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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

What We’ve Forgotten About School Reform: Courtesy of Messrs. Tyack, Cuban, and Payne

By Rick Hess — September 21, 2017 2 min read
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This is a busy, busy, busy era. We’re beset by accelerating news cycles, a fascination with social media, the crisis of the week, and endless spats over manufactured offenses. All the noise makes it easy to forget that there are larger lessons or truths that can help steer us when it comes to school improvement. Add to that a steady influx of energetic new advocates and wide-eyed funders and the whole world seems to start anew every half-decade. Don’t forget that we read less and less of anything longer than a blog post, while the most popular education books tend to be screeds, hagiographies, or magic cure-alls. What it all adds up to is a dearth of hard-earned wisdom.

But there is wisdom out there, even if it sometimes seems overlooked or forgotten. I’ve been reminded just how much there is in the past couple weeks while prepping for an undergraduate class I’m teaching at Johns Hopkins. That’s given me the chance to revisit Tyack and Cuban’s classic Tinkering Toward Utopia and Charles Payne’s terrific So Much Reform, So Little Change. The first is more than two decades old, the second nearly a decade. But they’re both as timely today as the day they were published, offering a reminder of how much things stay the same—and frequently offering more insight into today’s trials and tribulations than most of our ephemeral, overheated daily coverage and commentary.

Here are a dozen observations that still do a pretty remarkable job of reflecting and offering insight into challenges we’re wrestling with today:

Payne: "Reform after reform fails because of nothing more complicated than the sheer inability of adults to cooperate with one another. Failing to appreciate the salience of social infrastructure and the irrationality of the organizational environment, both liberals and conservatives have spent a lot of time pursuing questions of limited utility . . . In hindsight, we would have done better had we given more attention to trying to figure out how to implement anything under such inauspicious circumstances." (p. 6) Tyack & Cuban: "Supremely confident, the administrative progressives all along proclaimed their reforms as being in the national interest . . . This progress, they believed, required ever higher costs per pupil. Many school districts and professional associations added publicity departments to persuade citizens that the reforms were worth the money." (p. 21) Payne: "Even where we see some progress, we continue to see attempts to implement reform in ways that are manifestly unlikely to work. Some of this is just political expediency or earnest incompetence, but some of it is that people in leadership positions do not have a system understanding of the cause of failure." (p. 5) Tyack & Cuban: "In the firm belief that they were the trustees of the public interest, superintendents and other policy elites of the first half of the century tended to dismiss their opponents as ignorant or self-interested . . . They regarded the rural foes of school consolidation as backward yokels who did not know what was good for their children." (p. 21) Payne: "School reformers from the outside, typically rejected by most staff because they are outsiders, are glad to find a receptive group talking their language. Becoming involved with that group, typically a low-status social clique, immediately embroils the reform in pre-existing cleavages of race, cohort, and teaching philosophy, often before reformers are aware that such cleavages exist." (p. 30) Tyack & Cuban: "Certain calls for change do seem to have recurred again and again in cyclical fashion, often within the lifetime of individual educators and sometimes at a dizzying pace . . . Reformers, for example, have alternately proposed student-centered pedagogy or teacher-centered instruction, attention to academic or to practical knowledge, and centralized or decentralized governance of schools." (pp. 40-41) Payne: "One of the most popular models for staff development, sometimes called a Train the Trainer model, involves sending a few teachers out to be trained so that they can come back and train others. It looks cost-effective; in practice, the stronger the norms of collegial leveling and isolation, the less likely it is that anything will come of these ventures." (p. 23) Tyack & Cuban: "Educational reformers may have wanted to wipe the institutional slate clean and start again, but that has rarely happened. Instead, reforms have tended to layer, one on top of another." (p. 76) Payne: "Disorder is a double-edged sword. In one sense, it obviously works to everyone's disadvantage. In another, though, disorder means a measure of freedom people in more regulated environments don't have . . . One can do minimal preparation for class, skip committee meetings, make a practice of not coming in on Fridays—generally blow off the less pleasant aspects of the job." (p. 60) Tyack & Cuban: "Reformers expected the kindergarten to be a cure for urban social evils as well as a model of education for young children . . . When public sponsorship took the place of private, an early casualty was the outreach program that sent kindergarten teachers into the homes of the pupils." (pp. 66-67) Payne: "Lack of time, the hurried pace of change, the absence of assessment, false buy-in or no buy-in, and the ambiguity of some of the new roles introduced into schools by reforms (what exactly is an instructional coach? what's a facilitator?) all contribute to one of the most important characteristics of bottom-tier schools: their inability to follow through. A school will set clear priorities at the beginning of the year and then never talk about them again after December; the priorities get lost in the daily shuffle, pushed aside by crisis or by new initiatives." (p. 177) Tyack & Cuban: "Socialized to familiar institutional practices, teachers have responded in myriad ways to reforms. Sometimes they have spent a good deal of energy in coopting, minimally complying with, or resisting reforms that they did not want from legislators eager to regulate their activity, politicians wanting quick results to help them get reelected, or district entrepreneurs keen to install new programs." (p. 137)

It’s easy to get caught up in our enthusiasms of the moment. But it’s worth recognizing that much of what we think of as “reform” (of whatever stripe) has plenty of backstory. After all, many of our frustrations are less novel and more familiar than we sometimes imagine. As Payne points out, “Virtually all reformers tout their work as ‘research-based.’ The term has been so debased that it is no longer clear that it refers to anything at all, but it clearly does not refer to research on the history of past reforms” (p. 181).

If we’re going to refashion a 19th-century model of schooling for the 21st century (and I think we need to), this all suggests that how we go about it will be at least as important as what we try to do. And, while we certainly should evaluate new programs and scrutinize their impacts on reading and math scores, I can’t help but think that we’d be at least as well-served if advocates, analysts, funders, journalists, policymakers, and fired-up district officials all spent a little more time taking the measure of what’s gone before.

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.