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School & District Management Opinion

Two Schools of ‘School Reform:' The Conservative and the Progressive

By Rick Hess — September 02, 2014 4 min read
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Hidy, all. I’m back. My thanks to August’s stellar guest bloggers. Meanwhile, I’ve been working to finish The Cage-Busting Teacher and doing my best to reflect a little. One of the things I’ve been reflecting on is that a number of people have been asking me (sometimes in a puzzled tone, sometimes in an annoyed one), “Rick, you’re a reformer. How can you think X?” I think a lot of the confusion is due to the way “reform” gets defined. As readers know, the education debate today is generally framed as “reformers” v. “anti-reformers.” That divide contains much truth, but it is crude and can be misleading. In particular, what I want to talk about today is how the term “reform” has been hung over two very different schools of thought: one progressive and one conservative.

Progressives have historically been wedded to a technocratic vision of “progress” and a belief that the right policies and programs can cure society’s ills. Progressives have hailed school reform as the key to erasing the effects of poverty and ensuring social justice. They speak in terms of newly discovered rights (e.g., “education is the new civil right,” “every child has the right to an ‘effective’ teacher”). And they adopt an ethos of “by any means necessary,” remaining untroubled if their ambitions require dramatically expanding the federal role or the role of the courts. The progressive caucus dominates the ranks of school reformers. (If you’re thinking, “Hold on, I can think of Republicans like this,” well, that just shows you’re paying attention. There’s no rule that bars Republicans from having progressive tendencies.)

A conservative perspective is less convinced that the right education policies will fix the world and more attuned to the limits of social engineering and the risks of unanticipated consequences. It holds that schools can help provide students with knowledge, skills, and better lives--but doubts that schooling alone can “erase achievement gaps” or immanentize the eschaton. It is nervous about the energetic proclamation of ambitious new rights. And it rejects the “by any means necessary” ethos, knowing that federal and judicial involvement has done more to promote compliance, paperwork, and bureaucracy than to improve schools. (For those interested in a deeper explication, check out my essays “Our Achievement Gap Mania” and, with Andrew Kelly, “A Federal Education Agenda,” or my chapter in the recent compendium Room to Grow.)

I think it goes without saying, I’m in the conservative reform school. Now, this wing of “reform” doesn’t get a lot of attention. To be fair, there are not that many of us. I usually estimate that 90% or more of those in the world of “school reform” are Democrats and self-proclaimed progressives. Indeed, the desire of conservatives to find allies and raise funds in a left-leaning community has made it all too easy for them to wind up sounding a lot like progressives and abandoning simple principles to which they usually hold fast.

Up until the past few years, it was pretty hard to tell the two strands of reform apart. After all, the two schools agree on a lot. Both have long supported charter schooling, alternative teacher licensure, differentiated pay, overhauling tenure, Teach For America, and much else. There have always been some differences--conservatives are more supportive of expansive school choice and vouchers, for instance, while progressives tend to want school choice to be heavily regulated--but these were modest in the larger scheme of things.

The differences that have emerged more recently are much starker. These are not so much over the points of traditional agreement, which remain intact, but on how those are pursued and to what ends. For instance, I believe it makes sense for teacher evaluation to incorporate student performance and I think tenure needs to be overhauled. Progressive reformers take those intuitions and call for federal action, Vergara-style lawsuits, and intricate statewide evaluation systems. They see the perils of local educators failing to act or getting things wrong. I look at the same scenario and find myself far more concerned about federal inconstancy and bureaucracy, the aftermath of lawsuits, and the problem with legislators shaping one-size-fits-all systems to accommodate an array of districts and schools with distinctive needs.

Conservatives respect the limits of government. They’re skeptical of those in a hurry to use public policy to save the world. These habits of mind are good and necessary in education, especially in an era where progressives have increasingly shed any signs of restraint. In schooling, reform conservatism also has the virtue of providing room for finding common cause with parents and educators who believe schools can do better but who are appropriately wary of grand schemes like the Common Core, Race to the Top, or asking the courts to rewrite personnel policy.

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