Education Opinion

Do Reformers Need Reforming?

By Jack Schneider — December 23, 2014 10 min read
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Jack Schneider and Andy Smarick conclude their four week dialogue with a conversation about school reformers and social responsibility.

Schneider: In my more enlightened moments—when I’m actually imagining policy elites as people—I’m inclined towards generosity. I think they’re generally smart, hard-working people doing a thankless job.

But I’ll be honest. Most of the time when I tune-in to policy discussions, I’m horrified. I’m amazed that they think educational improvement is so simple.

Maybe you can tell me what you think I’m missing.

Smarick: I don’t know that many—actually any—of the policy people I know believe that educational improvement is easy. In fact, the policy leaders I most admire appreciate just how hard it is to make significant and lasting progress.

But I think I can see how you might get that impression. There are definitely different groups in this community and each seems to have a go-to move. Often the most passionate and most well known members of each group will unflinchingly apply that go-to move to every question. It’s the “to a hammer, everything looks like a nail” syndrome.

There are conservative analysts who fight for more choice, competition, and local control. There are progressive technocrats who believe an enlightened, activist federal government can set things right. There are the human-capital fanatics who think that the right “talent” can make any old institution better. There are the we-need-more-money advocates who think that increased funding is the key, regardless of the specific issue. There are the data-driven-decision makers, who think that we just need more information and smart people to analyze it and implement associated interventions. There are the technology enthusiasts who think blended and digital learning will cure what ails us. And there are many, many other groups similarly passionate about their specific issues.

I agree to different degrees with each of these groups. But even if I got to pick and choose what I considered the best ideas from each camp, I still wouldn’t describe the work as “simple.”

Schneider: You may not describe the work as simple. And those you admire may not describe the work as simple. But consider some of the messages out there:

The statement of principles on the Democrats for Education Reform website insists that “reforming broken public school systems cannot be accomplished by tinkering at the margins.” Instead, it requires “opening up the traditional top-down monopoly of most school systems and empowering all parents to access great schools for their children.”

That sounds pretty simple to me. There’s nothing on there about training better teachers, supporting their professional growth, cultivating a strong school culture, retaining great administrators, supporting student social and emotional health, etc. Just break the monopoly and promote choice.

Or consider the Campbell Brown’s group, the Partnership for Educational Justice—one of countless organizations with virtually the same name. They claim that education policy should be rooted in “common sense” and they insist that we already know “what works” in schools. The implication here is that there’s only one obstacle in the way: teacher contracts.

That’s just nuts. A lot of the time education policy shouldn’t be guided by common sense. Common sense is a pretty low-level of thinking that requires no contextual knowledge of expertise. Why would that be a good thing? And no, we don’t actually know “what works” in schools. At least not in the sense that there’s some magic recipe.

I’ll give you a third example from Michelle Rhee’s group, Students First. They’ve got a button—literally, a button—on the homepage of their website, labeled: “The Reform Solution.”

So, do I think that all people working in the policy trenches have simplistic ideas about education? No way.

But I do believe that messaging matters. And I find the messages about educational reform—particularly those coming from deep-pocketed organizations like the ones listed above—to be highly problematic.

Smarick: You shouldn’t assume that if an organization’s messaging is crisp, that organization has simple thinking. Clarity and concision are at the heart of branding and marketing.

Do you think Google is “simple” because its mission is the straightforward? Do you think GE is “simple” because its slogan is the limited “Imagination at work”? Heck, the preamble of the U.S. Constitution has only 52 words. Do you think America is “simple.” Then-U.S. Senator Barack Obama built a candidacy around the trite “hope and change.” Is he simple?

(Incidentally, I have to point out that you conspicuously forgot to mention that the NEA’s vision is the impossibly simple, “a great public school for every student.”)

All of these above and countless others have distilled who they are and what they do into a phrase or a sentence or two. By no means does that mean they have only a phrase or sentence of sophistication. But this can’t be news to you. You understand the difference between messaging and a comprehensive policy position.

I feel compelled to point out the common thread in your critiques that might explain part of this. There’s an undercurrent that those with whom you disagree lack sophistication. You repeatedly describe the above-mentioned organizations as “simple.” In our last discussion you put at odds those “trying to deeply engage with the research” and those who understand “nuance” with those “with a louder and simpler message.”

Now think of how you describe “common sense” in today’s response. You say it’s “a pretty low-level of thinking that requires no contextual knowledge or expertise.”

Common sense, as most of us understand it, is by no means “low-level.” It’s generally how people conceive of wisdom—robust understanding developed across generations, the evolution of thinking produced through trial and error and course corrections. There is enormous expertise in this, and it is typically far more informed by contextual knowledge than the formulas developed in think tanks or universities.

I certainly agree with you that we don’t have all of the answers on K-12, that no one should imply that we do, and that we should all proceed with humility. But I find myself continuously wishing you wouldn’t imply that those with different views are less learned.

Schneider: Obviously there’s a difference between slogans and policy. But I’m not talking about corporate jingles here. These reform groups are articulating their core missions and philosophies.

Now, is there more nuance behind the scenes than we see on their webpages? Of course there is. And am I being just a bit unfair to them? Yes.

But how much more nuance is there really? And just how unfair am I being? Because the idea, for instance, that teachers are the only group blocking otherwise obvious reform solutions is simply wrong. And any group directing all of its energies into that is missing the bigger picture. The same is true with school choice. School choice only works if there are a hundred other pieces in place. And even then it may not work.

In short, there just isn’t a single lever to pull that will produce corresponding improvement in schools. Schools are ecosystems in which all parts are connected. That’s why they’re so resistant to change. And that’s why reform so often brings about unintended consequences. If you want to improve schools, you have to treat them as complex systems.

As for the notion that common sense and wisdom are equivalent, I couldn’t disagree more. Common sense is what anyone with a brain can see. But wisdom is different. It only comes with age, experience, and careful observation. Not everyone has wisdom.

So I’m all in favor of “robust understanding developed across generations.” But I wouldn’t ever call it “common sense.” I prefer to use a term employed by the scholar James C. Scott’s: metis—a Greek word that roughly translates to “rules of thumb.”

I don’t think that most people in the reform community are talking about “metis” when they use the phrase “common sense.” They aren’t saying that we should tap received wisdom and contextual knowledge. They’re saying that their ideas are so obviously right that anyone with any sense at all will agree.

Ultimately, then, my critique isn’t that people I disagree with are less learned. My critique is the converse of that. When people indicate that they don’t get how complex schools are as systems, I disagree with them.

Smarick: We agree that schools are complex ecosystems. I believe this is a big part of the reason “turnarounds” fail. They don’t seem to appreciate that school performance is a function of a hundred different variables. So I’m with you that we should try our best to understand the complexity of schools when we try to change their results.

But public schools emanate from public policy. We’d be irresponsible if we didn’t try to improve statutes and regulations bearing on schools simply because they can’t immediately and perfectly influence every aspect of the ecosystem. For example, lots of research shows that the effectiveness of teachers is the most important in-school factor influencing student learning. If our K-12 policies govern teacher preparation, certification, tenure, compensation, seniority, and career ladders, we can’t ignore those rules because they are only part of the system.

When we tinker with policy we need to understand the countless moving parts, beware of unintended consequences, and so on. These things absolutely should chasten the doughty technocrat.

But eventually decisions have to be made. I’m all for advocates and policymakers possessing indefatigable curiosity, healthy self-doubt, and a bias for adaptive leadership. But at some point, the study and deliberation must end, and the judgment must come. Those judgments often take the form of policy positions or policy calls. But they are almost always, in their final form, short and simple.

For some reason that I’m not understanding, you still seem to equate “simple” with “callow.”

In my experience, though, the best ed-reform advocates and policymakers (actually probably all great leaders) reach simplicity after enormous work. This is perfectly captured by the Oliver Wendell Holmes adage, “For the simplicity on this side of complexity, I wouldn’t give you a fig. But for the simplicity on the other side of complexity, for that I would give you anything I have.”

That is, after learning about and working with licensure regulations, tenure policies, union contracts, and civil service rules, lots of reforms take the pithy position that last-in-first-out is very, very bad policy for kids. After working with residential segregation, dysfunctional urban districts, persistently failing schools, and residence-based school assignments, lots of reforms take the succinct stance that school choice is essential. These and other reform positions are both simple and studied.

Schneider: I find it ironic that you describe this work as tinkering, when one of the examples I cited above specifically proclaims that “reforming broken public school systems cannot be accomplished by tinkering at the margins.”

If policy elites called it tinkering—indicating that they view it as tinkering—I would be much less troubled by the implicit theory of action here. But when someone claims that changing teacher tenure laws, for instance, is going to achieve educational equity, I find myself highly skeptical. The claim is either misleading or naïve.

Here’s where we agree: some policies are worth pursuing. That’s true. And I’m glad you pointed that out. All too often, an emphasis on complexity can lead to paralysis.

So we must act.

But I think you would agree that we have to act responsibly.

And what does that mean?

Likely we won’t agree about outcomes. I think our assumptions and beliefs are just too different. But I do imagine that we might agree on a set of precepts—about what constitutes a responsible process—and I’ll offer two for the sake of example:

  1. Don’t alienate stakeholders.
  2. Assume you might be wrong.

There are more principles that policymakers should probably adhere to. But imagine how different the policy landscape would be if all parties, on all sides, took these two seriously.

The opinions expressed in K-12 Schools: Beyond the Rhetoric 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.