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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

Four Tics That Stifle Smart Edu-Discussion

By Rick Hess — February 01, 2013 3 min read
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I’ve started hopscotching around the country to talk about Cage-Busting Leadership (which officially appears in about two weeks). Over the last week or so, have been talking about it with educators, policymakers, and business leaders in places like Las Vegas, Boston, and Nashville. Every time I set out like this, I inevitably encounter four of the verbal tics that can make edu-discussions so tedious and frustrating. (Now, let’s not overstate things. In total, these tics probably account for only about 20% of all questions and comments--but this one-in-five tends to distract the conversation disproportionately.) If we avoided these, I think we’d find our arguments more fruitful and would stumble upon points of useful agreement that we often fail to notice because we’re distracted by our back-and-forth.

I hate her or love him: I like to make points concrete when I give talks. It’s a useful way to move past abstractions. Of course, that requires talking about an example of how various things were done somewhere. Problem is that many folks are so fixated on personalities that they respond reflexively to the mention of a given name-and miss the larger point. It’s fine to celebrate or to hate anybody you want--but try to put that reaction on the shelf just long enough to make sure you get the bigger idea.

You’re trying to fix a broken system: Some of my most surreal moments are when charter school or voucher advocates attack me as an apologist for public school systems (this is surreal because, most of the time, I’m attacked as an enemy of public education.) In Cage-Busting, as in Common Sense School Reform or Spinning Wheels, you see, I’m trying to offer insight into how schools and systems can better serve kids. Because I suggest that it’s also worth focusing on how the systems currently serving 97% of the nation’s students can do a better job, some choice proponents decide I’m hostile to their cause. It’s fine to believe that transformative change is only likely to happen outside of existing systems (I make this case myself in Education Unbound and The Same Thing Over and Over), but it’s useful to recognize that the vast majority of students are likely to be educated in traditional district schools for years to come--and that it’s okay for choice advocates to acknowledge this reality.

You just want to attack public education: I’m always struck when those “you’re an apologist” moments are followed by accusations that I’m an enemy of public education eager to import “business thinking” into schooling. This seems to serve two purposes. One, it allows the speaker to avoid engaging in any particulars. Two, it suggests that worrying about whether teacher time or tax dollars are used wisely and well is (or should be) alien to the “schoolhouse culture"--and only the kind of thing that “business people” would care about. It’s natural to dismiss criticism and pooh-pooh the unfamiliar, but educators are going to keep finding themselves on the outside of the policy debate if they maintain this defensive crouch.

We’re already doing this: Everything in Cage-Busting is pretty commonsensical. Few districts are doing what I talk about, but everyone could. The challenge is that lots of educators have spent hours in professional development where they’ve heard high-faulting talk about “change management” and the rest. So, there’s a natural temptation to say “I know all this” or “We’re already doing it.” That’s great, except that “knowing” this at an intellectual level is different from putting the shovel into the earth. And when they say they’re “doing” it, they generally aren’t--at least not as thoughtfully, savvily, and effectively as they might. There’s a need to learn both the music and the lyrics. Going through some kind of jargon-laden process is not the same thing as waking up each day wondering how to make the best possible use of limited talent, tools, time, and money.

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.