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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 Stellar Rebuttal to My Concerns About “Agitprop”

By Rick Hess — July 16, 2010 1 min read
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My posts this week on Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, and their kin have resulted in a pretty impressive wave of e-mail. Much of it is heated and some is downright ticked off. Indeed, it all reminds me why most folks find it advisable to avoid raising questions about popular enthusiasms or fads (whether site-based management, small high schools, or The World Is Flat) until after they fade of their own accord (at which point the questions are largely irrelevant).

And all this even though I tried to make clear that I’m fine with these films and that they’ve got a potentially valuable role to play. Makes you wonder what would have happened if I’d actually dumped on these movies. However, I did also argue, of course, that there are real potential downsides--especially if would-be reformers start to treat filmmakers as experts and spokespeople.

For me, the most interesting pushback is that which challenges my presumption that these efforts may well do more harm than good. (I find less interesting the charges that I’m an apologist for teachers unions, blind to the problems in American education, or just trying to protect my turf. These things may be true, but they don’t really help us think about when, how, and why these movies are good for American kids and schooling.)

All that is by way of introducing an enormously useful piece of feedback, penned as an RHSU comment by Bruno Behrend. It so thoughtfully and deliberately challenges my own take that I wanted to make sure it got the airing it deserved, even among those who don’t necessarily peruse reader comments. In the spirit of promoting a smart, healthy debate about the role of “agitprop,” here’s Bruno’s take:

Rick writes: "On Monday, I argued that Waiting for Superman, The Lottery, and all their edu-agitprop brethren can have a constructive role to play so long as the practitioners evince good nature and humility and the cheerleaders retain a sense of irony and don't start to believe their own hype." The last time I checked, people don't engage in the expensive and difficult task of producing informative documentaries if they don't 'believe' in what they are doing. That's not hype. It is likely a strong moral sentiment, and I would hope that they believe in it. I sense a little frustration in this post. Here we have a class of directors and producers who HAVEN'T spent years studying and researching a problem. Instead, they read our product and acted upon it by making films. It may be a little annoying that they are having an impact. After all, they haven't "paid their dues" in the think tank world, building their "policy chops" on the symposium circuit. I for one, thank them for having that impact. More power to them, I say. Rick writes: "All of which suggests to me a movement willing to increasingly place it chips on sensational messaging, sounds bites, and "it's for the kids" emoting instead of more patient efforts to change minds and press smart policies." From my perspective, after losing 20+ years of battles with the morally illegitimate financial interests that kill every good reform idea, I think it's time to realize that the "patient efforts to change minds and press smart policies" have not succeeded. I would argue that one reason for this is due to the failure to perceive (or perhaps "conceive") the true interests of the defenders of the status quo - which is to politically defeat all reform for the sole purpose of growing payroll, pensions, pay, and political clout. This is not (or no longer, perhaps) an academic debate, Rick. It is a pitched political battle against interests that are no more moral than the tobacco, banking, or oil industries defending "their turf." It is for that reason the "agitprop" (as you call it) is not only called for, but frankly, long overdue. It isn't as if the defenders of the status quo could ever defeat reformers in an open debate of the issue(s). It's time to take this to the streets - streets filled with undereducated kids, jobless parents, and homes with "for sale" signs. Rick wrote: "'Movements' have a way of stifling smart thinking, smothering essential questions, and going too far." I respectfully disagree, particularly when applied to education reform in America. Movements, whether Martin Luther King's exposure of segregation as morally illegitimate, or Ghandi's exposure of the immorality of "British Rule," are actually the proper political culmination of good ideas, brought about by impatience with the slow movement of the "chattering class." We should all be challenged to defend any aspect of today's expensive and failing system. Other than the poorly served students and the dedicated and talented teachers, what part of the bureaucracy--administrators, districts, unions, or even much of the dilapidated bricks and mortar--are worth preserving? I'm half way through your excellent book "Education Unbound." As we all contemplate the 100s of ways we could rapidly transform education in the USA, we must come to the realization that none of those ways can come to pass as long as the obstacle to reform (the existing system) maintains political power. In closing Rick, those films, as well as the conference you are criticizing, are very likely the only path to the reforms both you and I envision.

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.