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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

Five Harvard Edu-Lessons

By Rick Hess — January 11, 2016 3 min read
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Given that I spent all last week writing about the RHSU Edu-Scholar rankings, I don’t feel like I’ve had a chance to write for any of you yet in the new year. So, happy 2016! Meanwhile, I spent last week up at the Harvard Ed School teaching my class, “Debating Education Policy.” One of the things I’ve always loved about teaching is the chance to unpack things that we don’t bother discussing amidst the rush of the day-to-day dealings. Here are five things that particularly struck me.

The role of trust. Whether the Every Student Succeeds Act will rein Washington in or cement Obama-era machinations in place can be hard to decipher from reading the 1,000+ pages of the law. There is so much there that making sense of what it’ll mean is largely a matter of anticipating how the various provisions will play out in practice. Turns out it’s tough to read the future, so our judgments often come down to whether we trust the people at the table and whether we trust that they have our interests and concerns at heart.

Track records matter. Trust doesn’t exist in a vacuum. When Ronald Reagan was elected president, he had spent more than two decades becoming the nation’s most recognizable champion of conservatism. That earned him lots of trust on the right—and meant he had lots of room to depart from the party line when he deemed it appropriate. Even when Reagan raised taxes or negotiated with the Soviets, it did little to ding his bona fides. When public officials don’t have that kind of established track record, it’s harder for them to credibly veer from the party line.

The limits of evidence. Our views on vouchers, teacher pay, or the role of testing are linked to our views on how the world works and how it should work. Those are a product of decades of experience, schooling, conversation, and reflection. The notion that this white paper or that study should trump all of this is actually pretty laughable. It’s doubly so when we think about how often research findings get modified or reversed over time, or all the reasons one might question a researcher or a certain research design. Bodies of evidence established over decades should (and do) inform our thinking—but that’s different from bemoaning that someone is unpersuaded by three studies whose results I happen to like.

Other people’s assumptions and values are legitimate. When we agree with the conventional wisdom, we regard it as “fact.” When we don’t agree with it, it’s a “narrative” sold by nefarious forces. My reform friends “know” that opponents of charter schooling are union lackeys unconcerned with poor kids, while their critics “know” that proponents of charter schools are corporate puppets eager to undermine public education. The facts I trust tend to come from people who share my beliefs, and the evidence I cite is consistent with my views.

What policy can and can’t do. Policy is good at telling people what they must do or what they must not do. When that kind of response is the answer to a dilemma, policy can help. When it’s not, policy won’t. The idea that this kind of problem may be ill-suited to policy solutions is a notion that tends to get lost in the heated back-and-forth. Yet there’s a temptation to think that, if something is important, “There should be a policy!”, even though policy, by design, lacks all the agility, nuance, buy-in, and texture that makes good programs or practices successful.

Now, there’s a natural tendency to read all this, throw our hands up, and declare, “People are irrational” and “The system is broken.” As I find myself explaining over and over in class, I think that’s exactly the wrong takeaway. There’s nothing irrational about leaning on people we trust, relying on track records, or being skeptical of evidence. And our system is assuredly not “broken"—it’s just struggling with the reality that, especially in an increasingly online world, there’s a lot of polarization and diminished trust. When I read this list, I’m reminded why we should approach our claims with humility, try not to weaponize research, and understand why reasonable people might see things differently. Hell, seems to me, that that’s not a bad set of resolutions for the new year.

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.