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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

Of School Reform, Pyrrhic Victories, and Warning Signs

By Rick Hess — April 29, 2018 4 min read
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The recent “meh” NAEP results sure seem to suggest that we’re in a decade of educational stagnation, at least when it comes to reading and math scores. Meanwhile, I recently mused on the pendulum swing away from this era of test-based accountability and towards a host of new enthusiasms. It’s all got me feeling reflective. After all, when one thinks back on the start of this decade—when Race to the Top-era reforms and the Common Core surged ahead on a wave of high hopes—it’s kind of astonishing that it all could have amounted to so little. A lot of things that looked like heady victories in the halcyon days of 2010 and 2011 look more like Pyrrhic ones in retrospect.

Of course, everything is clearer in hindsight. For instance, I’ve had some heartening conversations of late with leaders who want to reflect on and learn from some of the blind spots and missteps that hobbled Obama-era reforms. That kind of introspection is terrific to see; after all, it’s tough for us to hold ourselves up as educators if we refuse to be educated by experience.

The thing is, it’s really easy to say we’ve learned something, and then to blithely make the same kinds of mistakes all over again. So, is it possible to see signs that may help indicate when “victories” are going to turn Pyrrhic? Given the way search engines operate, it’s hard to randomly search for old stuff like this—but it wasn’t too tough to recall a few that I’d penned. And I’m sure it would be no great trick to surface similar observations from any number of other acerbic, but reform-friendly observers—folks like Andy Smarick, Andy Rotherham, Robin Lake, Derrell Braford, Mike McShane, and plenty more.

I noticed, for instance, that Marty West, Mike Petrilli, and I observed back in early 2011, near the height of the frenzy surrounding Race to the Top and the Common Core, “Many reformers are eagerly overreaching the evidence and touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures. In short, some forces of reform are busy marching into the sea and turning notable victories into Pyrrhic ones . . . [Too many school reformers] dismiss concerns that their reforms do nothing for suburban schools or may adversely affect them. Until we enable suburban legislators to regard a vote for reform as a political winner, and not merely a vote they’re allowed as a display of political guilt, the underpinnings of reform will remain thin.”

A year earlier, in 2010, when the L.A. Times did its front-page magnum opus using individual value-added data, I wrote, “In other sectors, folks develop useful tools to handle money, data, or personnel, and then they just use them. In education, reformers . . . aren’t satisfied by such mundane steps. So, we get the kind of overcaffeinated enthusiasm that turns value-added from a smart tool into a public crusade . . . When the shortcomings become clear, when reanalysis shows that some teachers were unfairly dinged, or when it becomes apparent that some teachers were scored using sample sizes too small to generate robust estimates, value-added will suffer a heated backlash.”

In 2011, I noted that the narrow, relentless focus on “closing achievement gaps” had created “a dangerous complacency” by “giving suburban and middle-class Americans the false sense that things are just fine in their own schools. Thus it’s no surprise that professionals and suburbanites tend to regard ‘reforms'—from merit pay to charter schooling—as measures that they’ll tolerate as long as they’re reserved for urban schools, but that they won’t stand for in their own communities. As liberal blogger Matt Yglesias has noted, ‘Apocalyptic talk about “failing” schools and intense elite focus on the problems of the least-privileged students tends to obscure the more banal reality that most schools are non-optimal in lots of ways.’”

In 2013, when one could just start to glimpse that some reforms might be going south, I mused, “Reformers have greeted with a surprising lack of interest the seemingly self-evident fact that the fruits of policy innovation depend as much on how policies are carried out as on whether they’re carried out . . . Earlier reform efforts failed when their champions got mired in changing ‘professional practice’ while ignoring policy. This failure fueled an over-correction: While in the past reformers tried to change culture without changing policy, now they are trying to change policy without changing culture . . . [Resistance and foot dragging] is taken as evidence that they need to wield the whip hand ever more firmly. The result is new layers of mandates and bureaucracy, and more grudging, half-hearted compliance.”

Again, I’ll emphatically reiterate that the point is not that I happened to scribble these thoughts down. After all, I write a lot of stuff—some of it is bound to be right every once in a while. The point is that a variety of observers could and did point these things out. This means that some of the frustrations that have bedeviled reforms were foreseeable. However, well-meaning reformers tended to dismiss such concerns as “unhelpful” or evidence of “anti-reformist” tendencies. In a sense, this is good news. It means we needn’t always expect to fly blind. If would-be reformers can find ways to engage with discordant voices, they just might have a shot at keeping today’s big victories from turning into tomorrow’s Pyrrhic ones.

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