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School & District Management Opinion

School Reform Is the New Ed. School

By Rick Hess — June 15, 2016 5 min read
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The other week, I noted that “today’s ‘school reform’ community bears an eerie resemblance to the education schools that I fled long ago, including a stifling orthodoxy so ingrained that it’s invisible to its adherents.” Several friends, readers, and colleagues responded along the lines of, “What are you talking about?” Well, I spent much of the 1990s and early 2000s in and around schools of education as an M.Ed. student, supervisor of student teachers, doctoral student, and professor. Especially back then, ed schools were marked by oppressive consensus on key questions: tests were bad, charter schooling and school vouchers were very bad, Teach For America was terrible, schools were underfunded, market forces had no place in education, and so on.

To disagree with any of this was seen as churlish and professionally problematic. This state of affairs made it hard to ask tough questions, challenge assumptions, break out of stale debates, or learn from mistakes. The echo chamber made it easy to overestimate the broader popularity of ed school thinking. Nobody in the ed schools gave any of this much thought; they just knew that any educated observer would think this way. In fact, to talk of orthodoxy was to be waved off by people who would point to disagreements over site-based management or curricular models as evidence that such talk was silly. In the face of all this, I found refuge in a “school reform” community that, at the time, took pride in its heterodoxy and welcomed a remarkable breadth of thought. Things have changed, though. Today, I no longer see “school reform” as a refuge; rather, I see a community as consumed by its own groupthink as the ed schools were. I could go on at length, but I’ll just flag five similarities that strike me.

Orthodoxy reigns without being formally demanded or commanded. In the ed schools, orthodoxy was a product of broadly shared biases among leading faculty, advocates, and funders. Influential faculty drew confidence and sway from their close relationships with friends at key foundations like Pew, Ford, Carnegie, and Annenberg. Those in power gave out the prizes, edited the key journals, and sat on the review committees for research funding. Nobody needed to scheme in order for the groupthink to persist; it was the product of key people happening to see the world in similar ways. The dynamic feels remarkably similar to what now prevails in school reform—though the names and titles of the taste-makers have changed, and the consensus now operates mostly through partnerships, projects, consulting arrangements, and foundation initiatives.

Open disagreement about values is deemed unpleasant and unnecessary. In ed schools, hardly anyone disagreed with the prevailing orthodoxy. Dissenters, whether students or faculty, were dismissed as troublemakers. When I’d express my lack of enthusiasm for books by Jonathan Kozol or Carol Gilligan to folks in ed schools, I’d be told that I was just trying to be contrary—that I wasn’t willing to talk about hard issues, rejected dialogue, and clearly wasn’t serious about educational improvement. When I’d tell my friends in the “school reform” world about all this, they’d laugh. You could go years in an ed school without encountering more than token representation of a dissenting voice. School reformers have borrowed this modus operandi, even as the issues and orthodoxies have changed. And they have taken to greeting dissent--when it comes to Race to the Top, the Common Core, or other favored initiatives—by accusing dissenters of being contrary or unserious about school improvement.

Inconvenient critiques are seen as a failure to “get it.” Back in the 1990s, my Harvard dissertation asked why urban reforms seemed to flit by with so little impact and argued that there were big incentives to focus on “doing something” rather than making reforms work. Brookings published it in 1998 as Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform, and it was well-received by reformers back then as a useful analysis. Two other presses had sent it to six education professors for review, all of whom uniformly hated it (Brookings had sent it to policy scholars). The ed schoolers argued that I didn’t appreciate how important the various reforms really were or that I was reading too much into mere implementation challenges. Today, when I raise concerns about the urge to hurriedly “do something” on teacher evaluation or accountability, reformers complain that I don’t appreciate the importance of the reforms or that I’m making too much of modest implementation challenges.

Faddism reigns. In the ed schools, something new would capture everyone’s imagination, and we’d be off on a wave of exciting, fresh groupthink. Everyone just knew that multiple intelligences or portfolio assessment was the way of the future, and each time a perfectly sensible idea was twisted into a problematic caricature. This is one of the hazards of groupthink—it means that there are precious few firebreaks in the way of a raging blaze of faddish enthusiasm. School reform may have always been susceptible on this count, but groupthink has severely weakened its defenses against faddism. Today, reformers who’ve spent years deriding a focus on anything but reading and math scores have rediscovered age-old concepts like perseverance and character in shiny new wrappers—and responded by twisting sensible intuitions into goofy, worrisome proposals for evaluation and accountability.

Race, poverty, and privilege are the “right” way to think about school improvement. When the phrase “political correctness” first entered the lexicon in the early 1990s, ed schools were working to ensure that people had the “correct” understanding of certain issues, including the already-popular concept of white privilege. I was always struck that a remarkable number of discussions and gatherings on these issues would start with the proviso that “we never talk about these issues.” To suggest that we actually talked about these issues a lot, or to argue that this kind of framing was divisive and destructive, was to be dismissed as ignorant, morally suspect, and blinded by privilege. Well, guess what? These stances and sayings have been much in evidence in school reform circles, as was abundantly clear in the reactions to Robert Pondiscio’s column last month on the NewSchools conference.

Yep. It all feels eerily familiar. That is a huge problem for reformers. It has undermined the healthy competition of ideas. It has weakened the ability to sustain bipartisan cooperation. It has rendered the space less hospitable to young minds who may not share the current orthodoxy. I hope that school reformers will find ways to address this. After all, at the turn of the century, the “reform” community offered an alternative to the ed school orthodoxy. I don’t know where today’s disenchanted reformers might look for refuge.

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