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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

The Fast, the Furious, and School Reform

By Rick Hess — April 18, 2017 3 min read
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One of the things I’ve always loved about going to the movies—as opposed to, say, half-watching something on an iPad while checking e-mail after the kids have gone to bed—is that it offers time for reflection. That’s true even when the movie is a ludicrous franchise tentpole like The Fate of the Furious, which I saw over the weekend.

Fate was stupid, but I modestly enjoyed some of it. Anyway, during one of the long, stupid stretches—when Charlize Theron’s mega-villain was raining cars upon our heroic crew—I realized something: nowadays, the parts of these movies that I least enjoy have to do with the heavy metal spectacle. What I do enjoy, though, is the friendship, badinage, and loyalty shared by our heroes. Yet, a movie aimed at teenage boys needs to feature what they want, which means a lot of crazy pile-ups—and a sprinkling of humanity to fill in the gaps. The fact that I found large swaths of the movie off-point doesn’t actually reflect poorly on the writers or director; it mostly reflects that their focus wasn’t mine.

This feels relevant because it brings to mind some of the common tensions underlying school reform. Case in point: Last week, I visited Vanderbilt University in order to chat about Letters to a Young Education Reformer. In a seminar with some graduate students, I mentioned my conviction that reading and math scores (even on terrific assessments) only capture maybe 30 to 35% of what I want students to learn in the course of K-12 schooling.

That prompted one thoughtful student to ask what else I thought good schools should do, then. In other words, what’s the other 65 to 70%? This is a question that’s come up a lot when I talk about the book. I said what I usually say: cultivate character, nurture good citizens, and teach mastery of content and skills—all while striving to spark imagination and develop each child’s distinctive gifts.

The student quite reasonably asked if that’s too ambitious a vision. And that brings us to a very interesting, and very Fast and the Furious, kind of place. You see, we know some schools can do all of this—because they do. We know that some schools are good at some parts of this. We also know that we have no good ways to measure this stuff, and no clue how to use advocacy, research, or policy to “make” schools get better at it.

That causes some real problems for school reform, since advocacy, research, and policy are the tools that reformers use to try to drive systemic change. And since reformers can’t readily measure or figure out how they might move all that complex stuff, they’ve come, instead, to focus on the things they that they can—mostly reading and math scores and graduation rates.

Now, that can be okay; heck, once upon a time, it was a healthy corrective. Today, though, those scores and grad rates have become the wild car crashes and crazy stunts of school reform. They’re what the movie is about. Notice how we’ve gotten used to talking about schools and teachers. When a school has high reading and math scores, we don’t say, “It’s got high reading and math scores"; instead, we say, “That’s a good school.” When a teacher posts high value-added scores in reading and math, we say, “That’s a good (or ‘highly effective’) teacher.” Everything else has become filler between the set-piece spectacles.

This isn’t a product of conspiracy or ill intentions. It’s just what happens when school improvement is shaped by policy and the pursuit of system reform—the same way that character and relationships get squeezed when studios figure out what teenage boys want to see.

If all this were giving families and communities the schools and they wanted, that’d be one thing. But the irony here is that families rarely talk about schools the same way that reformers do. Parents tend to be much less focused on test scores and far more concerned about all those other things those scores don’t capture. In other words, it’s as if studios were filling blockbuster movies with scenes that their target audience didn’t necessarily want.

Unfortunately, realizing that requires a lot of reflection. That doesn’t seem to come naturally for a reform community populated by impassioned people who are distractedly eyeballing our e-mail while half-reading our iPads and hustling to hop on the next conference call. Taking in a few more movies, no matter how stupid they may be, might help.

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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.