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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

Book Review: The Virtue of Speaking Plain Truths

By Rick Hess — July 19, 2010 4 min read
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Last week, I was grumbling about the potentially unhealthy influence of edu-agitprop and the inclination of many would-be reformers to approach education reform as a simple, and simple-minded, moral crusade. I’ll start the new week on a happier note, as a trio of straight-shooting reformers--all of them comfortable with messy truths - have penned an unvarnished, eye-opening account of what it means to struggle to transform K-12 schooling.

In Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges: Lessons from the Frontlines, Fordham Institute chief Checker Finn, Fordham VP for Ohio Terry Ryan, and veteran scribe Mike Lafferty recount the Fordham Institute’s efforts to, in their words, “help launch new schools; to fix broken older schools; to assist needy families to make their way into better education options--and to duke it out with powerful institutional resistances, reform-averse politicians, and adult interests bent on maintaining the status quo.” (Full disclosure: the book was published, with my enthusiastic recommendation, as part of the “Education Policy” series I co-edit for Palgrave Macmillan).

When I read the manuscript back last fall, I was struck by the authors’ verve, lack of posturing, and healthy willingness to acknowledge missteps and frustrations. As readers well know, one can scour shelves of airbrushed accounts of reform before stumbling across the rare volume that sheds light on what didn’t work and why, which really helps us understand why reform is so bloody hard. This is that rare volume.

The authors showcased their take in a terrific column for Fordham’s Education Gadfly recently, one in which they unapologetically described Fordham’s adventures in charter school authorizing as “humbling.” They recounted, “One of our sponsored schools imploded in a fashion worthy of a Greek tragedy. Just a few years ago, the W.E.B. Dubois Academy in Cincinnati was visited by the (then) governor [and] lauded in the U.S. Senate (as a praiseworthy example of a school narrowing achievement gaps)... But fast forward a few years and the school’s dynamic founder was pleading guilty to five counts of theft in connection with charges that he misused school funds and services to improve his home. The school he founded was closed--for weak academic performance--just last month.”

For me, three of the authors’ takeaways struck a particular chord.

One is that placing a “charter” sign over a schoolhouse door doesn’t guarantee educational excellence. Indeed, the volume makes painfully clear that simply being a “charter school” doesn’t guarantee much of anything other than that a school has the opportunity to do things smarter and better. There’s no assurance that flexibility will be used this way, and much reason to believe that inept or unprepared founders can make a hash of it. This would be a valuable caution for some of those exuberant folks--in the Obama administration or at Waiting for Superman screenings--who seem to have swallowed the “charter is better” mantra a bit too enthusiastically. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of KIPP, YES, SEED, Aspire, Achievement First, and their kin. But pretending that “going charter” means you can expect those kinds of results is like thinking that wearing a Harvard Law sweatshirt means you can expect a seat on the U.S. Supreme Court.

Second, the authors explain the manifold ways in which “the education marketplace doesn’t work as well as we thought--or as some of our favorite theories and theorists assert.” Checker has long been one of the charter proponents most willing to take seriously concerns that an infomercial-infused view of markets and competition has led would-be reformers to pay short shrift to quality control, program design, and the practical incentives in play. Here, it’s fascinating to see this thoughtful and nuanced account of just why “school choice” may not unlock market forces. In practice, the authors note that atrocious schools can roll comfortably along for years, fully enrolled--undermining blind confidence that the mere presence of parental choice will serve to encourage academic excellence and discipline lousy schools.

Third, the authors bravely grab a third rail for would-be reformers when they point out that reformers and innovators tend to “evolve into their own vested interests with turf and jobs to protect.” They detail how seemingly zealous reformers can quickly morph into defenders of the new status quo, as charter school operators and others find themselves grasping for dollars, resisting accountability, working to stifle competitors, and generally deciding that there’s no need for further change. In a classic bit of phrasing, they point out that “the ‘education establishment’ turns out to be a big tent"--one that too many swaggering reformers seem only too happy to join once they’ve made it past the turnstile.

The title of Ohio’s Education Reform Challenges might make it sound like this is a book for Ohioans. Forget that. If you prefer hard truths to airy rhetoric when it comes to improving schools, this is mandatory summer reading.

UPDATE: Also, I’d somehow managed to forget that Checker and his coauthors have penned a must-read Education Next essay that captures some of the book’s key takeaways. You can find it here.

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.