Heroism and Humility in Education Reform

The Achilles’ heel of the West, I read not long ago, is that many people struggle to find spiritual meaning in our secular, affluent society. How can we compete with the messianic messages streaming from the Islamic State and other purveyors of dystopian religious fundamentalism?

It made me reflect on my own life. How do I find meaning? Largely from my role as a father, a role I cherish and for which I feel deep gratitude. But ever since I lost faith in the Roman Catholic Church of my upbringing—not long after I nearly succumbed to cancer at age eighteen—much of my life’s meaning has come from my view of myself as an education reformer.

I suspect that I am not alone. We are drawn as humans to heroic quests, and those of us in education reform like to believe that we are engaged in one. We’re not just trying to improve the institution known as the American school; we see ourselves as literally saving lives, rescuing the American Dream, writing the next chapter of the civil rights movement.

When people speak of Arne Duncan with tears in their eyes—explaining earnestly that he has always put kids first—it is because he epitomizes the virtuous self-image of the education reform movement. He has been our Sir Galahad. Now that he’s stepping down, he will always be revered by some as St. Arne.

This near-religious fervor gives the reform movement much of its energy and its moral standing, so it should not be dismissed lightly. To the degree that it helps us continue to strive—for better schools and better policies and better outcomes for kids— it is worthy of celebration.

But there’s a dark side too. Like most religious legends, this one only works well as a struggle between good and evil. So if reformers are on the side of the angels, at least in our own minds, who gets cast as the devil? The unions, which protect incompetent, abusive, or racist teachers? Miserly legislators, who refuse to appropriate the necessary dollars to lift all children up? Well-off parents, who hoard educational opportunities for their own progeny?

Not surprisingly, these groups don’t enjoy being vilified. Nor, in most cases, do they deserve it. They are engaged in their own struggles, see themselves fighting for their own sacred causes, and are busy looking for meaning in their own imperfect lives. They might not totally disagree with reformers about the changes needed in K–12 education, but when we turn them into Judas or Mephistopheles, opportunities for common ground evaporate.

But that’s not all. What if our education challenges aren’t mostly political or moral in nature, but fundamentally technocratic instead? What if our education system is chockablock with people who also want to do right by kids, who also want to close opportunity gaps and rekindle upward mobility, but are working within badly designed systems or with far-from-perfect information? “We know what works, we just need the political will to do it”: That’s the foundational creed of today’s reform movement. But what if the truth is closer to “We are just beginning to learn what works to help poor kids escape poverty, but we still don’t know how to do it at scale”? It doesn’t make for an inspirational slogan, but it might be a better guide to where policy and practice need to go. To his credit, Bill Gates embraced such a humble approach in his big speech a few weeks ago.

In other words, what if the reform movement needs more “science” and less “religion”? More openness to trial and error and a greater commitment to using evidence to guide our decisions?

Consider one example. We know that many students continue to struggle to read by the end of the third grade, and some show ever-weaker comprehension as they move through elementary school and beyond. Cognitive science indicates that the cause is a lack of content knowledge being taught in the early grades. So why aren’t schools beefing up their instruction in social studies and science, or inserting such content into their daily reading blocks? There’s no devil here as far as I can tell–nobody is against getting more science and social studies into schools. But how can we figure out what’s keeping schools from performing better, and then try to find ways to fix it?

Humility is required

It’s been a great joy to be part of the education reform movement for the past twenty years. It has allowed me to form bonds and friendships with many amazing, committed, and super-smart colleagues. I understand why so many young people today—fresh from service in Teach For America or still plugging away in “no excuses” charter schools—want to sign up and join the cause. On the whole, this is a wholesome and worthy path.

But if this is really to be about “the kids” and not just our own search for meaning, we need to be careful not to lapse into morality plays. We need to be particularly mindful not to malign our opponents. And we need to be humble enough to acknowledge the technical challenges in what we’re trying to achieve.

We should also remember that millions of American educators are finding meaning in their lives in a different way—through direct service to children. This is at least as praiseworthy as taking up a great political cause or policy quest, and almost certainly more so. (It certainly appears to be more in line with Pope Francis’s calls for us to take care of the less fortunate around us.)

It’s always been a good idea for us to check our egos at the door. Let’s check our halos there, too.

– Michael J. Petrilli

This first appeared on Flypaper and appeared in a slightly different form at the Hechinger Report.

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