Do school reformers spin their wheels?

DeVos-Teachers Union
To show their displeasure with Trump-era education reforms, protesters gather outside Van Wert High School, in Ohio, where Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made a visit on April 20.

As the Pennsylvania Department of Education imposes the Future Readiness Index (FRI) in place of the old School Performance Profile (SPP), which itself replaced Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP), one cannot help but recall the French saying plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose.

The more things change, the more they stay the same could describe the past three decades of school reform.

George Herbert Walker Bush’s education summit, Bill Clinton’s Goals 2000, George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind, and Barack Obama’s Race to the Top have come and gone, infusing bits of innovation and measurement, but largely leaving traditional public schools intact. At least in the short term, President Trump’s push to expand school choice also seems more evolutionary than revolutionary, notwithstanding the hysterical reactions it evokes.

Why have school reformers (like me) accomplished so little?

For two decades, education scholar Rick Hess has offered the best answers to this and related questions. Spinning Wheels, based on Hess’ Harvard doctoral thesis, explained the 1990s policy churn in which urban school districts launched an average of four major reforms annually. Typically, a new superintendent arrives, announces flashy initiatives to pad his or her resume, and then leaves for greener pastures before the reforms have time to work. Teachers and principals pay lip service to the new ways while maintaining a mediocre status quo. Soon a new superintendent comes to town, announces new initiatives, and the cycle repeats.

Later, Hess penned a wonderful historical version of spinning wheels, The Same Thing Over and Over, explaining how the sensible reforms of one era, like standardizing and bureaucratizing teacher pay, became the problems of a later era. Hess also wrote The Cage-Busting Leader and The Cage-Busting Teacher, showing innovative educators how to break through bureaucratic barriers.

Recently, Hess published Letters to a Young Education Reformer, distilling lessons from his 40 years as a student, teacher, and education analyst. No book better explains how school reformers have gone awry, and how to set reform right. Hess offers more than a dozen lessons. Here are my top six.

First, beware of experts. As screenwriter William Goldman famously said of Hollywood, “Nobody knows anything.” For all the slick talk, industry jargon, and huge salaries, no film industry executive really knows why some movies succeed and some fail. The same applies to schooling. When arrogant experts insist a particular curriculum is the one for all or a particular school leader is a genius, usually they don’t know what they’re talking about.

Second, education needs both talkers and doers. Doers are the people who actually teach and lead kids. Talkers, like Rick and I, are the ones telling doers how to do their work. We talkers are the backseat drivers of the school bus. Nobody likes backseat drivers, but often we can see patterns those at the steering wheel overlook. At the same time, we talkers need to become better listeners if we want anyone else to listen to us.

Third, reformers must avoid the temptations of bureaucracy, rejecting the “side of self-assured bureaucrats who think they can fix schools from Washington” or the state capital. This poses a particular hazard for reformers who themselves become bureaucrats, and then come to believe they know more than those in schools.

Fourth, eschew court-imposed school reform. Courts can make schools do something, but they cannot make them do it well. In the real world, judges know little about public schools. Like bureaucrats, they often get it wrong and have little legitimacy even when they get it right. Court-imposed reform leads to million-dollar lawyers’ fees, and small change in schools.

Fifth, debate rather than avoid opponents — a view all too rare on today’s college campuses. Talking with rather than freezing out adversaries deflates our arrogance and sharpens our arguments. And sometimes our critics are right. In systems afflicted with constant initiatives, resisting reforms may reflect the best interests of kids.

Finally, reformers should support school choice in a realistic way, not as an education silver bullet but as a license to create alternatives for kids, often highly motivated kids, who fail to thrive in traditional public schools. Those are the kids traditional educators too often fail to see, kids like Rick Hess, and me.

Robert Maranto (rmaranto@uark.edu) is the 21st Century Chair in Leadership in the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. He serves on the boards of Achievement House Cyber Charter School, in Pennsylvania, and Fayetteville Public Schools in Arkansas.