Uncommon Sense for Education Reformers

Commitment and Common Sense: Leading Education Reform in Massachusetts
by David P. Driscoll
Harvard Education Press, 2017, $30.00; 256 pages.

As reviewed by Jay P. Greene

David P. Driscoll’s new book Commitment and Common Sense offers a lot of what current education policy discussions lack—wisdom. Driscoll’s book is a memoir, recounting his journey from being the youngest of ten children in a Depression-era family to becoming the 22nd Commissioner of Education for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

Along the way, he describes his early forays into education, first teaching Sunday school while earning his math degree at Boston College. He then stumbles into being a math teacher in Somerville, Massachusetts, before taking a similar job in his hometown of Melrose. He eventually turns his energy toward school administration, first in Melrose and later as the leader of the Massachusetts Department of Education. In this latter capacity, he presided over what some have called “The Massachusetts Miracle,” a series of reforms involving teacher preparation, standards, and testing that are associated with the commonwealth’s rise to the top of performance on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP).

If readers are looking for a detailed description of those reforms or an argument about why they, and not other factors, are responsible for success in Massachusetts, they won’t find much in this memoir. The book is less an evidence-driven case for a particular approach to education reform than a personal account of life in schools, leadership, and politics. That personal account is so compelling that this book is a joy to read.

I particularly enjoyed the first few chapters, in which Driscoll describes his experiences teaching Confraternity of Christian Doctrine at the local Catholic Church and then math in Somerville schools. In both cases, he faced groups of unmotivated students who had been jaded by previous, weak instruction. Driscoll’s description of the techniques he used to engage students, as well as his candid admission of errors, is both amusing and informative. Driscoll describes an early stumble of trying to engage students by being their buddy: “Of course, I thought this gave me the opportunity to be their friend, and I learned the first maxim of teaching—Do Not Smile Until Christmas—the hard way.”

In fact, Driscoll ends each chapter of the book with a pithy summary of “Reflections and Lessons Learned” that readers might take from his experiences. This is the “Common Sense” part of the book and like many commonsense sayings, they might seem obvious, advising things like “Students need advocates,” or “Stay in your lanes.” But the truth is that common sense is not so common. By illustrating these general lessons with specific experiences, Driscoll provides practical and concrete wisdom to future education reformers.

This wisdom is particularly helpful when it comes to Driscoll’s political experiences later in the book. Driscoll was faced with a variety of challenges in advancing his reform agenda, from obstinate teachers unions to mercurial head of the Commonwealth’s School Board, John Silber. Part of Driscoll’s political genius was in somehow balancing these competing forces and gradually getting folks with diverse views and interests to buy in—if not entirely, then at least enough not to block the entire effort. Driscoll is not from the Michelle Rhee school of education politics where you attempt to demonize and ride roughshod over your opponents. He adopts more of the old-school approach of building relationships and trust.

Many reformers hate politics because they see it as responsible for current problems. So they are drawn to solutions that are imposed outside of normal political processes, such as state or mayoral takeovers, rule by “expert” panels, appeals to the authority of “science,” or cries of what “justice” demands. These attempts to depoliticize what is inevitably a political issue are unlikely to succeed and even less likely to endure. Driscoll describes how he managed to succeed and produce enduring reforms by working within normal political systems. The most controversial reform implemented under Driscoll’s watch was requiring that students perform at a certain level on the state’s 10th grade test in order to graduate. Because Driscoll was a former superintendent who had carefully cultivated relationships with other superintendents and Democratic Party leaders, he could temper their opposition to this requirement being advanced by a Republican governor and a reform-dominated state board led by Jim Peyser. Without the trust that Driscoll had built over the years, superintendents and Democratic legislators could have scuttled the entire effort. Driscoll’s personal relationships were also key to weathering the difficult early phase of this reform, when a fair number of students failed. As pass rates began to improve rapidly, trust in Driscoll was rewarded, and everyone could join in taking pride in the improvements. Given the years it takes to build these relationships, reformers might not achieve the instant and dramatic change they crave with Driscoll’s approach, but they would do well to learn from his example if they want to produce any change at all.

Driscoll’s folksy storytelling and commonsense lessons are not the types of things that most reformers wish to rely upon. They prefer “evidence” from “science.” The reality is that much of what people engaged in education-policy debates use to justify their positions is not evidence derived from rigorous science. Strong causal evidence is actually relatively rare in education policy, so we are mostly stringing together bits of anecdotes and non-causal evidence to tell stories that justify our preferred positions. These stories are really no different from the kind Driscoll tells, but the fashion nowadays is to put on our lab coats and speak with the authority of science, even when there is little actual science to back our claims.

At least with Driscoll there is no pretense. He believes that raising standards and measuring progress with tests is at the heart of improving the quality of education. I’m not inclined to agree, given the difficulty of knowing what constitutes higher standards, the political challenge associated with adopting and maintaining standards, and the limitations of testing when it comes to measuring real, as opposed to manipulated or overly narrow, progress. But it is refreshing that Driscoll does not falsely invoke science to justify his emphasis on standards and testing. He just begins with this reform theory and then provides a playbook of how one might make that theory a reality.

If you are similarly interested in standards and testing without falsely claiming that science proves the correctness of this approach, you would benefit from reading Driscoll’s memoir. Even if you do not favor this approach and are just looking for an engaging and illuminating account of the life of an educator and reformer, you would also benefit. I did.

Jay P. Greene is distinguished professor of education policy at the University of Arkansas, where he is chair of the Department of Education Reform.

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