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The Missing Half of School Reform

On Monday, National Affairs published my new article, "The Missing Half of School Reform." In it, I argue that the contemporary school reform movement risks being undone by a failure to cultivate, encourage, and support the leaders, lawyers, state and district officials, and educators charged with turning reform from theory to practice. In recent years, a growing group of reformers has evinced an admirable interest in fundamentally reshaping education policy. After decades of fumbling attention to one pedagogical fad after another, 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.

These efforts have been undermined, however, by an all-too-casual faith in fruits of social planning and policy change. The reformist faith in prescriptive policies was famously evident in the No Child Left Behind Act. It has been equally evident in Race to the Top, 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.

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.

Reform has been marked by an uncanny confidence that noble intentions and technocratic expertise are enough to drive social change. 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. Reformers have learned from those missteps, but they have over-corrected: Where past reformers tried to change culture without changing policy, today's reformers are too often trying to change policy without changing culture. The result?  New policies and accountability systems 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 reforms into reality.

One response has been increasingly prescriptive state and federal policies, intended to finally compel obedience. Foot dragging by schools or systems is taken as demonstrating the need for new layers of mandates and bureaucracy (yielding 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 publicly 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 outsized hosannas and enthusiasm for Race to the Top). 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. The question is what might be done about it?  We'll get to that next week; on Friday, I want to talk a bit more about some specific examples of what I have in mind.

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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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