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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

A Half-Dozen Thoughts Prompted by My Summer School Turn

By Rick Hess — July 27, 2016 3 min read
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I spent the past week teaching cage-busting leadership at Rice’s Jones School of Business and then policy at UPenn’s Graduate School of Education. I think I clocked something like 30 or 35 instructional hours over seven or eight days. It wore me out. Being around so many talented midcareer educational leaders was also exhilarating (at least when I wasn’t leaving students bored or confused). All the fevered discussions prompted some reflections. For what it’s worth, here are a half-dozen I thought I’d share.

We tend to have remarkably inchoate notions of what policy is and what it can do. Whenever I teach policy, I’m always struck by how many smart professionals have never really had occasion to reflect on the nature of policy and the role that it can or should play in schooling. Neither training nor mentoring dwells on the import of policy being inherently coercive, its necessary emphasis on uniformity, or the consequence of using policy as a way to express aspirations.

Policy and trust are the flip sides of a coin. When schools have mission alignment and a community of parents and faculty who’ve bought in, policy isn’t as important—culture can drive the train. You only need to resort to policy when you don’t trust that faculty, students, or families will behave as you’d like. In fractious schools or systems, policy becomes a mechanism for attempting to bring some coherence amidst the divides. This is why policy tends to displace talk of practice as decisions migrate from local communities to state capitals.

Beware of placeholder words. Education improvement strategies feature a raft of vague words that serve mostly as placeholders. There are endless paeans to “consensus,” “collegiality,” “best practices,” “differentiation,” “professional learning community,” “shared planning time” . . . The problem is that it’s never clear precisely what these mean in context, exactly how you’ll do them, or how to know if you’re doing them well. Given all that ambiguity, it’s hard to be confident they’ll deliver. Push for more. How many minutes of meeting time will be offered for shared planning time? How precisely is the time to be used? What makes us think this is enough time to make a difference? Clarity is a powerful way to expose confusion and ensure careful execution.

There’s no such thing as an “implementation problem.” There are just “problems.” What a policy advocate dismisses as an unfortunate but unforeseeable hitch can feel very different to the parent or teacher frustrated by annoying tests or incomprehensible evaluation systems. Calling something an “implementation problem” is how policymakers let themselves off the hook. What they’re saying is that they didn’t have a clear enough sense of what would happen when their policy impacted real people, and that things turned out much worse than promised. Again, that’s just a problem—skip the wordplay and do a better job of anticipating the problems and treating them seriously.

I can never decide whether teaching or writing is more difficult. The nice thing about writing is that, if one has the time and the patience, it’s possible to work through a thought precisely and make sure it’s explained just right. What you don’t get, though, is the chance to see how people respond to the idea or where you lose them. When you’re teaching, you get all those subtle cues and can always clarify or elaborate, but I always find that I’ve explained the point less clearly and succinctly than I wish I had.

Everyone in Washington should get out and teach practitioners more. Every time I return from teaching, it reminds me how many practical considerations we Washingtonians tend to wish away and how easy it is to get swept up in the bubble of DC. Twitter brouhahas and angry blogs about the Democratic platform have a place, I suppose, but it’s easy to lose perspective when one is too far removed from the people doing the work.

I spent my whole youth praying for summer to arrive so I could get away from school. Now, one of the highlights of my summer is the chance to be back in class, if only for a little while. Life’s a funny thing, isn’t it?

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.