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Rick Hess Straight Up

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

I Don’t Care About Betsy DeVos. And Neither Should You.

By Guest Blogger — February 28, 2017 5 min read
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This week, Rick is off talking about his forthcoming book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Letters won’t be officially released until late April, but you can learn more about it here and order an advance copy here. While Rick is away, we’ve got an illustrious line-up of guest stars. This week, Ed Jones, head of the Hackable High Schools initiative, will be guest-blogging.

There’s so much that’s exciting and hopeful happening in education, so much opportunity at every level and in so many corners. And nearly none of it comes via the Lyndon Baines Johnson Building. Not when Arne Duncan resided there, not under John King, and likely not on the watch of Betsy DeVos. If education should become a tiny bit more like the good parts of Obamacare (‘choose your own doctor’ and a ‘network of providers’), any federal role will be by act of Congress. And so be it. All of the really exciting stuff is in the hands of the nation’s teachers.

Thanks again, Rick. In the spirit of your new book, that’s one of the main things I’d love a young education reformer (or anti-reformer) to perpend: D.C. just is not where the action is.

In 25,000 public high schools across the nation, 16 million teens will go to school buildings pretty much as before. Where there’s change, it will be inside—wherever public teachers choose to undertake change. And, everywhere I visit, things are indeed changing.

In my local school, they’ll soon break ground for a new building. The money will come from Ohio and local taxpayers. The schools, new and old, will run on funds from people who live between Lake Erie and the Ohio River. The curricula and the pedagogy will all be chosen by people who live NW of the Appalachian mountain range. The teachers who teach in them will be hired by a handful of leaders you don’t know, but we here do.

This month, I’ll go to EdCamp with lots of local teachers. It’s my twentieth. We’ll share ideas and frustrations, tools and approaches. We’ll nudge learning forward. (You haven’t been to EdCamp? What are you waiting for? The more teachers who join us, the more that teaching and learning will progress.)

Next week, like this, I’ll get on Twitter and learn from teachers about practice and pedagogy. We’ll move the learning forward. (Haven’t found a Tweetchat? Here are at least 300.)

A friend of mine is one of the most radical teachers you’ll find. He’ll be working in a public, non-charter, school. Every single day, I get up and see new, compelling options for improvements in schools. In his Columbus-area classroom, a teacher of high school history offers teens multiple options to master each of his lessons. Could we share his approach and curricula?

My own state, Ohio, has rolled out new graduation options. One option includes Industry-Recognized Credentials and WorkKeys. Presently, thirteen career fields are represented, with more than 250 workplace credentials.

Nationwide, XQ Institute has invested upwards of $100 million to challenge the nation on changing up its high schools. While I disagree with their initial theory of change, signs are that they’re iterating their approach.

In schools in Maine, Southern California, and beyond, Competency Based Learning is taking hold. ESSA will allow more experiments with this—though not enough. ESSA also permits funds for Direct Student Services, instructional choice at the level of the course. State laws and programs, too, encourage course choice in many ways.

Each week, school leaders across the nation gather in a tweet chat called #leadupChat. They discuss issues and ideas together in short, interactive form. Just as importantly, they make connections outside their buildings and districts, with other leaders they can turn to. This summer, a hundred or so school leaders joined together at EdCampLdr (Leader) Columbus for a day of unstructured, sometimes intense, participant-driven development. On the shore of the Ohio in Cincinnati, a team teased out a vision of public school learning of the future.

In some ways, it’s more like the health care system than it is of school as we’ve known it. The professionals are well paid. The care is far more personalized. A “primary care provider” makes sure the other pieces all fit.

In thinking through all this, I was struck by how very different the normal D.C. approaches are in education vs health care.

Zip code doesn’t determine your doctor. We don’t write off patients because of where they’re at now, no matter how far behind. You’re able to go to the provider you need and get the treatment that gets you on the road to health.

If we’re going to truly improve education, we have to think beyond the walled classroom model. Yet, we must also retain every last good aspect of that worthy and long-serving institution—including the public classroom teacher who knows and cares about their learners, especially.

If you’re one of the few families who benefit from some new charter or voucher initiative, bully for you. I’m glad. I hope your kids do well. Thomas Sowell writes that “American education is at a crossroads.” He, like so many, see in vouchers hope for thousands, maybe tens of thousands, of children stuck in urban schools that don’t work for them. To the extent that children aren’t learning to read or continue to be passed through grades they weren’t prepared to enter, new federal programs could offer hope. No one should begrudge them that. If you studied the schools of Ferguson, MO, anyone with a heart would beg for anything other than the status quo. Better educating the children of Ferguson, Sandtown-Winchester, East Cleveland, LA, and the south of Chicago is worth the attention of the Department of Ed.

The rest of us need to let those people do their work and turn our attentions to the hard work of schooling everywhere else. If you’re a teacher in Iowa and still fretting over DeVos when this hits print, you’ve been had. The battle for 90% of teens’ education is definitely not in the LBJ building. It’s all around us.

To any education reformer or anti-reformer, I’d offer this message: we can have both. If we stop fighting and start building together, if we focus our energies on innovations of all kinds, if each of us adds value in our corner, education will advance in all.

Tomorrow, we’ll talk making room for change.

—Ed Jones

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.