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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.

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RHSU Classic: The Parable of the Teacher and the Experts

By Rick Hess — February 28, 2020 1 min read
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This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I’ve offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite.

Trying to choose my favorite blog from the 1,000+ posts I’ve penned in a decade of RHSU turned out to be remarkably tough. But, if there’s one theme that has shaped my educational sensibility since I first taught an East Baton Rouge high school civics class three decades ago, it’s the disjuncture between educators and the “experts” who surround them. Embarrassing professional development. Mindless classroom observations. Bureaucratic inanity. Anachronistic textbooks. I was monumentally bad at coping with all the frustrations visited upon teachers and which educators are supposed to quietly endure as the price of their profession. Those years as a teacher made clear to me the chasm that so often separates those who educate kids from those regarded as educational “experts.” Exploring why that divide matters and what we can do about it has been a project of mine for many years now. This post seems a pretty good distillation of what I’ve spent the past decade trying to do in this space, which is why it’s closing out our throwback month. . . . I hope you’ve all enjoyed this stroll down memory lane as much as I have. Next week, we’ll get back to our regularly scheduled programming. Now, on to number 1, originally posted on Sept. 3, 2019.

It's the dawn of a new school year—a time of high hopes and grand dreams of improvement. As I settled down to pen my own exuberant paean to fresh beginnings, though, I fell into a fever dream. I was in an empty classroom when an apparition of James Earl Jones appeared and narrated the following parable in his trademark baritone. He then directed me to share the tale far and wide, gave a cheery wave, and vanished through the closed door. When I awoke, I hastily scribbled down what he'd said. Here you go: In a place called Schoolandia, there was a school with a principal, a teacher, and students. The teacher worked and prepared lesson plans, and the principal supervised the school. The students attended school most days. Some learned a lot. Some learned a little. Some learned nothing at all. An observer saw that this was a problem. The school's principal agreed. When they told the teacher it was not good that some students learned less than others, and that some learned nothing at all, the teacher agreed. "But what would you have me do?" she asked. "I prepare differentiated lessons. I engage in spiraled instruction. I use rigorous, grade-appropriate materials. I mentor. What more should I do?" So the principal solicited advice. And the experts arrived. A researcher explained that she had conducted elaborate studies to identify ways to help "lagging learners." She had studied a mentoring program that had yielded big gains. She'd studied instructional practices that yielded huge gains. She said the teacher should do these things. When the teacher asked how to do them, the researcher gave her some articles. When the programs didn't seem to work, the teacher asked if perhaps she was doing them wrong. The researcher wasn't sure but said something about "implementation difficulties." An advocate arrived, denounced the school-to-prison pipeline, and insisted that the school had to do better. He decried the unequal outcomes as unjust and inequitable. He declared that there was a need for urgency and insisted that "lagging learners" instead be called "opportunity youth." He roared that something had to be done. When the principal observed that previous urgent efforts hadn't made much difference, the advocate blamed "implementation issues" and thundered that this is why an urgent sense of urgent urgency was vital. The principal nodded and insisted that urgent things would be done. The teacher nodded. An innovator arrived and said that the teacher needed to use more technology. He proposed new iPads, better internet connectivity, and an acclaimed "blended model." The teacher followed all of the recommendations. Some students still learned less than others, and some still learned nothing at all. The innovator muttered something about "implementation challenges." And finally, the teacher said, "I feel like part of the problem is that I'm being pulled in too many ways. I'm being asked to fill out too many pieces of paper. It's harder to teach well when I have too many interruptions, new initiatives, and contradictory directives." In response, the researcher talked again about new findings. The advocate spoke again about urgency and injustice. And the innovator suggested more new purchases and programs. This time, though, they said it all slower and louder. The teacher observed that, lost amidst all this bustle, some students did seem to be doing better. But, even so, some still learned less than others, and some still learned nothing at all. So the researcher called for more research. The advocate called for new tests and urged that the school stop punishing students who misbehaved. And the innovator suggested even more new technological tools. The principal looked at the teacher. The teacher looked at the students. Then the teacher went back to working and preparing lesson plans, and the principal to supervising the school. And the researcher, the advocate, and the innovator commiserated with one another about the teacher who failed to heed their expertise, then visited their funders to explain why they needed more dollars to continue their efforts to pursue transformative system change. You know. Maybe my fever dream wasn't actually a parable, after all. Maybe it was more of a premonition of how this school year will once again go for so many.

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.


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