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3 Dangers of Too Much Education Reform Urgency

The world of education reform is in the midst of several heated debates. How should we authorize charter schools? Has the push for restorative discipline lead to chaos in classrooms? What should the federal role in education be?

One thread runs through all these discussions, the balance between urgency and prudence.

Urgency certainly has its value. It was no less a statesman than Martin Luther King Jr., who when speaking on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial coined the phrase “the fierce urgency of now.” When your rights are being violated, or your kid is getting a crappy education, you want a fix right now. Children only get one shot at an education, and it’s cheap and insensitive to tell them that they have to wait for something better to come along.

But prudence is an underrated virtue. Education is an uncertain process. We have not found the one best way to educate children. Different children appear to thrive in different environments. Some need more discipline, some need less. Some are ready for Algebra in the eighth grade, some need to wait until the ninth.

We also don’t agree on the aims of our education system. We broadly talk about job preparedness, citizenship, socialization and the like, but the comity falls asunder as soon as we make any concrete decisions about what that might look like. Just think about all the conflict the Common Core dredged up and it was just math and language arts standards.

For these reasons, haste can be a vice. In our good-hearted desire to do right by kids, we can steamroll voices who are offering legitimate criticism. Course correcting can be viewed as capitulation. Pausing, even for a moment, can be viewed as defeat.

Part of this is driven by the type of people who get involved in education reform. If you scroll through the “About Us” pages of education reform organizations, you see a mélange of bright-eyed, smiling faces looking back at you. They tend to be younger than the average American and if they have the chance to write a few words about why they do what they do, they earnestly describe the teacher who changed their life or the moral outrage they have about the current condition of the nation’s education system.

This, in and of itself, is not a bad thing. Any social movement benefits from youthful energy. Moral righteousness helps weather the storms of politics. But, we do have to be honest about the risks of putting our thumbs on the scale of urgency. Briefly, I’ll outline three:

Not learning from failures. Urgency can breed a heads-down-damn-the-torpedoes ethos amongst people who really should be open to the idea that they are getting things wrong. Education is an uncertain process. Teachers know this. You plan a lesson a certain way, it tanks, hard, and you regroup and try something different. The same is true at the school, district, state and federal levels. By the time policy trickles its way down from legislators to educators, things get lost. A prudent observer accepts this as part and parcel of our patchwork system of educational governance and realizes that modifications will need to be made.

Maybe the rubric used to measure teacher performance doesn’t work in every classroom, maybe the state’s standards are misaligned to what the state’s universities want, maybe within the same state some districts are struggling to recruit good teachers while others are trying to get rid of bad ones. In all cases, advocates will need to be honest that what they pushed for initially isn’t working, and they need to change. (I recently wrote about Hanna Skandera, a former secretary of education of New Mexico, who made multiple changes to the teacher evaluation program that was the cornerstone of New Mexico’s reform effort in response to feedback from teachers and data from the field.)

Distrusting democracy. Perhaps the most pernicious part of an urgency focus is the distrust of democracy. We cannot allow elected officials to make decisions about how much money should be spent on schools, we must use courts. We cannot allow states to devise their own accountability systems for schools, the federal government must mandate what form they take. We cannot allow parents to decide what school is best for their child, a central official must ensure that it is “high quality.”

You can’t end-run democracy. Ultimately, if you want a policy to have real, durable, support you have to do the hard work of convincing people that you are right. You might be able to win in the short-term by moving jurisdictions from state houses to state boards and polling places to court rooms, but the next administration or the next justice appointed to the court can simply unwind everything you’ve done.

Overvaluing expertise. Those promoting urgency often like to shut down debate by arguing “well the research says x” or “experts agree that x is a good idea.” No one wants to get crossways of experts, particularly in a field like education. But expertise needs context. Research never really says that something is a good idea or a bad idea. Research tells us the pros and cons. Here is how a new reading program affected test scores, here is how much that program costs. We then have to take that information and ask was the result worth the cost? How does that intervention stack up to other interventions that a school, district, or state could undertake? Were there other, unintended consequences? There are rarely quick or easy answers to those questions.

I’m particularly interested in exploring this topic because it is a central theme of Jay Greene and my new volume “Failure Up Close.” The book features the work of nine brilliant education scholars talking about missteps in education policy and what we can learn from them. It is a healthy dose of prudence in a world of urgency and we hope that it can spark useful conversations about how to improve education policy moving forward.

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