The Great Education Pendulum Swing of 2018

It’s a funny thing about pendulums. Once they switch direction, they go for a good while. And it looks like we’re in the midst of an implacable post-testing, post-accountability swing. Ideas that five years ago were hurting for oxygen are suddenly all the rage. Social and emotional learning and personalization are feeling the love, while the darlings of 2013—I’m looking at you, teacher evaluation—have been consigned to a box in the basement. Given the grisly denouement of a bunch of formerly beloved reforms, it’s easy to understand why those focused on the next wave might be tempted to turn the page and not look back. Yet, in doing so, they risk repeating some of the avoidable missteps that helped undo potentially promising reforms.

For instance, I recently spent a day in an intimate convening for a new effort focused on finding ways to rethink the use of time in schools. This is a terrific, commonsense, remarkably untapped opportunity. Yet the enterprise kept getting framed around an explicitly romantic notion of choose-your-own-adventure-style “student-centered” pedagogy. Now, don’t get me wrong: “student-centered” pedagogy is fine by me—it can work really well for some schools and for some kids, when it’s done skillfully. But it also has an unfortunate history of yielding chaos and dysfunction when done goofily. My concern was why a broad-based effort like this would bother taking sides in this divisive, age-old debate. And then, at day’s end, it turned out that the current plan was only to do this work in high-poverty schools. That was a head-scratcher, as the folks in charge said this was supposed to be universal, and that they didn’t intend for efforts to rethink time to be stigmatized or stamped only as a “gap-closing” reform.

When it comes to social and emotional learning, the Aspen Institute recently issued a heavily promoted “consensus” statement. The push for SEL is something that I, like just about every parent or teacher I know, endorse in principle. But Aspen’s document opened with five points of banal agreement (e.g., “Social, emotional, and academic development is for all students”), and then launched head-first into endorsing hotly contested notions like “restorative justice” and “culturally relevant” pedagogy. Now, reasonable people can (and do) disagree on the merits of these. Wrapping these ideologically charged reforms into an expert national “consensus,” though, forces those who have concerns about these strategies to look askance at the SEL agenda—when it might instead make clear that there’s room in the SEL coalition for those with diverse views on school discipline and instructional practice.

In personalized learning, the explosion of the gig economy, the siren song of AI, and the gleam of intriguing technology, have got lots of nice people fired up. Enthusiastic advocates, entrepreneurs, philanthropists, and governors are excited to birth a new era of learning. To help make this possible, they insist it’s time for states to stop letting concerns about student privacy get in the way when it comes to promoting personalized learning. Now, they know that some parent groups and right-wing bloggers have concerns, but when brainstorming on all this, the champions have trouble seeing this pushback as anything other than the maddening complaints of conspiracy-minded, parochial luddites.

This should all feel familiar from our long years with NCLB, teacher evaluation, the Common Core, and much else. Eager to seize on their “moment,” reformers tend to make the same mistakes time and again (if you want the long version of all this, check out Letters to a Young Education Reformer).

For example, reformers keep getting sucked into cultural clashes over pedagogy or philosophy even when their principles would seem to call for a more ecumenical stance. Why does this happen? Well, education is overstuffed with advocates, consultants, and ed-school experts eager to graft their own agendas onto popular new reforms. These folks have intense, sincerely held views, and many have been waiting for the opportunity to push their ideas forward. It’s only natural for them to rush forward to offer their assistance; but the result is that their beliefs color those larger efforts, frequently in ways that are unnecessary and unintentionally divisive.

Reformers have developed a 21st-century knack for reflexively focusing single-mindedly on high-poverty schools. This can unhelpfully narrow the reach of reform and the support for it, especially when there’s nothing uniquely “anti-poverty-ish” about the school-improvement strategy. After all, when large swaths of the nation decide that school improvement isn’t about their schools or their kids, it sabotages the opportunity to build a sustainable, broad-based coalition.

Would-be change agents tend to huddle with the rich and powerful who can “make things happen.” After all, there are coalitions to form, funds to raise, legislators to woo, conferences to attend, and only so many hours in a day. But this phenomenon fosters bubbles where reformers wind up tone-deaf to how parents and educators perceive what’s being offered. And all this high-level activity can signal to families that self-assured, far-off elites are doing this stuff to them—rather than with them.

While there’s a frustrating inevitability about schooling’s pendulum swings, it’s not inevitable that aspiring reformers will repeat yesterday’s miscues. As they look ahead, here’s hoping they make copious use of the rearview mirror.

— Frederick Hess

Frederick Hess is director of education policy studies at AEI and an executive editor at Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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