The missing half of school reform

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  • What is the missing half of #edreform? See @AEIeducation National Affairs piece.

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  • .@RickHess99 offers insight into #edreform and the local leadership needed for its success.

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  • Washington brought new light to the #edreform debate, but not necessarily successful changes.

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In recent years, a growing group of reformers has evinced an admirable interest in fundamentally reshaping education policy. After decades of fumbling efforts to promote 21st-century skills, site-based management, smaller high schools, "professional development," and other pedagogical fads, reformers have shown impressive discipline in overhauling musty tenure laws, expanding school choice, holding educators accountable for performance, and insisting upon forceful interventions in low-performing schools.

The coalition pursuing these reforms has been remarkably bipartisan. On the left, leading proponents have included Democrats for Education Reform, the Center for American Progress, and the Obama administration's Department of Education. On the right, they have included Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, George W. Bush's Department of Education, and a passel of bold governors. This loose coalition has been supported by a broad array of like-minded foundations and advocacy groups.

Progress has been undermined, however, by the reform coalition's casual faith in the kind of social planning typically associated with the progressive left. The reformist faith in prescriptive policies was famously evident in the Bush administration's signature No Child Left Behind Act, but it has been equally evident in the Obama administration's Race to the Top program and even in efforts by state-level reformers to impose complex teacher-evaluation formulas and school-improvement strategies.

These efforts have paid short shrift to the simple and frustrating fact that, while public policy can make people do things, it cannot make people do those things well. This is especially salient in education for two reasons. First, state and federal policymakers do not run schools; they merely write laws and regulations telling school districts what principals and teachers ought to do. And second, schooling is a complex, highly personal endeavor, which means that what happens at the individual level — the level of the teacher and the student — is the most crucial factor in separating failure from success. In education, there is often a vast distance between policy and practice.

But reformers have greeted with a surprising lack of interest the seemingly self-evident fact that the fruits of policy innovation depend as much on how policies are carried out as on whether they're carried out. Advocates, foundation officials, and education-policy experts show less interest in implementing the reforms they have enacted than in tackling the next big project — whether that is promoting Common Core standards or championing President Obama's push for a massive expansion of pre-K schooling.

Moreover, while the education-reform coalition is bipartisan, staff members at the vast majority of foundations, advocacy groups, and associations lean heavily to the left. The practical result is that reform is marked by an uncanny confidence that noble intentions and technocratic expertise are enough to drive social change. Too often, even conservative advocates of school choice or teacher-tenure reform exhibit an exaggerated faith in the ability of high-level policy change to deliver hoped-for outcomes on the ground.

Reformers have also been inclined to leave implementation to others for more mundane (and understandable) reasons. Putting new policies into practice and changing what teachers and school leaders actually do involve tackling a massive education-industrial complex of training and professional-development programs. Policymakers are confronted by 14,000 school districts, 1,300 teacher-preparation programs, 1,100 educational-leadership programs, a web of professional associations, and a community of professional developers — many of whom view reformers with skepticism, if not outright hostility. Earlier reform efforts failed when their champions got mired in changing "professional practice" while ignoring policy. This failure fueled an over-correction: While in the past reformers tried to change culture without changing policy, now they are trying to change policy without changing culture. The resulting policies and systems of accountability are frequently overmatched by the incentives embedded in professional and political culture and the fact that most school leaders, school-district officials, and state-level personnel are neither inclined nor equipped to turn ambitious policy reforms into reality. Naturally enough, they assume such action means that big things are happening (thus, for instance, the enthusiasm for the Obama administration's Race to the Top program). But, on the ground, the story is rather different.

In response, the progressively minded seek increasingly prescriptive state and federal policies, hoping thereby to finally compel obedience. The lethargy and foot dragging they see in so many schools and systems is taken as evidence that they need to wield the whip hand ever more firmly. The result is new layers of mandates and bureaucracy, and more grudging, half-hearted compliance.

This problem has largely escaped the attention of observers and critics. It is quietly acknowledged by serious reformers, but rarely discussed. When the focus was on changing school culture, it was clear to anyone paying attention that nothing much was happening. Now, in the modern reform era, observers of education policy can see new laws and programs. Naturally enough, they assume such action means that big things are happening (thus, for instance, the enthusiasm for the Obama administration's Race to the Top program). But, on the ground, the story is rather different.

Of course, there is nothing new, or unique to education, about social reformers being more than a little blasé about what happens after their legislation gets enacted. It is an inclination common to many ambitious policy projects, and has been the undoing of many a grand progressive experiment. Normally, conservatives see this as cause for regarding progressive designs with great skepticism. In K-12 schooling, however, the bipartisan nature of the exercise means the neglect of practical concerns has itself been thoroughly bipartisan too. Consequently, the challenges of implementation have not come in for nearly enough scrutiny. Only by first seeing this problem and then taking practical steps to see new policies put into effect can the champions of American education reform have a real shot at realizing their grand goals.

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Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Cage-Busting Leadership.

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