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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

Please, Someone, Name Your Favorite Education Decade

By Rick Hess — March 23, 2020 1 min read
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A few weeks back, before the coronavirus swept aside all other conversations, I penned a post remaking on the disappointing educational legacy of the 2010s. My jump-off point was Diane Ravitch’s new book; my takeaway was that it reminded me that Ravitch and the reformers she opposed were, in important ways, mirror images of one another—plagued by similar mistakes and missteps. The piece drew some interesting feedback, positive and negative. One such was from my good friend Christopher Ruszkowski, former state chief in New Mexico, current distinguished policy fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and passionate, unapologetic school reformer. I thought his take was interesting, and asked if he’d care to expand on it for you all. He agreed, and this is what he had to say:

The last few months have provided ample opportunity for education commentators of all stripes to lament the 2010s. I'm sure similar lamentations were written at the conclusion of other education decades gone by, given the unfulfilled promises of the original ESEA or NCLB. It's a regrettable feature of our sector's culture: We often gravitate to naysayers instead of changemakers. This is compounded by the fact that we are a sector that is ripe for politicization—the scope of critique is boundless and incremental progress is never enough. My trusted compatriot Rick Hess has been amongst the cacophony of scholars and pundits who captivate our attention with stories of what might have been. He does this with a mightier wit and greater historical understanding than most, and is unsparing in his critique of friends and foes from all political backgrounds. His blog a couple weeks ago revisited his review of latest diatribe of a novel by "system critic" Diane Ravitch. Rick's respect for her decades of scholarship shines through, as does his admonition of her deviance from intellectual rigor. In last week's revisiting, however, he briefly locks arms with Ravitch, returning to his familiar swipe against "well-meaning reformers" whose wide-reaching efforts to transform public education in the 2010s fell short of their grasp. It seems that Rick has concluded that the 2010s weren't much of a success. And while I haven't read Ravitch's latest jeremiad, there does seems to be a longing for the "good old days" in her work—a time period that I, for one, have been unable to identify. As Rick often underscores, education change "depends more on execution than adoption," that "structural reforms are means, not ends," that we should focus more on "schoolhouses rather than statehouses" and that some have put "too much weight on 'winning' and not enough on persuasion, workability, or how those wins would be experienced by families and teachers." To say, however, that there weren't thousands of educational practitioners focused on exactly those ideas is a misrepresentation of the 2010s. You might not know many them by name, but I had the honor of collaborating with them and working alongside them. In statehouses, schoolhouses and every house in-between they obsessed over the ins and outs of implementation, sweated every detail of a particular policy and its implications, and focused on building relationships and synergies with schools, teachers, families, students, and communities. They were and are principals and teachers-leaders, state directors, program heads, and analysts, district instructional and HR leaders. And some of their work did achieve results for students. Last year the bipartisan, nonprofit Collaborative for Student Success shared the important news that since 2015, across 18 states that raised expectations, 262,968 more students of color were reading at grade level. States like New Jersey steadily improved instructional practice and student outcomes. Recent NAEP and EdWeek's Quality Counts results further validated the sustained academic progress of Mississippi and Washington D.C., two of many places where improvement over the last decade has been notable; and two of many places where the principals, the district reading specialists, the early-childhood coordinators and the outstanding teachers have gone largely unheralded. What's more, for all the talk about places where the research-based reforms of the 2010s, such as teacher evaluation, faced extreme political resistance, there has been evidence of forward progress as well. The National Center for Teacher Quality has written about the states and cities where policy "wins" were just the beginning of years and years of technical and adaptive work done by teachers, principals, and public servants—thousands of whom I had the pleasure of working alongside in New Mexico. The main thing that these educators and support professionals cared about was the quality of implementation—they generally were not aware that the two warring "camps" to which Rick refers even existed. One ramification of lamenting the 2010s has been the strange over- and under-promising of "new wave" reforms in the 2020s. Some leaders now promise a new set of panaceas, while others seem to be saying "we're making investments in the future, but don't expect much to happen for students anytime soon." It remains to be seen whether we will we celebrate those who set the bar just off the floor and then jump over it or if we will again lament those who promised cure-alls that did not deliver in the decade ahead. I wonder sometimes if Rick (or Diane) would celebrate any decade in the history of public education—or if all decades in our field are stories of progress and strife. The leaders of the 2010s were certainly ambitious in their plans for our school systems. One place where Rick and I are in full agreement: Any policy or structural change, regardless of its nature, is just the beginning of a long stretch of implementation, with much refining and revising along the way. My sense is that both the Ravitch and Duncan "camps" that Rick describes, and those two individual leaders themselves with their experience at the federal and local levels, understand this too. We might all even agree that we've only scratched the surface of understanding what shaped the decade of "progress and strife" that was the 2010s.

It’s an important topic. Like so much else, how we think about the lessons of the 2010s and what they mean going forward is going to look a little different in the aftermath of COVID-19. But this kind of thoughtful, constructive conversation is the key to us making it through this crazy time, together—and to figuring out how to best make sense of a decade which, right now, seems so long ago.

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