy that accompany them. They tend to work at pilot sites in new locales for the same reasons. But it’s these easy-to-overlook background factors that usually fuel program success—there’s precious little magic in most of these programs themselves. Try to keep that in mind when the next speaker, expert, or “rock-star” reformer comes through town touting their wares.

4. Embrace the people who actually do the work. The people with the clearest insight into how to make teacher evaluations or school turnarounds actually deliver are in schools. Giving savvy, motivated, and constructive educators a platform and a seat at the table is vital—not for their sake, but in order to maximize the odds that school improvement will yield results. Watch out for righteous would-be reformers who dismiss educator concerns by pounding the table and insisting, “This is about kids, not adults!” You see, while reformers can push for policies that make people do things—and that can be enough if the goal is to impose new programs or produce paperwork—serious school improvement requires a lot more than compliance. For better or worse, good schools are the product of thousands of tiny judgments that educators make every day. Now, some educators are inept and others may be prone to resist any change, but reform is ultimately about creating schools where educators can do their best work. When reformers can’t get lots of educators—especially accomplished ones—on board, the strategy needs some work.

5. Accountability requires a big dose of common sense. Local efforts can be undermined by theatrical but unserious approaches to school accountability. We’re currently seeing plenty of this in state ESSA plans. It turns out that the easiest thing in the world is for those who don’t have to do the work to set “bold” pie-in-the-sky goals for those who do. After all, state officials get hosannas from newspapers, philanthropists, and would-be reformers for their “leadership,” while protests from educators are taken as evidence that “they don’t get it.” This is true even when the plans set performance targets that are manifestly unrealistic by any historical standard. Such goals, however well-meaning, make those who do the work feel like the game is stacked against them and that they’re being played for fools. This breeds cynicism, shortcuts, and compliance rather than healthy discipline. Community leaders can serve as sensible, practical ballast for state officials caught up in their aspirational enthusiasms.

It’s easy for community leaders to get frustrated. When it comes to education, they’re inundated with passionate advocates who offer one promising new answer after another. Yet, too often, all this energy seems to yield little more than an exhausting cycle of high hopes, disappointment, and growing cynicism. In many places, perhaps the most important mission for civic leaders is to provide the persistence, patience, and maturity that can help turn this vicious cycle into a virtuous one.

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.