Stone Soup and School Reform

Yesterday, I had the opportunity to spend some time talking about takeaways from Letters to a Young Education Reformer at the annual convening of the Harvard Ed School’s Strategic Data Fellows. It’s a remarkable network of people trying to help schools, systems, and states get smarter about using data and research wisely—and to steer educators away from PowerPoint malpractice and the temptations of shoddy science. Much of what I had to say concerned the importance of respecting the limitations of expertise, research, and policy, and making that a cornerstone of our work. Taken seriously, this helps us appreciate the value of humility, good judgment, and hard-earned experience.

Anyway, I discussed last evening that the urgency and optimism borne of well-meaning passion frequently tempts reformers to wave away complexity. Noting that this has been a problem for generations of reformers, I related that I’ve always found the old parable about “stone soup” instructive. I recount the story in Letters but, given that many folks have said they’ve found it useful, I figured it’s worth sharing.

After the Revolutionary War, three soldiers were making their way home through the New England winter. Cold and hungry, they came upon a village. They knocked on doors, asking for carrots, onions, rabbit—anything that villagers could spare—only to get turned away. Finally, the soldiers knocked on a door and asked only for a cooking pot. The villager said, “Sure.” The soldiers filled the pot with water from a nearby stream, built a fire in the middle of the village, and set the pot on to boil.

When a couple of villagers stopped by to see what was up, one of the soldiers tossed a large stone into the pot. When a villager asked about the stone, the soldier explained, “We’re making stone soup. When it’s ready, you can have some. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.” He paused. “The only thing,” he said, “is that it’s even better with a little carrot.” The villager promptly said, “I’ve got some carrots. I’ll go grab a couple.” After those got tossed in, the soldier mused, “This is going to be sensational, but stone soup is better still with a little onion.” Another villager popped home and brought back a few onions. By the end, the pot was filled with good stuff, the soldiers gorged themselves, and the villagers all agreed that stone soup was the best soup they’d ever had.

The tale should feel familiar to anyone who has seen promising school reforms dazzle and then disappoint. Pilot programs invariably benefit from enthusiastic leadership, foundation support, intense hand-holding from experts, waivers from contracts and district regulations, teachers and families excited about the program, and more. Not surprisingly, things tend to work pretty well. Seeing the results, eager imitators try to scale the innovation to new sites that don’t have any of that. The result? The reform disappoints and onlookers lament the implementation problems. Frequently, the “reform” amounts to the stone in the soup. When other schools or systems try it, the other ingredients usually get left out and would-be imitators wind up sipping hot pebble-water.

In the throes of passion, it’s all too easy to overlook these pitfalls. This can happen even when we’re equipped with great data and research. Heck, sometimes it’s easier to fall into when we are, because all that “science” can cloud our judgment. But, as I mentioned last evening, figuring out “what works” means not only having to figure out what worked in one place—but then understanding why it worked and what’s required to deliver those same results somewhere else. And that’s less a question of passion, winning, or being “for the kids” than it is of deliberation and wisdom.

— 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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