Risk of Pyrrhic Victories

This post also appears at Rick Hess Straight Up.

Proponents of accountability, charter schooling, merit pay, value-added metrics, and the “reform” agenda are cheered by the strides they’ve made in recent years. Given President Obama’s support, the fuss raised by Waiting for Superman, the emergence of Democrats for Education Reform, and so on, would-be reformers have seemingly captured the high ground in the edu-debate–even winning the approval of zeitgeist queen Oprah Winfrey.

Yet, in a just-published Education Next forum piece entitled “Pyrrhic Victories?,” Harvard’s Marty West, Fordham’s Mike Petrilli, and I ask whether these victories might not ultimately yield bitter fruit. Marty, Mike, and I are ardent champions of accountability, charter schooling, merit pay, and the rest–but we are also well aware how easily groupthink, hubris, and wishful thinking can submarine good ideas.

For starters, though support for the reform agenda may be a mile wide, it appears little more than an inch deep–and to rest as much on pleasing sentiments and newfound conventional wisdom as on informed conviction. The 2010 Education Next poll reported that charter school supporters outnumber opponents by a 44-to-19 margin, but the vast majority of respondents don’t really know what charter schools are. Fewer than one in five respondents knew that charter schools cannot charge tuition, hold religious services, or selectively admit students. Charters sport a popular brand, but their popularity rests on a shaky foundation.

And while virtually all Americans embrace accountability in the abstract, most remain reluctant to impose tough sanctions on schools or individuals for poor performance. The 2010 PDK/Gallup poll reported that, when asked whether they preferred to keep a low-performing school open with the existing staff while providing comprehensive support, to reopen it with a new principal or as a charter school, or to shutter it, 54 percent opted to leave the school open. The 2010 Education Next survey found just 45 percent of the public thought teachers who have “been performing poorly for several years” should be removed.

All that said, reformers have won some major battles over the past decade. The center of gravity in public debates has moved in important ways. But these successes have come with two big caveats. First, reformers’ “support” resides with a mostly uninformed, unengaged public–one that isn’t especially sold on their ideas and that, in any event, is often outmatched by well-organized, well-funded, and motivated special interests. And second, and more unfortunately, many reformers are eagerly overreaching the evidence and touting simplistic, slipshod proposals that are likely to end in spectacular failures. In short, some forces of reform are busy marching into the sea and turning notable victories into Pyrrhic ones. To quote that wizened observer of politics and policy, Pogo: We’ve met the enemy, and he is us.

Advocates drive good ideas to extremes when they oversell their promise and undermine their integrity. Unfortunately, this pattern is all too common.

Consider performance pay. Just recently a three-year randomized evaluation of a Tennessee merit-pay experiment funded by the federal government’s Teacher Incentive Fund found that bonuses tied to test scores didn’t lead to higher performance in middle-school math. “Study Casts Cold Water on Bonus Pay,” read Education Week‘s headline, and the news was widely interpreted as a setback for attempts to link teacher compensation to classroom performance. Yet the most compelling rationale for merit pay is not any short-term bump in test scores, but rather its potential for making the profession more attractive to talented candidates, more amenable to specialization, more rewarding for accomplished professionals, and a better fit for the 21st-century labor market. Whether or not bonuses linked to test scores had any effect on measured achievement in the short run says absolutely nothing on this score. Despite those sensible cautions, the lust for simple answers and for research that “proves” those answers has led many would-be reformers to adopt and defend half-baked versions of pay reform.

At a more fundamental level, like the architects of the Great Society nearly half a century ago, too many school reformers have an unfortunate habit of deriding apathy or opposition from middle-class families. They have blithely ignored lessons learned when the Great Society’s social engineers sought to sustain ambitious social programs on the backs of guilt-ridden white suburbanites. They dismiss concerns that their reforms do nothing for suburban schools or may adversely affect them. Until we enable suburban legislators to regard a vote for reform as a political winner, and not merely a vote they’re allowed as a display of political guilt, the underpinnings of reform will remain thin.

Instead of more cheerleading, what’s desperately needed is more humility. Our current education system is the product of multiple generations of previous reforms, also promoted by well-meaning activists and educators. Building on the best of what remains of their architecture–and sweeping the rest out of the way–will take time and patience. But that’s what’s called for. We’re not urging delay or half-measures, but merely a willingness to see ourselves as problem-solvers, solution-finders, and tool-builders rather than warriors going to battle with intransigent educators. Let us proudly declare: we don’t yet know what works, but we’re committed to figuring it out, the best we can, along the way.

If interested, you can read the whole piece, as well as Paul Peterson, Checker Finn, and Marci Kanstoroom’s provocative response, right here.

-Frederick Hess

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