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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

In the Era of Alternative Facts, What’s a Wonk to Do?

By Guest Blogger — March 29, 2017 4 min read
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This month, 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, Celine Coggins, CEO of Teach Plus and an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard University, will be guest blogging.

I’m a data nerd. I was a researcher before I founded Teach Plus. Numbers give me comfort and assure me I’m on the right side of issues. I like to quote statistics. I use too much data in speeches. By contrast, alternative facts freak me out and make me want to punch something.

I know I’m not alone among ed reformers in my loving embrace of data. We are guided by equity as our North Star. And data on the achievement gap, inequitable teacher distribution, and college access are what we use to chart our course forward and assess whether we’re getting somewhere.

I was reminded of how deeply this is ingrained in our training and valued in our “ed reform” subculture when Rick invited me to come as a guest to a course he was teaching at the Harvard Graduate School of Education in January. The students were discussing the need for greater education funding and where it could come from. They all basically held the same position—public officials should focus more on public education, equity, and resources. Their “why’s” were fueled with passion, conviction in their moral high ground, and—always—data.

Rick challenged them, “Ok, now someone take the opposite side, with equal passion and color.” Most of the class just looked puzzled, their faces communicating clearly, “There is no other side.” A few tried to rise to the challenge, but they fumbled back to their default position each time. They literally couldn’t do it. Could you?

Finally, Rick bailed them out and reminded them they might be pleading their case to a Trump-style Republican. That person might be likely to say, “Yeah, I hear you about the state of urban schools, but look, times are tough everywhere. I just got elected by a bunch of really good people, some of whom are working two jobs; they take home less than they did a decade ago. They go to church each week, volunteer to make their communities a better place. They’d tell you they can’t afford to have another dollar taken out of their taxes and still make ends meet. They think their own schools need more resources too. Look, I need them to help me stay in office. What would I say to them?”

Suddenly, every person in the classroom at Harvard could picture that person. No data needed. The new administration is going to push us all who have been mainstream ed reformers out of our comfort zones. We need to not only be able to anticipate the reaction of an elected official that doesn’t share our definition of equity, we need a plan for responding. To me, building that plan starts with the following:

  1. Recognize that data as currency has been devalued. That does not mean that it is not important. It means that data alone will not win the day. The election hasn’t slowed the proliferation of heady white papers full of complex statistics, perhaps the pace of production has even accelerated. Are they getting read in the Congressional offices responsible for approving the federal education budget? If not, should we be allocating more of our collective energy advancing a different strategy?
  2. Learn to flex your storytelling muscles. Good storytelling takes practice. It gets a bad rap because most people think storytelling is a rare genetic gift, rather than a learned skill. Wonks can be storytellers too. Storytelling is about bringing issues to life and connecting to core values like fairness and the ideal of a democratic society in which all citizens are equipped to contribute. Nine out of 10 wonks have been taught to run a regression analysis. How many have been formally taught to pair their data with compelling stories that stay with their audience long after they are spoken? At Teach Plus, we’ve started inviting more elected leaders to come into schools and observe. Those are the experiences that make them storytellers.
  3. Build coalitions and grow the advocacy army. For several decades, education had been a bi-partisan issue with equity as its guiding purpose. While there may be disagreement on the precise means, the goal of ensuring all students access to a quality education is widely shared. Further, reformers have shared a definition of equity that is explicit in the belief that students who come to their school experience with disadvantages need more support and resources to reach the high standards that we’ve set. Equity is not every kid getting a voucher with an equal dollar value. I believe the view of equity that has carried us through the past few decades is still the view of most Americans. If so, now is the time to close the spreadsheet, engage in coalition building, and build an army of storytellers and advocates too forceful to ignore.

—Celine Coggins

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.