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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

When Policymakers Attack: Two Key Lessons

By Rick Hess — August 10, 2012 4 min read
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Over at This Week in Education, the sharp-penned John Thompson offered his take on Monday’s RHSU post (in which I advised educators to get over their policy allergies). Thompson wrote, “When ‘smart, talented leaders complain about ill-conceived accountability systems,’ Hess tells them to, ‘get over themselves.’” He’s got that partly right--but not entirely.

I’m not telling educators to meekly accept ill-conceived accountability systems. What I’m telling them to do is stop complaining that policymakers want to hold schools accountable. As I noted Wednesday, I’m hugely in favor of educators offering up concrete, workable approaches to school and educator accountability (and, truth be told, so are most policymakers). Indeed, what’s typically absent when so many educators lament the state of school reform today is an understanding of why contemporary approaches to school and system accountability (a la NCLB) or to teacher evaluation have tended to take the form of clumsy, heavy-handed mandates. I’d argue it’s NOT because of nefarious philanthropists, a “neoliberal” cabal, or sheer idiocy, but for reasons that are much simpler and far less conspiratorial.

Starting in the 1990s, policymakers and advocates (especially progressives like Ted Kennedy, George Miller, and the folks at places like the Education Trust) grew frustrated that increasing education spending wasn’t yielding obvious benefits. They particularly fretted that Title I wasn’t doing much for low-income kids, and worried that schools and educators didn’t feel much urgency about addressing the abysmal achievement of poor and minority kids.

In 1994, the Clinton administration pushed to adopt some very minimal transparency requirements around school performance. As part of the 1994 ESEA reauth, the Clintonites wanted states to assess (in reading and math) one grade level per year in elementary, middle, and high school and to issue a report card with the results. There were to be no sanctions or consequences, and there’d be new federal funds to support the effort.

How did educators respond? The associations, state leaders, and ed school cognoscenti complained and kvetched. They explained how hard it is to assess students in useful ways, the problems with any conceivable performance metric, and why the whole thing wasn’t necessary. They lambasted such proposals as an attack on educators. In the end, the whole toothless report card notion was adopted as a voluntary program (via the Improving America’s Schools Act). By 2001, only a handful of states had followed through. Meanwhile, education leaders and ed school scholars had done so much sniping and foot-dragging that, when ESEA was reauthorized in 2001 (as NCLB), few key policymakers had much interest in hearing from them. Instead, the policymakers basically roared in annoyance, turned to would-be reformers who offered actionable suggestions instead of complaints and condemnations, and designed something intended to force even recalcitrant educators to play ball.

Teacher quality? Same story. Years and years of increased spending, toothless reforms, disappointing “reform unionism”, and ineffectual practices fueled frustration among policymakers and advocates. They’re now seeking ideas that rest on more than airy promises and good intentions. So, they’re pushing measures that they hope will force change. For their efforts, they’re getting vilified and attacked by the same educators who, in their minds, have long refused to offer serious proposals.

Like it or not, this is how the world appears to those who are driving today’s policies. While educators can complain that it’d be a better world if we had “better” policymakers who listened more avidly, this is how the world looks to those responsible for spending public funds and making the rules. If educators want better policies, they need to engage accordingly.

Two big lessons. First, policymakers are a lot more concerned about ends than means. They’re interested in seeing that public funds are spent effectively and that kids are well-served. They’re pretty open to ideas for how to make that happen. If educators had stepped up in 1994 with ideas for smarter outcome metrics or thoughtful, consequential accountability systems, I’m willing to wager that the story of the next two decades would have been hugely different. However, when professionals denounce the very notion of meaningful, outcome-based accountability, policymakers wind up shrugging and saying, “The hell with it, we’re moving on, with or without you.”

Second, if you respect the ends that policymakers are seeking to pursue, then it’s remarkably easy to be dealt into the policymaking process. There’s a reason that the Council of Great City Schools was so influential in shaping NCLB and in all that has followed. It’s because CGCS, under the smart stewardship of Mike Casserly, worked with policymakers on common goals--and didn’t bellyache about the villainy or unfairness of accountability. Instead, CGCS focused on trying to offer up workable alternatives that it thought more sensible. That’s the same reason that outfits like TNTP have been so influential in the teacher evaluation conversation.

So, leaders “getting over” themselves does NOT mean embracing ill-conceived accountability systems. It does require recognizing that policymakers have every right to insist on accountability for public funds and public services, and that educators shouldn’t complain about a desire for outcome metrics. That said, educators are obviously right to want better systems for themselves and their students. And they have every right to work hard to help policymakers shape smarter policies. How to do this? See Wednesday’s post for more, but it boils down pretty simply: Acknowledge that the aim is legitimate, stop complaining and vilifying policymakers, and start reaching out with workable alternatives for promoting meaningful, serious accountability for systems, schools, and educators.

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.