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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

“What the Hell, Dude?” Team Players and Edu-Reform

By Rick Hess — June 08, 2010 3 min read
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I’ve now had the experience several times in the past few months of having one or another friend of long standing ask me something along the lines of, “What the hell?”

The “what” in question is me being critical of or asking questions about proposals and programs that “reformers” are supposed to support. If you’ve been reading this blog, you’re aware that I’ve expressed concerns about Race to the Top, i3, Florida Senate Bill 6, overly enthusiastic claims for the power of value-added teacher evaluation, and so on. Now, don’t get me wrong. As I’ve said in this space multiple times, I think these ideas are good ones and I support them in principle--even when I’ve grave concerns about program design and implementation.

But, for many of my friends, it seems that such measured support is insufficient. To paraphrase W., “You’re either with us, or you’re against us.” If you’re on the team then you pipe down, express any doubts quietly and through back channels, and sing from the group hymnal. And you certainly don’t harp on messy details like Race to the Top applications, reviewer processes, overly cozy relationships between the U.S. Department of Education and major foundations, or the fact that some value-added proposals are getting way ahead of themselves.

I don’t buy it. As someone who was on the Department of Education’s “naughty” list for much of the Bush era, and who has a, shall we say, complicated relationship with the current administration, I don’t think the nation is well-served when analysts, researchers, and critics are either attack dogs or cheerleaders.

I understand why legislators have to hold their nose and make a call, and why public officials have to do the best they can in the heat of the moment. But I can’t for the life of me figure out why someone would think it useful for analysts to spend time jumping on the bandwagon and cranking up the wind machine. It seems a lot more useful to have us asking hard questions, pointing out blind spots and challenges, and basically serving as constructive critics. Heck, this is what the self-proclaimed “reformers” have cheered me for when my target has been AERA, teacher preparation, or urban school systems.

It strikes me that advocates and public officials, of all bents, benefit from public debate and careful scrutiny. And better to have it done by informed, principled observers who are willing to stipulate good intentions than by those inclined to the ad hominem or the conspiratorial.

There are several reasons to care about this. First, while I’m lucky enough to enjoy a professional situation where I’ve been able to prosper even when I’ve strayed, many others are not so fortunately situated. The tendency to look askance at members of the “reform community” who ask impolitic questions or depart from the hymnal can have a chilling effect on important debates and our ability to learn from experience. It promises to especially stifle fresh thinking among younger reformers and analysts.

Second, notions of “teamness” can easily morph into self-righteousness and even close-mindedness. We need to take care that sensible ideas, like the need to rethink teacher pay or school governance, don’t harden into dogmas. More pressing still is that reformers not imagine that because they think they love “the children” more than their opponents that they can and should proceed at ramming speed or dismiss concerns as little more than obstructionist ploys.

Finally, self-styled reformers should remember the value of having friends asking hard questions. When I was writing consistently about Race to the Top a couple months back, for instance, I kept flashing back to the state compliance plans under NCLB and the early experiences with Reading First. I thought both NCLB and Reading First had much to commend, but that problematic program design and clumsy implementation helped sink much that was valuable. In retrospect, I wish those sympathetic with these efforts had spent more time back in 2002 and 2003 zeroing in on the troubling features of state compliance plans for NCLB or the goofy architecture of Reading First’s approval process. I wonder if more than a tiny handful of insular insiders had been grappling with the significance of the early returns, whether the stories might have played out differently. We’ll never know for certain, but I’d expect a reform community committed to fresh thinking and transformative change would be eager to find out.

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