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Creating Greenfield, Inside or Out

In an interesting column over at the Huffington Post, blogger John Thompson offers some thoughts regarding my book Education Unbound. He has much to say, not all of which I found compelling, but one thread of his discussion struck home. Thompson observes, "Rick Hess...makes a fair point when explaining why a charter school would not want to be burdened by regulations that had developed over 353 years of bureaucratic politics...I can understand why educational entrepreneurs would seek to liberate themselves by destroying 'the status quo.' The problem is that... [it's] not the students or the educators in neighborhood schools trapped in our nation's abandoned brownfields that are to blame for bureaucratic paralysis. We also are victims of education's 'culture of compliance,' and fearful central offices, divorced from the realities of urban schools, and obsessed with making their systems' numbers look good."

He nails this. That's exactly the point: we've created an educational culture in which dynamic, passionate educators are hobbled by decades of accumulated, often anachronistic, rules, practices, and policies. A key reason I was moved to write Education Unbound was precisely because I'm frustrated with the bizarre places where we've located the battlements in the school reform wars.

On one side are those arguing the wonders of charter schooling, insisting that only such reform will foster reinvention. These would-be reformers frequently wind up dismissing wide swaths of teachers as ineffective or uncaring, without making much effort to ask whether they work in systems that reward, encourage, and support great teaching. The jeremiads can start to feel a lot like blaming the victim of ludicrous, enervating district policies. Meanwhile, the "with-friends-like-these" defenders of traditional districts unleash conspiratorial, invective-laced attacks on proponents of charter schooling, performance-based accountability, and merit pay--while insisting that what district educators need is the freedom to create great schools and classrooms.

As I've said before, I think both sides in the education debate tend to misunderstand the nature and promise of reforms like charter schooling and merit pay. Such measures are not a "fix." Rather, they are an opportunity to allow educators to solve problems. This is true inside and outside of districts. There's no secret sauce in charter schooling or alternative licensure, only the opportunity to focus on problem-solving without first scaling the bureaucracy. Addressing those barriers, inside or outside of systems, creates an opportunity to do teaching and learning better and smarter, with fewer impediments.

That said, the vast majority of charter schools are exactly as unthoughtful about the use of tools, talent, time, and technology as are most district schools. They borrow the local district's pay scale while staffing classrooms and grouping kids like any local district school. Meanwhile, districts and state systems have been responsible for some terrifically interesting efforts to rethink outmoded assumptions, exploring how to better tackle today's challenges and exploit new opportunities. I'm thinking of initiatives like NYC's School of One; the Boston Teacher Residency; Florida Virtual; and Evansville, Indiana, bringing in Rosetta Stone to help better instruct 17,000 students in languages as diverse as Mandarin and Arabic.

As I argue in The Same Thing Over and Over, there is a huge opportunity for common ground here. I'm not talking about banal, mushy compromise, but recognizing that structural opportunities are not themselves solutions. Instead, they provide the chance to scrape away the obstacles that smother or trip up creative solutions so smart problem-solvers find it easier to make a bigger difference faster--and more rewarding to do so.

Want to know one big secret that characterizes the best charter schools? They focus on serving those students and families who value what they offer. And another? They only hire teachers who want to teach in their schools and who seem a good fit, while rejecting candidates who don't. And a third? If they want to extend the school day or school year, they find it far easier to do so--both because faculty and families have chosen to be in that school, and because the contractual and policy barriers are much lower.

Note that none of these traits necessarily fix anything, but they do make it easier to solve problems. And while these same characteristics can be imitated in district schools, it's much more difficult to do so, and district turbulence makes it harder to sustain. Now, armed with these advantages, most charters have shown remarkably little interest in trying to rethink the role of school or teacher in light of new opportunities. This is in large part because the constant need to demonstrate achievement gains, forestall critics, and pursue philanthropy has created a huge incentive for these "innovators" to play it safe. There's also a pervasive culture of risk-aversion in schooling, whether inside or outside of districts.

Inside of school districts, there's too often a tendency to dismiss the import of the structural advantages conferred by efforts to tear away old impediments and create greenfield. There's a premium on curricular refinement and instructional coaching, but too little attention to the ways in which these are compromised and often overwhelmed by changes in leadership, rigid rules, and skeptical faculty. It's not that this stuff is unimportant, but that it's like building a sandcastle at water's edge unless you also create the structural room.

And that's where things like performance-based accountability come in. The fact is that policymakers are reluctant to give too much leeway to public employees or those spending public dollars--hence, the tangles of red tape that we know and love. As charters can testify, perhaps the only way to negotiate for more autonomy is by agreeing to be measured against outcomes that policymakers and voters can understand.

I'm all for giving district schools vastly more autonomy. The flip side, though, is that such flexibility will necessarily entail meaningful forms of individual and school-level accountability. What that needs to look like is an open question, but it's got to be much more quantifiable and transparent than "trust us."

In the end, as Thompson suggests, the possibilities here are immense, and alluring. If more school systems made it easier and more rewarding for educators and leaders to pioneer smart solutions to stubborn problems and encouraged them to grow those solutions as rapidly as they can, it would do much to help make the culture of schooling more dynamic and invigorating. That'd be true inside and outside of school systems. I'd like to think we could all get behind that.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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