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Life Is an Implementation Problem

Hidy, all, I'm back. Thanks to our guest bloggers for such a stellar turn. I'm sorry that you're stuck back with me but, as Vonnegut so elegantly put it, "So it goes."

I've been struck of late by how would-be reformers have been reacting when things go awry. After all, even some of those bullish on Race to the Top have privately conceded that maybe it didn't turn out quite like they'd hoped. Champions of teacher evaluation are busy explaining, "Well, that's not what we meant!" when hit with complaints, lawsuits, and concerns about the reliability and validity of some ill-conceived systems. Common Core advocates are busy explaining that the goofy homework questions and worksheets don't accurately reflect their handiwork.

In each case, we're assured, the underlying ideas are sound--it's just a matter of confusion or inevitable "implementation problems." Now, it's true that change is always hard. (And I'm sympathetic to most of the reforms we're talking about.) But the fact that implementation problems are inevitable doesn't mean they're okay. More importantly, the severity of these problems is not a given: it varies depending on how complex and technocratic the measure is, whether it's being pushed from Washington, on the breadth and depth of political support, on whether the plan is fully baked, and on the incentives for effective execution. I've seen precious little evidence that advocates have done much to minimize the problems.

Those championing teacher evaluation, School Improvement Grants, or Common Core frequently sound as if they think no one could have anticipated or planned for the challenges that have emerged. To my ear, the disgruntlement tends to sound like that of a kid who leaves his new bike out unlocked, and then gets furious when it's stolen. Of course, it's unfair. But, you know what? He really should've known better. Advocates tend to blame their frustrations on other folks (bike thieves, Tea Party members, textbook publishers, principals, data analysts, et al.) getting in the way or screwing up. They rarely, if ever, acknowledge that their vision of how this would go down was perhaps colored by rose-tinted glasses or that their miscalculations may have aggravated the problems.

Now, I don't want to make it sound like I'm picking on today's reformers. The same criticisms have been appropriately leveled at plenty of earlier efforts, including site-based management, block scheduling, equity lawsuits, busing, de-tracking, and much else. When pursued at scale, these efforts received well-deserved critiques for both frequently disappointing and for sometimes leaving lasting problems in their wake.  

It's true that there are always bumps in the road. But our discussion of "implementation" is often marked by a peculiar, willful naivete. It's evident among those who rush into education for a few years, eager to make a difference before rushing off to exciting new roles--leaving others to make this stuff work. It's even more striking among those who are serial champions of these reforms and who, rather than be humbled by earlier disappointments, have raced from touting NCLB to Race to the Top to the Common Core and now on to pre-K, without missing a step. 

Of course, there are implementation problems. What matters in education is what actually happens in 100,000 schools educating 50 million kids. That's all implementation, and that means it matters a lot that some reforms are much more likely to suffer bumps, distortions, and problems than are others. The more complex they are, the further away they are from schools and families, the more dependent on intensive retraining--the more likely big ideas will suffer from "implementation problems." Yet, I rarely find would-be reformers very interested in any of this, or what it portends. I find them much more intent on driving change from wherever they happen to be, using whatever levers they happen to control.

Reformers would do well to spend less time insisting "we've got this," or that things will be okay if we embrace "good policy" or "smart implementation," and more asking how to craft measures that are less susceptible to implementation problems. They'd do even better to ask whether some well-meaning ideas are best not pursued, at least in certain ways or at certain times, because the problems are likely to be so severe.

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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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