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Rick Hess Straight Up

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 It Comes to Schooling, Everyone Thinks They Have the Answer

Understanding this can make a huge difference when trying to change education practices
By Rick Hess — December 11, 2023 3 min read
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Several times this fall, for various reasons, I’ve been asked about lessons I’ve learned over time. If you’re interested, I noodle on all this in Letters to a Young Education Reformer. But one lesson that you won’t find there is one that I’ve come to believe is crucial in understanding the vicissitudes of school improvement: Everyone involved in schooling thinks they’re the good guy. Appreciating this little truth can make a huge difference when you’re trying to change pretty much anything in K–12 schooling.

What do I have in mind?

Sit with a teacher, and odds are they’ll tell you how much time they put into lesson planning and instruction, how much work they do at home after their kids go to bed, and how little appreciation they get. Ask about their biggest frustration, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear about meddling assistant principals or principals who just don’t get it.

Sit with a principal, and they’ll tell you how much time they spend monitoring instruction and putting out fires, how early they arrive in the morning and how long their day extends, and how little appreciation they get. Ask about their biggest frustration, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear about the meddling clowns in the central office or a superintendent who just doesn’t get it.

Sit with a superintendent, and they’ll tell you how much time they spend addressing unfair media accounts, managing conflict, or engaging the community; how much time they spend visiting schools or evening events across the community; and how little appreciation they get. Ask about their biggest frustration, and there’s a good chance you’ll hear about the meddling school board or the state legislators who just don’t get it.

Talk to school board officials or parents . . . you get the idea.

The point: Everybody thinks they’re the hero of the story. If you don’t get that, you’ll find yourself constantly wondering why these ill-intentioned people are standing in your way. But 99 percent of the time they’re wondering why you’re in their way. Whether it’s about overhauling how schools use time, reshaping the teaching job, or leveraging educational choice, those on both sides of a decision are convinced they’re right.

Especially in schooling, where we’re talking about kids, public dollars, and community institutions, every change is going to produce questions and discomfort. It’s wise to respect that and acknowledge it. Those who dismiss parental concerns as selfish or uninformed will find themselves inflaming opposition. Those who wave away teacher concerns, simply insisting their idea is the “right” thing to do, tend to reap a whirlwind of well-deserved skepticism.

If you appreciate that everyone thinks their heart is in the right place (and that your agenda is the problem), it’s easier to anticipate missteps. Indeed, you can look back at how advocates have fought for any number of things—from No Child Left Behind to the teacher-evaluation boomlet to Common Core to social and emotional learning—and get a better sense of why so much of their messaging didn’t seem to connect with skeptical parents or teachers. It turns out that telling doubters the “research” supports you or that you’re doing it “for the kids” doesn’t help if they find the research unpersuasive or think they’re the ones standing up “for the kids.”

What’s the alternative?

Be open to the possibility that the story is more complicated than we’re prone to acknowledge, to the chance that those who disagree with you may nonetheless mean well and have a point. Instead of trying to shout them down, ask them questions and listen to the answers.

You may learn something. You may even find surprising points of agreement. And a question-driven approach has added benefits. When you approach this work with an answer, everyone else is either an ally or an opponent. They’re either for your idea or against it. The more you dig in, the more firmly those lines are drawn. And then all the talk about collaboration rings hollow.

If you start by asking what’s not working, though, it opens doors. That’s why I’m so fond of drawing on history when I write or talk about this stuff. The great thing about starting with how we got here is that it creates some emotional remove. It gives us some distance from what we’re arguing about. A given policy or practice may have been sensible in 1923. But that doesn’t mean it remains so in 2023.

Shifting the focus in this way can create room to identify frustrations and potential solutions. It’s not a secret sauce and it’s no panacea. But if you don’t get that the knucklehead across the table thinks they’re the good guy and you’re the problem, well, I’ve learned that it can help would-be reformers succeed where so many well-meaning predecessors have stumbled.

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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.

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