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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

It’s Okay to Cheer

By Daniel Lautzenheiser — January 13, 2012 5 min read
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Note: Daniel Lautzenheiser, a research assistant in education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is guest posting this week.

This week, I’ve looked at two insights that have profoundly shaped the way I view today’s education debates, and are helpful for reformers and policymakers heading into 2012: first, that education reform is a mindset, not a set of particular policies, and second, that one “size” or model of schooling does not fit all situations. These ideas paint a picture of a robust education system where creative and talented reformers can solve problems facing our schools. At the same time, they offer a healthy skepticism to not turn reform debates into battlefields and risk losing support when certain policies don’t play out the way their proponents had hoped.

And yet it’s all too easy to allow that healthy skepticism to run its course and then some, to push back on the success of reforms a bit too much so that it’s easy to lose sight of the massive progress that’s been made in terms of opening up American education. Today I promised a way in which I differ from my esteemed boss’s line of thinking. But it’s really less of a disagreement than it is a difference in personality or hopes, between Rick’s slightly more skeptical mindset and my more optimistic bent.

Disagreement: It’s okay to cheer

The past five to ten years have been pivotal ones--dare I say turning points?--in American education, years when a number of key players and ideas in the education reform world which had previously been operating on the margins started to become more mainstream.

Take just two prominent examples--Teach for America and the KIPP schools, which serve as signals for larger changes in teacher recruitment and charter schooling, respectively. In 1990, Teach for America enrolled their first class of 500 corps members. This past year, TFA took over ten times that many, fielding a class 5,200 corps members out of 48,000 applications. KIPP has grown from two schools in two cities in 1994 to 109 schools in 21 locations today. Alums of these organizations have since spread out and started a network of reform-minded institutions (such as The New Teacher Project, New Schools for New Orleans, and YES Prep) and have run the school systems in Washington, DC, and the states of Tennessee and Louisiana.

Furthermore, today it’s possible to become trained as a school principal through an MBA program, thereby leveraging business thinking on leadership on behalf of public schools. Laws have been passed that would have been unthinkable earlier, such as Colorado’s Senate Bill 191 linking teacher pay to student performance. SB 191 was pushed through the Colorado legislature by state senator Mike Johnston, another TFA alum. There are a growing number of reformers in other key policymaking positions, as well. As former Clinton administration official Andy Rotherham remarked, “In the Clinton administration, we wanted to do a tour of reformers, and we had one, [NewSchools Venture Fund founder] Kim Smith. Now there are more to pick from than you can count.” And 2010 brought a slew of reform-minded movies to the general public, most notably Waiting for Superman, Davis Guggenheim’s documentary recounting some of the problems facing urban students. Waiting for Superman prompted a wave of news articles and interviews on major networks, further cementing ideas like “charter schools” and “school reform” into the popular lexicon.

For some, these signs are an unmitigated blessing. Others take a more critical view. On several occasions, Rick’s used public opinion data to show that the spike in popular interest generated by Waiting for Superman will likely be short-lived, while elsewhere concluding that the “reformers’ ‘support’ resides with a mostly uninformed, unengaged public--one that isn’t especially sold on their ideas and that, in any event, is often outmatched by well-organized, well-funded, and motivated special interests.” Elsewhere, Paul Peterson, Marci Kanstoroom, and Checker Finn take stock of these changes and bluntly conclude that the education culture “is in no way reform-minded.”

These are all fair and sensible cautions. It’s easy to mistake the glow of media attention for long-lasting change, and to ignore the fact that local teachers unions often remain recalcitrant and state and federal laws are still a maze of restrictions. It is also absolutely the case that none of these changes come without their risks of failure. We can debate the effectiveness of TFA, if it’s even possible to generate enough high-quality charter schools to serve a critical mass of students, or whether or not the new laws surrounding merit pay and accountability are well-designed and executed. We can question whether such a poignant film as Waiting for Superman, which tugs at the heartstrings of the viewers, runs the risk of oversimplifying school reform.

And yet it remains the case that, in a nontrivial fashion, these ideas have crept into the national consciousness. This is subtler and harder to measure, but no less important. TFA has grown to one of the most sought-after destinations for graduates of elite universities across the country, helping persuade smart undergrads who might otherwise enter investment banking or go to law school to teach instead. Readers of Time magazine have seen KIPP founders Dave Levin and Mike Feinberg, Rhode Island state chief Deb Gist, and former DC superintendent Michelle Rhee gracing the Time 100. Education reform was a central part of the past two administrations’ domestic agendas. Guggenheim’s appearances in the popular press ran the gamut, from Katie Couric and the Wall Street Journal to Stephen Colbert. And I don’t mind John Legend crooning to sell-out crowds and then tweeting to his 2.9 million followers about the importance of teacher quality. The risk of him overhyping certain reforms seems small to me, and far outweighed by driving a bunch of people who listen to his music to start talking about education reform.

The fact that TFA and KIPP are so well-known, that popular film directors like Guggenheim are pointing their cameras towards education, and that celebrities from John Legend to Andre Agassi to Bill Gates are weighing in is well-worth applauding. To some, this runs the risk of faddism, of oversimplification, and of generating hype that can’t be sustained. And yet it also gives much-needed attention to these issues. School reform is now an accepted topic of popular conversation. To acknowledge the significant progress made isn’t to deny the work left to be done. So while it’s good to be critical and to push back, it’s also okay to step back and cheer. A great deal of progress has been made. Let’s carry the momentum forward.

--Daniel Lautzenheiser

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.