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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

Changing Policies Is Only a First Step in Changing Schools

By Rick Hess — September 30, 2013 3 min read
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In Friday’s column, I pointed out the frailties of much contemporary “reform.” After such pieces, I sometimes hear from folks who imagine that any critique means one is now opposed to these efforts. I reject that premise. Just because “reformers” are sometimes inclined to go about their efforts in questionable or ham-handed ways, doesn’t make me find common sense ideas--like rewarding excellence, promoting transparency, or believing radical changes may be needed to improve persistently struggling schools--any less commonsensical. (On that note, folks might be interested to hear Louisiana’s razor-sharp state chief John White address this very subject tomorrow at AEI in a keynote address entitled Taking Reformers to Task at 1pm - you can view online here.)

Anyway, the right response to missteps and disappointments is certainly not to abandon common sense measures. Instead, it is (as I point out in last week’s National Affairs essay “The Missing Half of School Reform” to properly appreciate a lesson that the great political scientist James Q. Wilson taught long ago: Formal policy is often no match for the countervailing pressures of localized incentives, institutional cultures, situational imperatives, and internalized obstacles.

Getting public employees to actually do what policymakers think they’ve told them to do turns out to be immensely difficult. Indeed, in his classic work Varieties of Police Behavior, Wilson cited controlling bureaucratic discretion as the problem of public administration -- a fact that remains plainly true in education. Indeed, education reformers have the disconcerting habit of being so intent on promoting “social justice” that they have little time or interest to invest in the stuff of bureaucracy, administration, or regulation. With remarkable regularity, self-styled reformers dismiss practical complications as excuses undeserving of attention. This makes the frustration and distrust of so many educators easy to understand.

In education, as in other government-dominated sectors, the burdens of regulatory compliance, expansive contracts, bureaucratic sprawl, and harsh consequences for missteps coupled with the limited rewards for risk-taking have driven entrepreneurial leaders from the field or into the shadows. What has taken root instead is a culture of exquisite caution and routinization.

Some reformers explicitly counsel against worrying too much about any of this, dismissing concerns about the culture of education as evidence of a quaint failure to understand that incentives, accountability, and self-interest will assuredly (eventually) force even recalcitrant actors into line. But there are two major problems with this line of argument.

First, education reform is always partly a political exercise. Public schools spend public money to educate the public’s kids, and policymakers and the public can easily sour on disruptive measures that do not seem to deliver useful change. Success depends on public support, and a wave of disappointments can undermine even popular and sensible ideas. Simply waiting for a new generation of leaders to finally make today’s big ideas work will not be a viable strategy if public sanction is withdrawn and the reforms are abandoned. Moreover, if policies disappoint due to inept execution, it is unrealistic to assume that the public will blame trusted teachers and principals for fumbling the details rather than far-away advocates and legislators for pushing dumb ideas.

Second, while faith in the power of incentives is sensible enough, reformers are sometimes driven by wishful thinking about how those incentives actually play out in reality. School and system leaders who are slow to embrace or alter their behavior in response to policy changes are responding to incentives: Principals, superintendents, and school-district officials have a lot of demands on them. On top of that, they inhabit a highly politicized space, where the benefits of bold action are frequently dwarfed by the costs of angering key constituencies. For all the eager talk of teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, charter schooling, and much else, the reform agenda has not sufficed to fundamentally alter that dynamic. This means its success is dependent upon leaders eager and equipped to leverage new opportunities and run the accompanying risks, but our education system is not well suited to producing or attracting such leaders.

Later in the week, we’ll talk about some of the kinds of measures that can help produce leaders able and eager to run with the opportunities that common sense reform can provide.

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.