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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

My Letter to a Young Ed Reformer

By Guest Blogger — March 20, 2017 6 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, Jessica Sutter, president of EdPro Consulting and a doctoral candidate at the University of Maryland, College Park, will be guest-blogging.

Dear Young Education Reformer,

My career path in education has been a winding road. I never intended to become a teacher. I didn’t expect to be a reformer. But I’m proud of the 18 years I have spent in the work so far, and I have many mentors to credit for advice that has kept me dedicated to improving educational opportunities for all children.

I skipped many of the traditional gateways en route to this work. I joke with folks that I drank the Teach for America Kool-Aid, but I didn’t get the t-shirt. I started my education career as a two-year teacher in an under-served urban community in Chicago. I kept teaching for another five years, in Los Angeles and then Washington, DC, and went on to graduate school later than many of my colleagues. As a former teacher in a PhD program, my summer as an Education Pioneers fellow featured many unfamiliar concepts like Gantt charts and “decks.” Fortunately, my EP posse included gracious business school students who helped me get hip to all the consulting lingo I needed to know—a sort of dime-store MBA, if you will. My circuitous professional route and experiences have also shaped the advice I have to offer you here.

Be excellent and humble, all at once.

I went to Loyola College, a Jesuit college in Maryland, where I was taught many things, both in and out of my liberal arts coursework. One teaching has stuck with me for the nearly 20 years since I graduated, however. Loyola called upon its students to see themselves as men or women for and with others. For and with. The call is a difficult one to respond to, for it requires that you not always be the expert in your work, but that you walk as a fellow traveler alongside those whom you would seek to help. The first part of the call demands excellence; the second part demands humility. It echoes Socratic conceptions of wisdom: being wise requires acknowledging one’s own fallibility and being reflective on all which you do not, and cannot ever, know. This combination is not an easy one to realize, but it is essential for the work of education reform.

You should strive to become excellent at your work. Read all that you can. Attend talks. Network with experts who can help you find solutions to whatever intractable education problem you are trying to solve. As you strive for this excellence, though, remember for whom it is you are doing the work. If you are seeking to provide better educational opportunities for children, listen to children and their parents. If you are trying to create tech-enabled solutions that improve classroom instruction, hear what teachers need and be responsive. Do not do these things as a pro forma exercise. Get to know the people you seek to help because they are your experts in this work. If you are about reforming systems for people, you will get much farther if you do work with, rather than to, the folks you hope to help. Be excellent and humble, all at once.

Internalize the Stockdale Paradox

In my second teaching gig, as a founding teacher at KIPP: LA Prep, my principal regularly referred to bits of wisdom from Jim Collins’ Good to Great in staff meetings. One snippet that resonated with me is the concept of the Stockdale Paradox. Admiral John Stockdale was a POW in Vietnam and credits a paradoxical line of thinking for his survival during a period of captivity that claimed the lives of many of his fellow soldiers. The paradox of his thinking was this: He confronted the brutal facts of his current reality, while simultaneously retaining faith that he would prevail, regardless of the difficulties.

In much of your work within education reform, you will encounter times when you look up and realize that the situation you face is an utter mess. Some of these messes will be left behind by other reformers, perhaps folks who were short on both excellence and humility. On more than one occasion, the messes will be of your own making. The budget was cut in half but the project needs to move ahead as planned. A school leader engaged in fraud and 1800 students suddenly need new schools as a result of the school’s impending closure. Your policy recommendations were carefully derived from data, but you never consulted the official whose political realities mean they plan to move in a very different direction.

Despite all of these unpleasant realities, you will need to persist with a mindset that you will succeed. Children are depending on you—so, to be trite, failure is not an option. Our place in the work of education reform is wholly unlike that of a soldier in captivity, but lives surely depend on the work that happens—or fails to—in American education. Build your mental strength to fight battles that seem unwinnable but that matter morally. Persist.

Carefully consider the inverse relationship of influence and impact

My last piece of advice is one I wish someone had given me. It is something I think about daily, as I contemplate the work I did as a teacher and the work I still have to do in the next 25 years of my career. In the work of reform, you can have influence and impact. But it will be impossible to have 100 percent of both.

During my seven years teaching middle school, I taught somewhere between 40 and 70 children a day, depending on the school. Teaching gave me a daily opportunity to impact the lives of children profoundly, often in ways that would take years to become apparent. After leaving a classroom, I worked in several local education policy roles and now consult with schools and districts. I administered grants for millions of dollars in public funds and helped shape a variety of policy decisions in school systems. Policy work expanded the reach of my influence, but simultaneously diluted my impact, and necessarily took me farther away from the students I got into this work to help.

Our system values policy work at a higher salary scale than teaching. It carries a certain prestige. Both were certainly factors in my decision to leave the classroom. The people I have met outside of schools have offered me opportunities to learn and grow professionally in ways that I might not have had from within a school. But, I have also been honored to meet teachers-of-the-year, “teaching innovation fellows,” teacher bloggers, and teacher ambassadors at the US Department of Education. I didn’t know such opportunities existed while I was teaching. If I had, perhaps I would have stayed. I never felt under-valued as a teacher, I simply didn’t understand how I could have the kind of impact I wanted on education from inside the walls of my own classroom.

After more years out of the classroom than in, I can say this—my work with students likely had a greater impact on the future than any policy decision I have had the privilege to be part of.

My oldest students are now in their early 30s, my youngest in their early 20s, and, thanks to wonders of social media, I get glimpses into their adult lives. Some completed college, some went straight to work. I was their civics teacher, so when I see them voting in elections, using their voices to champion or protest government policies or social movements, or I see them standing up for their former classmates who are marginalized by virtue of their lack of citizenship, I like to think that they remember what they learned as fifth and eighth graders in my classroom.

I think sometimes about returning to a classroom. I’m still not sure where I can best leverage my talents to help increase educational opportunities for children. I am certain, though, that teaching is an act of reform—as much, if not more, as any policy or advocacy role out there. The impact of excellent teaching will last for generations, often longer than any particular policy. Consider this, too, as you find your place in our work.

Thanks to Rick for offering me space to share some thoughts this week.

—Jessica Sutter

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.