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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. Read more from this blog.

Education Opinion

The Simple Advice That’s Surprisingly Hard to Follow

By Guest Blogger — March 27, 2017 4 min read
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This month, 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, Celine Coggins, CEO of Teach Plus and an Entrepreneur in Residence at Harvard University, will be guest blogging.

First off, thanks to Rick for offering me the blog for the week. He suggested that all of the guest bloggers this round write our own version of his Letters to a Young Education Reformer. For the past ten years, I’ve run Teach Plus, a teacher leadership organization with locations across the US and a network of over 26,000 teachers. I spend much of my time translating “reformer-speak” to teachers interested in policy. Today, I’m going to attempt to do the reverse and channel my many teacher friends in advising a young reformer. Teachers are masters at calling BS on “experts” who have lost touch with the realities of school. The themes I picked focus on how to avoid becoming the expert that practitioners disdain.

Stay in school. You’re probably coming to the reform world from a teaching stint or maybe straight out of college or grad school. You think you can check the box on “knowing schools.” You think you really just need to focus on meeting edu-famous players and scoring invites to big policy meetings. In my humble opinion, this is the most common mistaken impression that exists among young reformers. You were up until midnight making a spreadsheet, you say? If you’re too busy fixing schools from the outside to actually spend time in one, you’re doing something wrong. As a more senior leader, I’ve had to work to make this a norm to newer people on our team. It’s not always intuitive, and we bosses might under-recognize how important it is to be explicit about this. At Teach Plus, we actually decided to institute a policy allowing (encouraging!) all staff (even back office folks) to take up to four hours of work time each month to contribute their talents at a low-income school. Our mantra had to become: You cannot be an effective participant in solving a social problem if you are disconnected from that problem.

Have teacher friends who will tell it to you straight. We in the reform world tend to get enamored of our powerpoint decks and ideas that get kudos from smart folks in echo-chamber meetings far from school grounds. Ideas that seem shiny and ground-breaking for how well they communicate a clear logic model in a funder meeting tend to be the ones teachers seem to take special delight in dismantling in the non-rational world of schools. We need more conversation between reformers and teachers at all of the stops on the path between idea and reform implementation. Ideally, this friend is not your roommate who is also planning to leave the classroom. The more “regular” this person’s school experience is, the better. Bonus points if you have a long-term, high-trust relationship already. My dad, a 35-year-veteran high school English teacher, has always been that person for me. My first job in policy was recruiting high-achievers to teaching with $20K bonuses. My dad’s response: “Really?! Like that’s going to make a dent in a four-million-person labor force.” Later, when I told him I was founding Teach Plus, in part to help teachers have a voice in policy, his response was equally direct. “Policy? Teachers hate policy!” Your bold plans to change the world need feedback from the intended audience, even if that feedback only serves to convince you to make your 5-year plan for nationwide adoption of your idea a ten-year plan.

Experience need up-close (aka avoid the “Betsy DeVos Problem”). Part of daily life in urban schools is experiencing the need of your students in way that hurts you personally because there is no possible way you can help enough. If you work in a role helping schools but not in them, you’re likely to lack enough exposure to that palpable need for it to affect you and the way you think about reform. In fact, if you become a “successful ed reformer” beware of a paradoxical trap that’s hard to avoid. By virtue of your ability to secure grants and grow an increasingly large and senior staff, your salary will rise to a level that further distances you from those you seek to serve. In my case, I started Teach Plus as a scrappy 33-year old, making what the average teacher my age was making. Memories from my initial days as an entrepreneur are of maxed out credit cards and cashing out my 401K to pay our first employee. As my salary has grown, I’m conscious that even regular school visits aren’t enough to immerse me in the subtext that defines urban schooling: poverty. In my case, my family hosts low-income families in need of medical attention in Boston in our home. Building deep connections with people who are experiencing need puts me back in touch with what teachers experience daily. It is a reminder of Maslow’s Hierarchy and where trigonometry falls on the priority list of a kid who is hungry.

—Celine Coggins

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.