Plain Talk and School Reform

Yesterday, the American Educator published a new essay where I look back over some of what I’ve learned in the course of three decades in and around school reform. In the piece, I touch upon some of the takeaways from my recent book, Letters to a Young Education Reformer, and what they mean for teachers. I’m often struck, after all, by just how massive the divide between educators and education reformers has become. I think both sides bear some of the blame for this, and that both can do much more to bridge it.

But doing so recognizes that we’ve created a world where it’s hard to have the discussions that can help bridge that divide. Accomplished educators tell me they’re frequently afraid to utter simple truths: that dramatic increases in test scores or graduation rates can indicate fraud as well as excellence. That efforts to “reform” school discipline by reducing punishment can make schools less safe. That too many parents aren’t doing their part to ensure that their children succeed in school. That evaluation and training can amount to little more than a mindless distraction. And that many policies governing accountability, school improvement, and teacher evaluation are often goofily designed and ultimately destructive.

They say they’re hesitant to say these things because, when they do, they’re lambasted as apologists, excuse-makers, or part of the problem. And for the life of me, I can’t understand why.

After all, these are statements that contain much truth. And I’d like to think we’d encourage educators and parents to speak up, because it’s only by hashing this out that we can distill the wheat from the whining.

As I put it in the American Educator piece:

Reformers and practitioners will inevitably see things differently. But what frustrated teachers can miss is that this is OK, even healthy. Educators are looking from the inside out, and reformers from the outside in. In all walks of life, there are doers and there are talkers. Doers are the people who teach students, attend to patients, and fix plumbing. Talkers are free to survey the sweep of what’s being done and explore ways to do it better.

Ultimately, serious and sustainable school reform needs to be profoundly pro-doer. When talkers wax eloquent about students trapped in dysfunctional systems, they often forget that many teachers feel equally stymied. The bureaucracy that reformers decry can also infuriate and demoralize the teachers who live with it every day. Educators see when policies misfire and where existing practices come up short. Talkers have the time to examine the big picture, learn from lots of locales, and forge relationships with policymakers. Talkers have the distance to raise hard truths that can be tough for educators to address simply because they strike so close to home. But it’s ultimately the doers—the educators—who have to do the work, which means talkers need to pay close attention to what educators have to say. There’s a crucial symbiosis here: teachers and talkers need each other.

Look, I’ll offer a confession: I’m not an especially nice guy. When I suggest that talkers and doers need to listen to those who see things differently, that policymakers are well-served by humility, or that reform needs to work for teachers as well as students, it’s not because I want everyone to get along. It’s because education improvement is hard work. Doing it well is at least as much about discipline and precision as it is about passion. What I’m counseling is not niceness but professionalism. This means listening more deliberately and speaking more selectively. It’s tough to listen, though, when we’re constantly shouting at one another.

It may not fit the tenor of the times. But I’ve learned, if we’re to do better going forward, that we all need to respect the limits of policy, ask more of parents, and appreciate the symbiosis of talkers and doers—while also always remembering that in schooling, it’s the doing that counts.

The problem is that we have a world of education reform so fueled by passion—and a vision of how things should be—that there can be little patience for frustrating questions and inconvenient concerns. I think, for instance, of the former Bush administration official who used to answer critiques of No Child Left Behind’s famous 100% proficiency decree by asking, “So, whose child are you ready to leave behind?”

One of the big lessons I’ve learned over the years is that schooling is always more complicated and contextual than we might like it to be. Test scores matter, but not nearly as much as we’ve tended to suggest. Educators can and should do better, but they can only do so much. Policy matters, but good execution matters much more.

All of this can too easily get lost in our heated policy debates—especially when all parties need to issue a steady stream of policy proposals, declarations, and definitive studies in order to generate media attention and justify foundation support. When I think back over my years in education reform, one constant is frustration that so many lofty, well-meaning proposals have disappointed in practice. It may not be a sexy insight, but I’ve increasingly come to think that this is because we’ve discouraged practitioners from talking plainly about practical challenges—and made it hard for them to be heard when they do.

— 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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