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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.

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How Can We Liberate Students From Drudgery? It’s Time for a Great Rethink

Instead of self-assured answers, more value might be found in asking the right questions
By Rick Hess — May 15, 2023 3 min read
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I’m out with my new book, The Great School Rethink. I’m excited about it and hope readers will find it both engaging and useful, but it was a funny project for me.

As I note in the preface, “I didn’t want to write this book.”

The thing is that lots of experts have offered lots of recipes for reforming schools. I wasn’t eager to add to that pile, even after the dislocations of COVID-19. That was doubly so when the usual suspects started burbling grandiosely about the need for a post-pandemic “Great Reset” (full of blithe confidence that they knew just how things should be “reset”).

In case you don’t know, I’ve always been skeptical of ambitious, sweeping reform projects. I was never a big fan of No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, or the Common Core, and I didn’t want to pen a book promising the kind of pat recipes I usually lampoon.

So, why the heck did I wind up writing the book?

Well, when schools across the land closed their doors in March 2020, it was the greatest shock that American education had ever experienced. Watching schools struggle to answer the challenges of a once-in-a-century cataclysm highlighted and exacerbated longtime frailties. Overburdened teachers. Disengaged students. Impersonal education technology. A lack of transparency. A chasm between time spent in school and time spent learning. A need for more family-friendly options. Strained parent-school relationships.

None of this means that school leaders or public officials need another 11-point plan (with colorful PowerPoint slides) from on high. And it sure doesn’t mean they need some “Great Reset.” But it does mean it’s a good time to ask hard questions about how schools use time and talent, what they do with digital tools, and how they work with parents.

Ultimately, I concluded I did have something to say. After all, I’ve spent a couple decades engaging teachers, school and system leaders, policymakers, union chiefs, tech entrepreneurs, influential researchers, and deep-pocketed funders around the kinds of staffing and technological challenges that schools are wrestling with today.

I’ve taken hard looks at a slew of reforms, new programs, and models, and what it takes for them to deliver. I’ve taught and advised school and system leaders, teachers, and policymakers. It felt like it was a moment to distill some of what I’ve learned.

And, while I may not have a prescription for a “Great Reset,” I don’t think we need one. Indeed, I fear the search for the grand solution has helped fuel the spinning of wheels that has yielded—to borrow a phrase from the great education scholar Charles Payne—“so much reform, so little change.”

As I pondered the opportunities to do better, it struck me that there’s less need for a great reset than a great rethink. Instead of more self-assured answers, there might be more value in being sure we’re asking the right questions.

Now, lots of sensible education leaders, parents, and teachers are justifiably leery of talk about “rethinking.” I get it. My inbox is filled most days with press releases from corporate flacks who say things like, “We live in a digitized 2.0 Bitcoin-Netflix-Uber-DoorDash world and schools need to compete by RETHINKING to leverage cognitive connectivity and hyper-personalized nanotechnology.” I’m with anyone who gets nauseated by this stuff.

So let me clarify what I mean when I talk about “rethinking.” Today, schools are organized in ways that waste time, overburden educators, misuse technology, and alienate parents. Worse, schools too often turn the most heartfelt of acts—the mentoring of kids and sharing of knowledge—into drudgery. Rethinking is asking not just how to do things “better” but also how to liberate kids from tedium and educators from pointless tasks and paperwork. It’s asking how new tools can offer students richer experiences, how schools can more fully partner with parents, and how students can spend more time engaging with skilled teachers and stimulating mentors.

Like I said, I don’t claim to have any recipes for making this happen. That’s why I offer a “rethink” rather than a “reset.” Resets start with recipes; rethinking starts with asking the right questions. And that’s because the answers we get start with the questions we ask.

Anyway, that’s the spirit of The Great School Rethink. If that resonates, I hope you’ll check it out for yourself.

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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