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.

Education Opinion

The Parable of the Teacher and the Experts

By Rick Hess — September 03, 2019 1 min read

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.

Let us know what you think!

We’re looking for feedback on our new site to make sure we continue to provide you the best experience.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Future of Work Webinar
Digital Literacy Strategies to Promote Equity
Our new world has only increased our students’ dependence on technology. This makes digital literacy no longer a “nice to have” but a “need to have.” How do we ensure that every student can navigate
Content provided by Learning.com
Mathematics Online Summit Teaching Math in a Pandemic
Attend this online summit to ask questions about how COVID-19 has affected achievement, instruction, assessment, and engagement in math.
School & District Management Webinar Examining the Evidence: Catching Kids Up at a Distance
As districts, schools, and families navigate a new normal following the abrupt end of in-person schooling this spring, students’ learning opportunities vary enormously across the nation. Access to devices and broadband internet and a secure

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Great Oaks AmeriCorps Fellow August 2021 - June 2022
New York City, New York (US)
Great Oaks Charter Schools
Data Analyst
New York, NY, US
New Visions for Public Schools

Read Next

Education Obituary In Memory of Michele Molnar, EdWeek Market Brief Writer and Editor
EdWeek Market Brief Associate Editor Michele Molnar, who was instrumental in launching the publication, succumbed to cancer.
5 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: December 9, 2020
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of articles from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated Briefly Stated: Stories You May Have Missed
A collection of stories from the previous week that you may have missed.
8 min read