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'Reform Fatigue' and the Virtue of Going Small

Note: This week's guest-blogger is Mike McShane, director of education policy at the Show-Me Institute in Missouri.

"Reform fatigue"—if there are two words that strike fear into the heart of education advocates across the country, it's those. In my conversations on the ground, I can't tell you how many times I've heard some iteration of, "Sure, our schools are not doing as well as they could, but I'm burned out from supporting the last three things folks have wanted to do that didn't work out."

The past two decades have been an intense time of education reform. From the NCLB-driven school accountability movement to the Obama-era Common Core and teacher evaluation pushes, policymakers across the country have advocated for and enacted sweeping changes to what schools teach, how they teach it, and how the state will judge if they are doing it well.

Many of these reforms have not done so hot. The Common Core...well, I don't know if we need to spill much more ink on that. As I have written for years now, I think it is a classic problem of reach exceeding grasp and a rush to involve way too many states in an effort that might have been successful if allowed to grow organically, state-by-state, over the course of a decade or more. Aside from the widespread resistance to Common Core and many other reform efforts, numerous programs have simply failed to have the impact proponents had hoped for. For example, new teacher evaluation systems do not appear to have been meaningful improvements over the Widget Effect-era systems that preceded them.

On the flipside, the reform that has slowly but surely chugged along is school choice. Every year, more and more students enroll in charter schools. Every year, more and more states pass private school choice programs. There are setbacks, of course, but they don't stall the march forward.

Indiana is a great case study in this. In 2011, a raft of education reforms were passed through the legislature and were signed into law by Governor Mitch Daniels. These included, but were not limited to, reforms to how teachers were evaluated and the creation of a school voucher program. Where do they stand today? In the 2013-14 school year, the supposedly strengthened system still rated over 99.5% of teachers as effective. What's more, including test results in teacher evaluations while pulling out of the Common Core has been a mess, with the state scrapping its ISTEP test entirely and starting over from scratch for the 2017-18 school year.

While other reforms are stuck in the mire, Indiana's school voucher program is moving forward. After being enacted in 2011, the program had 3,911 students enroll in the program. In 2013, the number nearly tripled to 9,139. It more than doubled in 2014 to 19,809. It added another 10,000 students in 2015 to come to 29,148 and has continued to grow to 32,686 students today. In fact, the major issue that the program is running into now is that it is running out of schools for kids to go to! Oh, were that a problem with other education reforms.

Now, I understand the common objectionthere are over 1 million children enrolled in Indiana public schools, so this is a tiny fraction of those students. That's a fair complaint, but I'd offer three responses. First, given polling data, it is not clear to me that every family in Indiana wants to send their child to a private school. If ultimately only 41 percent of parents want a private school option, 32,000 students is closing in on 10% of the demand in five years. Second, I can imagine that there is a varying degree of urgency among families. Some, who are currently stuck in the worst schools, need to get out now. Others might want to make the switch eventually but are OK for the time being with their schools. A slower, organic rate of growth doesn't bother those parents so much. Third, there does need to be some time for the supply side of school choice to catch up. Schools don't just crop up overnight, and with some help, more new great schools can open to serve kids.

School choice skeptics worry about choice creating winners and losers. Some might go to good schools, they object, but others will go to terrible schools. Sure, some small number of children might lose. But in a comprehensive reform push, it's possible that everyone will. If a voucher school opens and is terrible, the number of children harmed by it is small. Minor course corrections can be made in the journey. If an entire state undertakes an initiative (like changing the way teachers are evaluated or what tests will be used to hold schools accountable), every child has the risk of being harmed as there is nowhere to run. Minor course corrections are next to impossible. Everything is a big deal. And not to pile on, but the constant churn (as Rick termed it in Spinning Wheels almost 15 years ago) erodes the trust of parents and policymakers. Indiana lawmakers went so far as to scuttle their whole testing regime, they were so frustrated. It's hard to get more burned out than that.

Advocating for a slow and steady growth of schools of choice is not nearly as satisfying as advocating for huge sweeping changes that might turn the whole school system around. But, slow, decentralized, and steady is the vision that I think has the best chance, over the long term, of creating schools and systems that meet student needs at scale. Many of the broad, sweeping endeavors haven't lived up to the hype, and children have paid the price. The slower, decentralized approach has the added benefit in the short term of protecting students from the educational fad du jour, which might mean more than many of us appreciate. 

--Mike McShane

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