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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

‘Reform’ is a Mindset, Not a Set of Policies

By Daniel Lautzenheiser — January 10, 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.

Many thanks to Rick for giving me a chance to blog. Since every guest blogger here has offered some unique perspective to the blog--as a teacher, say, or a budding education entrepreneur--I hoped to do the same. And the opportunity was massive: I could, for the first time, give the RHSU faithful insight into what life is really like working every day for Rick Hess. Top 10 quotes? Best memories on a business trip? “That time in Houston when...”? The possibilities were endless. I weighed it out:

Pros: a deluge of site visits; scores of tweets; burgeoning career as an education blogger
Cons: probably losing my job

With all due respect to Internet stardom, I like my job and am hoping to keep it. So my first seven or eight ideas were off the table.

And yet, in the two years I’ve worked for Rick at AEI, I’ve picked up a few other insights on education reform and policy along the way. Really, what I’ve learned is more a way of thinking than anything else. Rick possesses a creativity that allows him to find common ground with scholars he might otherwise disagree with, add value to trendy debates, and raise sensible cautions to those in the field.

So that’s what we’ll go with this week: two insights into the education policy world that I think our department, under Rick’s leadership, articulates well and that hold value for education debates heading into 2012. For fun, I’ll end the week with one belief I disagree with Rick on.

Insight 1: Education “reform” is a mindset, not a set of particular policies

Today’s education discussions often pit, in sweeping generalizations, “reformers” against “anti-reformers.” To be “pro-reform” usually means supporting policies such as merit pay for teachers, charter schools, and a greater attempt at applying lessons from the private sector to public schooling. Those who are against such policies are quickly deemed “anti-reform.” There are nuances, of course, but any number of popular education debates today--on issues such as merit pay, school choice, test-based accountability, school leadership, public unions and collective bargaining rights, and school funding--are colored by this framework.

Thus, we have folks like journalist Steve Brill flippantly writing about “school reform deniers” who are opposed to charter schools or overhauling teachers unions. And on the flip side, we get historian Diane Ravitch lambasting “corporate reformers"--she includes in this category the rather eclectic mix of “philanthropists and Wall Street hedge fund managers and Republicans and the Obama administration and assorted rightwing billionaires"--for advocating “market-based reforms” such as merit pay or test-based accountability. These are the rhetorical extremes, to be sure, but there are numerous subtler ways this dichotomy plays out.

Under this framework, debate on interesting policies is reduced to a set of platitudes. By fashioning the discussion on school reform into a firm “yes or no,” we get two ideological camps firmly entrenched in their views. Thus, any K-12 policy--be it paying teachers differently or allowing for-profit companies to run schools--is either touted as the next great thing in education or resisted as “an attack on schooling.”

Both sides miss the point. Reform is a mindset. It’s the idea that allowing new ways of thinking, different models of schooling or a fresh take on the professions therein, and insights from different sectors is generally a good practice, but won’t itself transform education without attention to details and an eye on implementation. In contrast, reform is not a set of particular policies that are, by default, “right” or “wrong,” “good” or “bad.” As Rick’s pointed out, “The biggest problem in education is that our current arrangements force us to approach these questions as ‘policy’ questions, with the presumption that a state or district will set rules that apply to every teacher in every school in that geography. In that fashion, by enforcing uniformity, we stifle opportunities for variability or creative problem-solving, and accentuate the temptations to adrenalize these debates.”

Take merit pay. Seeking to pay teachers differently does not mean “this specific merit pay system is the right one” or even that “merit pay narrowly construed as bonuses based on student performance gains on standardized tests” is the right solution. Rather, it means that in a world of scarce talent, there is something smart about identifying good teachers and treating them differently by paying them more--but also by offering them greater flexibility, changing their job description, allowing more opportunities for training and growth, and so on. Very few good companies tell their employees, “We’re going to evaluate your performance every year and the only thing we’ll change is your eligibility for an additional bonus.” Rather, the best companies work to identify top talent and use a variety of incentives to keep them happy and productive and, of course, actually at that company.

Or take school choice. To be reform-minded in this regard isn’t to assume that the mere presence of charter schools or other forms of competition will magically force underperforming district schools to improve. Nor is it to find the highest performing charter model, such as the KIPP schools, and seek to replicate it in every location regardless of context or costs. Instead, it’s the belief that allowing dynamic and creative leaders to start schools, freed from rigid district strictures surrounding teacher recruitment and pay, length of the school day and year, and so forth, can potentially yield impressive results.

Ultimately, this is what matters, this kind of belief. Viewing school reform as a way of thinking, one that seeks to increase flexibility and foster creative solutions to K-12 problems, has a number of advantages. It makes it possible to judge particular proposals on their unique strengths and weaknesses, and not blindly support them because the idea is “pro-reform.” It avoids overhyping various reform efforts by recognizing that how the idea is executed is as important as the innovation itself. Perhaps most importantly, it recognizes that there are no silver bullets to education reform, and the real work lies not in the debates but on the ground.

--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.