Opinion Blog

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

Mine Eyes Have Seen the Glory of a ‘Classroom Up’ Reform

By Guest Blogger — December 09, 2016 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

Note: This week, Eric Kalenze, author and Director of Education Solutions at the Search Institute, will be guest-blogging. See his earlier posts here and here.

After two RHSU guest posts, it should be plain that I don’t have much faith in U.S. education’s various top-down improvement policies and structural reforms.

No need to launch fully into my position here, as I lay it out at length in my book and regularly in my related writing, talks, social-media takes, and direct work with schools. (Plus, y’know, I’m a guest here at Rick’s blog and sure don’t want to be that guy.) If I had to put it in a few-paragraphs-long, specifics-omitted nutshell, it’d basically go like this:

I don’t have faith in such policies and reforms because they almost never seem concerned with fixing the things that, based on my time within and study of the enterprise, matter most to fix.

To borrow from the frame I use in Education is Upside-Down, I have little faith in these policies because they are not properly concerned with turning education’s ‘upside-down’ things—fuzzy human-development ideals and accordingly flawed instructional practices, that is—to ‘right-side-up’. They don’t seek to move practitioners toward research-verified, evidence-supported practices. And as such, ed professionals themselves stand little chance of improving in ways that will help more kids succeed in the world after their K-12 educations.

Put another way: most of the big ed-improvement policies and structural reforms blowing through so much time, money, and angst are accomplishing little more than beating a blind horse.

And in our age, when we have more soundly researched information than ever before about how people learn, what kids will need to succeed in the world awaiting them after K-12, what’s worked directly around us (plus how it worked), and what decidedly hasn’t worked elsewhere (on this score see chapter seven of E.D. Hirsch’s latest, Why Knowledge Matters: Rescuing Our Children from Failed Educational Theories, as nothing may compare—the whole book, though, should count as required), the better course might be to work on correcting that horse’s sight issues.

Because let’s be real here: continuing to (a) beat the horse, (b) figure out ways to replace the horse, (c) give the horse a set of bionic legs, (d) threaten to leave the horse for another nearby, or (e) do whatever else is really not changing things much. And for all the messages our future teachers might be receiving from this combination of acts, certain signs point to that even worse things may be ahead.

Though re-training an entire teaching force—and their direct- and higher-level supervisors, of course—into better ‘sight’ may seem impossible, the current day offers possibilities we could never dreamed of only a decade or two ago.

Indeed: as grassroots, social-media-driven professional-improvement movements like the U.K.'s researchED are proving, conversations about instruction that works can spread quickly and vehemently. They don’t need to wait for policymakers and district decision-makers’ (usually lame) answers or for ‘teacher-voice’ organizations to wheedle their way into top-level conversations to effect (largely practice-impotent) change. They just continually learn and improve themselves as research-informed education practitioners—gathering at periodic conferences to learn from top education voices (who donate their highly valued time and expenses—massive, when you think about it), then maintaining connections via blogs and social-media platforms to share everything from recent study findings to book recommendations to daily practical reflections to simple encouragement/humor/camaraderie.

In existence since just 2013 (and starting on a Twitter-born lark—no kidding), researchED conferences are held nearly monthly across England. Plus now, in addition to the splashier annual conferences, ‘satellite’ conferences are focusing around specialized themes like literacy, math/science, ‘further education’ (U.K.-speak for continuing ed programs)/vocational training, etc., and organized by—and with programs largely consisting of—local educators. researchED has even hopped the U.K. border to host conferences in Australia, Scandinavia, Amsterdam, and twice in the U.S. (Incidentally, I served as co-organizer for the most recent U.S. installment in Washington, DC. Sorry if you missed it, but it was awesome. I posted about it here, here, and here if interested in learning more.)

And opposed to the top-down model of professional learning we’re so used to in the U.S., where educators are fairly worn down into enduring the learning supplied by districts and district-provided experts (and whose dubious research bases, by the way, often don’t end up adding very much to teachers’ practice), the researchED community is having an effect in the other direction. Indeed, word has so grown about researchED on the practice-ground that it’s exerting a truly ‘classroom-up’ impact on national ed policy.

Though I won’t tell you it’s fully taken over the U.K.'s educational decision-making, it’s clear that a whole new interplay is going on: education officials from the British government now regularly appear at researchED conferences to speak, learn, and network, and notable figures from within the researchED community have been brought to the national policy table as valued voices. Here are three, for example:

• Tom Bennett, teacher/author/researchED founder, was enlisted by Britain's Department of Education to serve as their Independent Behaviour Advisor; • Amanda Spielman, a regular researchED conference speaker and former manager of Ark Academy Schools, was appointed in June 2016 to be Ofsted (the national Office of Standards in Education)'s Chief Inspector of schools; • David Didau, another educator/blogger/author and researchED conference regular, was recruited by Ofsted to consult on its teacher-quality Inspection Handbook.

As you survey the above accounts of researchED’s progress, I hope you can see the same practice-transformational potential I do. More importantly, I hope you can see how powerful it can be when practitioners switch their professional-improvement expectations from the (usually unsatisfactory, sometimes destructive) top-down model to a practitioner-empowering and evidence-driven ‘classroom-up’ one. If we can do the hard part of making that switch, the researchED movement should prove that wide, meaningful, and rapid growth is absolutely possible—and, if we’re willing to work for it, it’s not something we’ll have to wait on policy-makers or reformers to make happen.

To borrow from Rick Hess yet again, researchED is as compelling an example of cage-busting teacher-leadership as could be imagined: humbly starting from multiple and profound frustrations with education systems’ various BS, it has grown into a force now exerting upward into policy. It took—and takes, believe me—quite a lot of effort, but scores of kids and teachers are benefiting every day from it. Unlike all the structural reforms and other improvement policies that continue to leave the most important matters upside-down, it is most certainly one I can put—and am putting—loads of faith in and personal torque behind.

(Before I close, can’t resist: In light of the above about researchED, it was very interesting to see this Ed Week Commentary by Peter DeWitt on December 7th, inspired by Andy Hargreaves’ and Michael Fullan’s LearningForward work. Hey Peter, Andy, and Mike? Great ideas, but you may be a little behind the curve here. Do contact me through my blog if you’d like to know more about researchED, as we’re working on both a Canadian and another U.S. stop in 2017. Cheers.)

Thanks so much for reading during my guest stint here at RHSU, it’s been a pleasure. Thanks to Rick and Ed Week for having me, as well as to Grant Addison and Kelsey Hamilton at AEI for all the technical support. Onward!

—Eric Kalenze

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.