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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

When Good Intentions Make Us Stupid

By Rick Hess — November 16, 2011 3 min read
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While I was gone, there were any number of classic examples of well-intentioned folks promoting bad ideas under the guise of “reform.”

In Tennessee, it turns out that the teacher evaluation system promised in the state’s Race to the Top proposal isn’t ready for prime time. Fifty percent of teacher evaluations are supposed to be based on evidence of student outcomes, but such measures are in short supply. No matter, the plan is just to plug in for teachers the growth scores for their school. Because the cutting-edge way to gauge a first-grade teacher’s performance is apparently by measuring his school’s grade 3-5 ELA and math gains--even though that teacher may not have even been teaching first-grade at that school when those students were first-graders.

Last week, the Senate HELP Committee held its giant “roundtable” hearing on ESEA, prior to moving Harkin-Enzi to the floor. Most of the testimony concerned wish lists of things it’d be neat for the feds to do, if they had money or the tools or the wherewithal. None of that stopped the perfectly pleasant and well-intentioned Wade Henderson, president and CEO of The Leadership Conference, speaking for a laundry list of civil rights groups, business groups, and “reform” outfits, from insisting that Uncle Sam not “retreat” from NCLB’s commitment to identifying and fixing lousy schools. The fact that a decade of experience has shown that the feds aren’t very good at this doesn’t faze Mr. Henderson or his allies in the least.

StudentsFirst leaked a strategy memo tallying their Election Day wins. The memo garnered attention for its rosy take on the defeat of a Michigan legislator that StudentsFirst had backed. What struck me though was the Brill-esque shorthand, with the memo’s big takeaway being that, “A pro-education reform message resonates strongly with voters and moves voter sentiment significantly in favor of pro-reform candidates.” Truthfully, I don’t know what that means. Is it “pro-reform” to push ahead with teacher accountability systems whether or not they’re ready for prime time? Are “reformers” wedded to a litany of federal activities, whether or not they’re likely to play out as intended, like trying to direct teacher evaluation systems and school improvement strategies from the Department of Education? As best I can tell, the answer is “yes,” though I’m not sure why. As I’ve argued before, when it comes to questions like teacher evaluation and school turnarounds, how you do it matters at least as much as whether you do it--and that gets lost real easily amidst “reformist” talking points.

I like what the “reformers” are trying to do. I’ve been fighting for school choice, muscular accountability systems, alternative licensure, paying good educators more than lousy ones, and all kinds of other crazy notions since before many of today’s reformers got interested in K-12. (And I’ve got oodles of teacher-generated hate mail to show for it.) But these measures are not solutions or silver bullets. They are tools. How one uses them ultimately matters a lot more than whether one uses them.

By turning school reform into a moral crusade, in which one either is, to quote our last President, “with us or against us,” would-be reformers wind up planting their flag atop all kinds of half-baked or ill-conceived proposals. They also make it ridiculously hard for even their allies to help, because they are quick to dismiss criticism as evidence of disloyalty. Would-be reformers insist that overshooting the mark with half-baked proposals is actually a strategy, because that’s how they’ll cow the unions and change the culture of schooling. Indeed, they think concerns about program design are quaint evidence of naivete.

I’ll just say this: If reformers think it’s a winning strategy to push awkwardly constructed, ill-designed programs that are going to create entirely foreseeable problems, then I’d encourage them to check out the history of NCLB, in which well-intentioned advocates have managed to alienate sympathetic voters and tarnish sensible ideas. The problem is that the impassioned good intentions of today’s reformers brook no delay and countenance no nuance. That may be a not-bad strategy for building an effective non-profit or for-profit firm, but it’s a flawed strategy for overhauling policies governing the sprawling, complex ecosystem that is American education.

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