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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

Letters to a Young Education Reformer

By Rick Hess — April 25, 2017 3 min read
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Today, Harvard Education Press releases Letters to a Young Education Reformer. A couple years ago, I was struck that so many well-meaning reforms were faring much worse than their thoughtful architects had anticipated. The No Child Left Behind Act was being unceremoniously booted in favor of ESSA. Teacher evaluation systems had morphed from an easy-to-like idea into a frustrating, bureaucratic morass. The School Improvement Grant program was well on its way to becoming a $7 billion nullity. And the Common Core, after debuting smoothly with a shiny pedigree and a lot of reform-minded love, had become a divisive political football.

The funny thing was that none of this seemed especially surprising. If anything, after a quarter century in and around schools and school reform, it all felt surprisingly familiar. I was moved to write down some of what I thought I’d learned. The twenty-one missives that make up Letters—on topics ranging from policy to philanthropy, from media to research, and from ed tech to the courts—are the result.

I’ve spent the past few weeks traveling around the country and sharing some of the insights and takeaways from the volume. The warmth of the reception has been heartening, given that much of what I share is about us reformers facing up to some of our failures and foibles. It seems to me that some of our setbacks and stumbles, though, combined with the unexpected election of President Trump, have left many education reformers in a reflective mood. And that’s extraordinarily healthy.

After all, it’s our mistakes that teach us wisdom. In The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness, Joel ben Izzy tells the tale of the wise Nasrudin’s advice to an eager student:

The student asked, "What is the secret to attaining happiness?" Nasrudin thought for a time, then responded. "The secret of happiness is good judgment." "Ah," said the student. "But how do we attain good judgement?" "From experience," answered Nasrudin. "Yes," said the student. "But how do we attain experience?" "Bad judgment."

Education has a unique condition: schools and school reform are rife with people passionate about their work. This can lead to impatience, a distaste for caution, and even hubris. For all this, too much passion is a great problem to have! It beats the heck out of the alternative. Making our passion work for us rather than against us, though, is a matter of discipline, patience, and wisdom. And these things can be in short supply in school reform.

After all, contemporary school reform attracts people eager to make the world a better place in a hurry. They see education as an engine for doing just that. I get it. But that very passion to drive big change tends to make working in a single school system or community seem limited and lacking. The result is that reformers would rather make change in a system than in a school, a state than in a system, and Washington than in a state. And, once they’ve won a new policy on teacher evaluation or accountability, these reformers are ready to move on—to early childhood or free college, or criminal justice or immigration reform. The result is an inclination—among advocates, policymakers, and pundits alike—to tackle the next cause at the expense of follow-through on the last one.

The well-meaning desire to go big, fast happens to fit neatly with the instincts of those who wield money and power. Grant officers at major foundations feel pressed to show that their grantees will make a visible difference in the next two or three years. Governors are looking for noteworthy initiatives that they can point to when they run for reelection. And federal appointees feel like, “I have to act now, while I have my chance.” In our high-speed, short news-cycle age, this fuels an enthusiastic search for the next big thing.

All this well-intentioned bustle has real costs. It has led to one-size-fits-all dictates that don’t actually fit some schools or classrooms. It has bred a tone-deafness that alienates many parents and angers educators. It has eroded trust in the people who actually do the work. It has led us to put undue faith in sweeping policy solutions, fueling backlash and frustration. It has weaponized research, undermining our ability to talk frankly about how uncertain and context-dependent most school reforms really are. It has elevated the cult of expertise, at the cost of our respect for careful execution and good judgment.

None of this is easy to change. But addressing it starts with recognition and reflection. In Letters, I offer some hard-learned advice on how to discipline our passions, check our assumptions, treat teachers and parents fairly, use research and expertise more thoughtfully, and pursue reform in a manner that’s as interested in how reform works as in which reforms get adopted. I know all too well that these are hard lessons to learn. Letters is me trying to help make it easier, if only just a bit.

I hope readers will let me know if I succeeded.

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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.