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. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

How School Reform Can End Up Like Stone Soup

Reform is almost never just a simple question of “what works”
By Rick Hess — September 06, 2022 3 min read
Image shows a multi-tailed arrow hitting the bullseye of a target.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

As schools seek to spend federal COVID-relief funds and overcome the devastating effects of school closures, there’s been a run on all manner of interventions and programs—from tutoring to summer programs to SEL.

The admirable urgency and optimism with which advocates promote these and school leaders embrace them can make it tempting to suspend skepticism and wave away potential complexity. This isn’t a new challenge. It’s bedeviled generations of would-be school reformers.

On that count, as I observed several years ago in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, the old parable about “stone soup” is instructive in explaining why. In case you don’t remember it: After the Revolutionary War, three soldiers were making their way home through the New England winter. Cold and hungry, they came upon a village. They knocked on doors, asking for carrots, onions, rabbit—anything that villagers could spare—only to get turned away. Finally, the soldiers knocked on a door and asked only for a cooking pot. The villager said, “Sure.” The soldiers filled the pot with water from a nearby stream, built a fire in the middle of the village, and set the pot to boil.

When a couple villagers stopped by to see what was up, one of the soldiers tossed a large stone into the pot. When a villager asked about the stone, the soldier explained, “We’re making stone soup. When it’s ready, you can have some. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.” He paused. “The only thing,” he said, “is that it’s even better with a little carrot.” The villager promptly said, “I’ve got some carrots. I’ll go grab a couple.” After those got tossed in, the soldier mused, “This is going to be sensational, but stone soup is better still with a little onion.” Another villager popped home and brought back a few onions. By the end of the day, the pot was filled with good stuff, the soldiers gorged themselves, and the villagers all agreed that stone soup was the best soup they’d ever had.

The tale should feel familiar to anyone who has seen promising school reforms dazzle and then disappoint. Pilot programs invariably benefit from enthusiastic leadership, foundation support, intense hand-holding from experts, waivers from contracts and district regulations, teachers and families excited about the program, and more. Not surprisingly, things tend to work pretty well. Seeing the results, eager imitators try to scale the innovation to new sites that don’t have any of that support. The result? The reform disappoints, and onlookers lament about implementation problems. Frequently, the “reform” amounts to the stone in the soup. When other schools or systems try it, the other ingredients usually get left out, and would-be imitators wind up sipping hot pebble water.

In the throes of passion, it’s all too easy to overlook these pitfalls. Even after scores of similar failures, an ardent reformer can insist, “But this stone works so damn well! I’m sure we’ll see these same results elsewhere, even without those other frills.” Thus, school reform starts to resemble Charlie Brown’s perpetual race to kick that football, only to be thwarted each time Lucy yanks it away. Passion leads reformers to redouble their efforts, seeking an even better stone or to run to the ball even faster. You won’t be shocked to learn that this doesn’t usually work. Reformers are better served by cultivating a dispassionate appreciation for the reality of reform.

In the end, the measure of a would-be school reformer shouldn’t be their passion but whether they yoke that passion to forethought, humility, and reflection. This means not just citing evidence they like and dismissing that which doesn’t help their cause. It means knowing that reform involves winners and losers, values and unanticipated consequences, and is almost never a simple question of “what works.”

That’s a high bar. But I think it’s a useful one.

Related Tags:

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.

Events

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.
Sponsor
Curriculum Webinar
Strategies for Incorporating SEL into Curriculum
Empower students to thrive. Learn how to integrate powerful social-emotional learning (SEL) strategies into the classroom.
Content provided by Be GLAD
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.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Leadership in Education: Building Collaborative Teams and Driving Innovation
Learn strategies to build strong teams, foster innovation, & drive student success.
Content provided by Follett Learning
School & District Management K-12 Essentials Forum Principals, Lead Stronger in the New School Year
Join this free virtual event for a deep dive on the skills and motivation you need to put your best foot forward in the new year.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

School & District Management Grad Rates Soared at a School Few Wanted to Attend. How It Happened
Leaders at this Florida high school have "learned to be flexible" to improve graduation rates.
8 min read
Student hanging on a tearing graduate cap tassel
DigitalVision Vectors/Getty
School & District Management Opinion Don’t Just Listen to the Loudest Voices: Resources for Ed. Leaders
These resources can help school and district leaders communicate with their communities.
Jennifer Perry Cheatham & Jenny Portillo-Nacu
5 min read
A pair of hands type on a blank slate of keys that are either falling apart or coming together on a bed of sharpened pencils.  Leadership resources.
Raul Arias for Education Week
School & District Management The Harm of School Closures Can Last a Lifetime, New Research Shows
The short-term effects on students when their schools close have been well documented. New research examines the long-term impact.
5 min read
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020.
Desks and chairs are stacked in an empty classroom after the permanent closure of Queen of the Rosary Catholic Academy in Brooklyn borough of New York on Aug. 6, 2020. A new study examines the long-term effects on students whose schools close.
Jessie Wardarski/AP
School & District Management Video 'Students Never Forget': Principals Call for Help After School Shootings
School leaders are lobbying Congress for more financial support for schools that experience gun violence.
2 min read
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Forest High School students console one another after a school shooting at Forest High School Friday, April 20, 2018 in Ocala, Fla. One student shot another in the ankle at the high school and a suspect is in custody, authorities said Friday. The injured student was taken to a local hospital for treatment.
Doug Engle/Star-Banner via AP