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Of School Reform 1.0 versus 2.0

My school reform friends get frustrated with me because they think I'm a naysayer. Why? They note that I've long been a critic of anachronistic salary schedules, tenure laws, school districts, licensure regimes, and the rest. They wonder how I can think that and then criticize so many attempts to impose new evaluation systems, licensure arrangements, pay models, and turnaround strategies. The fact that they're befuddled is a measure of just how easy it is for us to talk past each other when it comes to school improvement.

They're right that I'm eager to disassemble big pieces of yesterday's "one best system." But I've never understood why that means we ought to rush to impose a new "one best system." Given that schooling is the most human of endeavors, and that successful educational ventures therefore depend hugely on commitment and fidelity of execution, I'm inclined to give educators, entrepreneurs, parents, and problem-solvers a whole lot of elbow room to devise, refine, and grow their solutions.

For instance, insisting that states or districts use this observational protocol or that reading and math weighting when it comes to teacher evaluation is not only a subjective call that deserves a lot of scrutiny at best, but also wind up hindering the emergence of smart school and staffing models that don't happen to conform. (Example: blended or differentiated staffing models in which teachers don't own 28 students for a year turn out to be hugely incompatible with the kinds of teacher evaluation we've seen adopted in Florida or New York.) In Teacher Quality 2.0, Mike McShane and I argued that these kinds of 1.0 reforms have a place but that we need to take great care that they don't squelch version 2.0. I think we have fallen far short on that front.

I get why my friends are frustrated with my stance. It's the same issue that cropped up last week when I wrote about Duncan's tenure at the Department of Education. Many reformers believe that the status quo is unacceptable and that there's no time to allow for a messy cacophony of stops and starts. I get that. It's not an unreasonable view. But, for reasons I spell out at length in The Same Thing Over and Over, I think it misdiagnoses the problem and leaves us stuck with schools, systems, and structures that generally aren't equipped to fulfill our ambitions.

Anyway, this simple disagreement about how prescriptive we should be and how focused we ought to be on imposing the "right solutions"— versus how willing we should be to dismantle the old regime and let educators, entrepreneurs, and communities feel their way forward—¬†represents a giant fault line in the reform community. How can we incrementally improve an anachronistic system while providing lots of room for reinvention? This question gets far too little attention, mostly because it seems esoteric to so many who advocate for school reform, but also because it's easier to just insist that there is no tension here, because¬†1.0 reforms don't inhibit the emergence of 2.0. It's an assertion that's demonstrably false, but I've heard it time and again.

On this whole question, it's worth checking out Ted Kolderie's thoughtful new book The Split Screen Strategy. As Ted and I have long agreed, it's a mistake to view today's 1.0 reforms as the goal, aim, or objective (which can happen too easily, especially when the world's op-ed columnists start cheering this or that measure). It's far more useful to see them as a way to allow education's doers to reimagine schooling in ways that best answer the needs of today's students.

Ted puts it well. He argues that successful systems, like those in communications, transportation, energy, and information technology are "never perfect [but] do raise quality and reduce cost; are responsive to their users; adjust and modernize as situations change as the needs of our society change. It is clear what makes these systems successful. They are, and are designed to be, open for the entry of even radically different ways of doing things. . . . Public education has not been open in anything like that way. And it needs to be. The fixation on comprehensive action is holding the country back from making the progress it could be making [italics in original]."

This slender volume is a provocative read and an easy one, and well worth checking out.

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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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