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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

Seven Reflections on School Reform in 2017

By Rick Hess — December 29, 2016 4 min read
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Traditionally, this has been the column where I offer some snarky quasi-predictions about the educational year ahead. Except that I’m not really feeling it this year. I don’t know whether to chalk it up to me losing my sense of humor or the unfunny state of the educational world. So it goes. Instead, I’ll share a few musings as I survey the school reform landscape at the dawn of a new year. This feels kind of appropriate, in any event, given that I’ve spent much of the past year noodling on all this as I penned my forthcoming Letters to a Young Education Reformer. So, here are seven things to keep in mind for 2017:

I think “reform” has had some real successes over the past two decades: more transparency, room for creative problem-solving, options for families, and more. While none of this has “fixed” schools, it has done good things for a lot of kids. The urge to “take things to scale,” however, can make these incremental successes feel distinctly unsatisfying. The thing is, it’s tough to scale complex processes or skills. If you want to scale a learning management system or software for tracking school expenditures, have at it. If, though, you’re hoping to sit in a state capital and develop the policies or programs that will rapidly “fix” hundreds or thousands of schools, disappointment awaits. Sorry about that.

It’s okay to admit what you don’t know. Screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” His point? For all the slick analyses, industry jargon, and staggering salaries, nobody in Hollywood really knows why some movies succeed and some don’t. I’ve found that Goldman’s wisdom applies equally well to school reform. People will tell you why this district should be a national model or that superintendent is a genius. More often than not, I’ve learned over the years, they don’t really know what they’re talking about.

At root, teaching and learning are intuitive acts. Kids are naturally curious; they’re natural learners. The human mind is hard-wired to ask questions and seek out knowledge. And adults are predisposed to share knowledge, interests, and skills. When one feels confounded or overwhelmed by the challenges of educational improvement, it’s worth keeping in mind that teaching and learning aren’t the product of some mysterious alchemy—they’re deeply natural acts. Systems, structures, and bureaucratic rules designed to support and promote learning need to be scrutinized with an eye to whether they respect that truth.

We can all do a lot better to steer clear of words that have been stripped of meaning. School reform is filled with such words: “consensus,” “best practices,” “differentiation,” “21st century skills,” “rigor,” “effective teaching,” “accountability,” “empowerment,” and so on. Most of the time, it’s not clear what any of these placeholders really mean. They’re often just a way to skip past complicated questions. The problem is that mushy language leads to fuzzy thinking. When I use these words, I frequently realize that even I don’t know exactly what I’m saying.

Keep an eye out for thought bubbles. It’s easy to talk only to people who think like you do. If you work for a group that’s for charter schools (or that hates charter schools), you’re probably going to work around people who share certain views. Colleagues will circulate articles and cite researchers who agree with those views, and may mock and dismiss those who lean the other way. If it helps any, I keep finding that people I was inclined to dismiss are more thoughtful and better intentioned than I’d once assumed. Try to make sure you’re not reflexively parroting the groupthink of your friends and allies.

“Reformers,” officials, and pundits need to take care not to get too impressed with ourselves. Blathering on panels, testifying to legislatures, writing op-eds, advising governors, and appearing on radio or TV can give one an inflated regard for one’s import or knowledge. Watch out. This can breed arrogance and bad decisions. And it’ll alienate a lot of people—including the actual educators, who are generally too busy educating to do all this stuff.

In recent years, I’ve been struck by school reform’s growing fascination with PR campaigns and political strategies. There’s a place for both substance and messaging, of course, but I’ve seen attention to political tactics come at the expense of deliberation and honest self-appraisal. It can be tough to find the time or energy to reflect when busy massaging the media, scrambling to generate clicks, and hurling angry tweets. Eager to draw attention and demonstrate an “impact,” advocates and analysts have found it easy to get caught up in the thrill of the hunt. This makes me think that 2017 will be a good year to be more deliberate, to speak and write more selectively.

Like I said, if this stuff appeals, keep an eye out for Letters. In the meantime, here’s wishing you and yours a wonderful new year. I’ll see you in 2017.

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.