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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.

School & District Management Opinion

For Best Results, Temper Passion With Professionalism

By Rick Hess — June 22, 2017 4 min read
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I just perused Rand Quinn and Amanda Jones-Layman’s thoughtful and pretty generous take on Letters to a Young Education Reformer, and it got me thinking about the tangled relationship of passion and professionalism when it comes to school reform. I thought I’d share a few thoughts, mostly drawn from the book, on just this topic.

Each morning, my inbox is stuffed with scores of briefings, newsletters, announcements, press releases, and foundation updates. The torrent does a rather nice job of illuminating the ongoing professionalization of school reform—a remarkable development (in ways both good and bad). Where a decade or two ago there were a handful of advocacy groups, publications, and networks, today there is a steadily growing array of organizations, convening, and commentary. All of this activity is fueled by an admirable energy and urgency.

Indeed, education is brimming with passionate people who see schooling as a way to make a difference. Most of the time, passion is a wonderful thing. It lends us energy and gives our work meaning. In school reform, though, I sometimes think we suffer from a curious malady: too much passion—and a shortage of disciplined professionalism.

The thing about passion is that it tends to make us true believers. It leaves little room for uncertainty. It can make things seem simpler than they are and us more confident in our answers than we should be. It can cause reformers to brush aside second thoughts and to be less than fully honest with ourselves about mistakes and setbacks. Over the years, I’ve watched impassioned reformers of every stripe stumble in these ways time and again. This is bad for kids, teachers, schools, and frequently even for reformers’ own agendas.

After a quarter-century at this, I’ve come to suspect that the notion of the “right” reform is frequently a phantasm. Whether reform is good for kids is usually more a matter of what is actually done than what policy is officially adopted. Similar-sounding proposals to reform school governance, assessment, discipline, or instruction may turn out to be “right” or “wrong” simply depending on how they’re designed and executed. Reform often disappoints not because the ideas are necessarily “wrong” but because they’re pursued in hurried, half-baked ways.

Reform has had signal successes over the past two decades: increased transparency, higher expectations, more room for creative problem-solving, more options for families, terrific models of tech-inspired redesign, and much more. While none of this has “fixed” schools, it has done good things for a lot of kids. Because young reformers keep hearing their job is to “take it to scale,” however, that can feel distinctly unsatisfying. If you’re feverishly seeking to make schools better everywhere, in a hurry, anything less can seem like surrender. It shouldn’t. 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. This isn’t downbeat or pessimistic; it’s just how things are. The search for scale is healthy, but shortcuts won’t get you there.

In recent years, big “R” Reform has sometimes felt like it’s headquartered in a political campaign’s war room. I’ve been struck by the 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. Eager to draw attention and show funders an “impact,” reformers have found it ever easier to get caught up in the thrill of the hunt. This makes me think that it’s a good time to be more deliberate. To speak and write more selectively. To be more discerning about the gatherings we host and attend. We’re swimming in noise. There’s a yawning need for reflection and a willingness to listen to one another. It’s tough to listen, though, if we’re constantly chattering—and it’s even tougher if we’re shouting.

Look, I’m not an especially nice guy. When I suggest that reformers should listen to those who disagree, that reformers are well-served by humility, or that reform needs to work for teachers as well as for students, it’s not because I want everyone to get along. It’s because education reform is hard. Doing it well is at least at much about discipline and precision as it is about passion. What I’m counseling is not niceness but professionalism. It’s good to be passionate about education; it’s right that you be relentless in fighting for the reforms you believe in. But, when all is said and done, reformers do well to pursue their passion with a professional discipline to match.

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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.