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Opening Thoughts From a Little 'r' Reformer

Note: This week, Eric Kalenze, author and Director of Education Solutions at the Search Institute, will be guest-blogging. 

Hello, reader! It's a great pleasure to be subbing for Rick here at RHSU, as I've been a dogged follower since the seventh paragraph of its inaugural post. The paragraph read...

I know it's not a popular view, but I've long thought our greatest problem is not a failure to care enough; it's the reverse. It's our inclination to allow good intentions (or proclamations of good intentions—I'm looking at you, NEA) to excuse lazy thinking, willful naiveté, and a refusal to make tough choices. We allow the mantra of "best practices," vapid assertions of our love for kids, and the search for consensus to stand in for honest debate or critical analysis.

...and I felt like I'd been waiting forever for it.

It summed so much of what I'd experienced (and been frustrated by) in my education career, and it did so in a 'skip the sentimental BS, we've been kidding ourselves' way I'd only rarely seen from education's leading thinkers—much less those appearing every few days through a mainstream outlet like Education Week. As I was at the time pulling together notes for what became my book (2014's Education is Upside-Down: Reframing Reform to Focus on the Right Problems, which challenges many education practice and reform truths long held as self-evident), I could hardly believe my luck. And in the years since that first impression, the 'Straight Up' space has become for me a vital source of information, insight, and inspiration.

All that said, I'll be right up front: Thrilled as I am to be writing here, I feel like a bit of an interloper.

I'm not, after all, a widely recognized voice on education policy and reform like Rick or his impressively credentialed guest writers. I'm just a licensed teacher and independent scholar who uses his research background and field experience to help schools with their practical decision-making and action-planning. (Yes, directly—I'm in schools every week working with educators, not speaking on the conference circuit or writing reports or whatever.)

Additionally, and making me even more self-conscious: while I consider the structural reform issues most often discussed at 'Straight Up'—school choice, teacher/school accountability methods/mandates, labor policy/strategy, etc.—important to know about and all, I mostly see them as missing the education enterprise's trees for its forest. As they don't properly account for or understand what's actually wrong with instructional practices, they will only continue to produce what such reforms have for going on two decades: financial, temporal, morale, and opportunity costs that far outweigh their promised benefits.

Worse, several structural-reform actions have actually set instructional improvement further back, begetting and, at times, requiring practices even more deeply flawed than those they sought to correct. See, for example, how building students' content knowledge, the most crucial element of reading comprehension, tends to get squeezed out in the testing/accountability era in efforts to emphasize reading-comprehension skills; how teacher-evaluation rubrics require that practitioners differentiate instruction to students' learning styles (see this Google search for illustrative rubrics from several US districts) despite the learning styles concept's lack of validity; how sweeping and comprehensive measures to reduce suspensions are creating unsafe and unproductive school environments (see Max Eden's RHSU guest post a few months ago for a potent overview); and so on, and so on.

Take the above stances together and I am, as Rick himself has put it, very much a 'little "r" reformer'.

More specifically, I am a practical/instructional reformer: I accept that our instructional philosophies and methods need considerable improvement, and I believe that various accountabilities (better versions of those currently in operation, of course) are necessary to steer such improvements. I just don't believe that doing so from the heights of policy—especially when those building the policies are so uninformed about or uninterested in the true natures of instructional issues—will ever net us much.

It's an argument I break out more fully in Education is Upside-Down and, based on the meager returns coming back, and back, and back from our sundry structural-reform investments (and believe me, the illustrative links here could very easily keep going), one I stand more confidently behind as time goes on.

Despite feeling a bit out of place as a 'little "r" reformer' in what's most often 'big "R" Reform' thought-forum, I'm very happy to be pitching in to the conversation. I've long believed, after all, that we'll all need each other in turning this ship (much as some out there love drawing battle lines and assigning folks to camps).

Over the course of my guest stint, then, I'll expand accordingly a bit on research and evidence's role in productively transforming classroom practices. I'll suggest some promising and practitioner-empowering models for doing so (like researchED, the UK's DIY professional improvement movement I serve as North American 'ambassador' for), some areas for skeptically guarded hope (ESSA's new requirements and guidance about turnaround initiatives' evidence bases), and so on. I do hope you'll consider engaging.

—Eric Kalenze

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