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Hard Lessons in Education Reform: The 1,000 Flowers Question

In Letters to a Young Education Reformer, I distinguish between "big R" and "little r" school reform. My point is that reformers can get so enamored with enacting grand, proper-noun "solutions" that they shortchange the stuff that actually delivers for real kids in real classrooms. I say this not to encourage some kind of anarchistic rejection of policy change, but to highlight that reformers' admirable passion and urgency can work at cross-purposes with their hopes and aspirations. In Letters, I offer some insights and advice that may help reformers better navigate those shoals.

This all comes to mind because yesterday, at AEI, we hosted conversations exploring "Hard Lessons in School Reform." The discussion featured a raft of savvy voices, including KIPP co-founder Mike Feinberg, Center for Education Reform chief Jeanne Allen, the iconic Howard Fuller, former New Schools for New Orleans CEO Neerav Kingsland, Newark supe Chris Cerf, Education Post founder Peter Cunningham, New Mexico state chief Hanna Skandera, and many others. You can watch the event video here. One fascinating exchange was about how to strike the right balance between promoting coherent teaching and learning, on the one hand, and inadvertently creating smothering bureaucracies along the way, on the other.

Chris Cerf argued for the critical role of big system changes around things like accountability, standards, and teacher evaluation. "Micromanagement generally doesn't work," he cautioned, "and you can't change anything with a Powerpoint. You have to defer to those on the ground." But, he emphasized, "Big ideas have inherent value," warning reformers against shrinking from those endeavors. And big ideas sometimes involve useful prescription. He pointed out that high-performing charter schools have adopted more prescriptive curricular models and pedagogies over time, and that "looking for a thousand flowers to bloom has a long and storied history of failure in American schooling."

Jeanne Allen pushed back, noting that the search for "big ideas" has led school reformers to pivot too quickly from one idea to the next. She argued, "Reformers say, 'That's the new thing! We should do it.' But someone has to write a law, someone has to regulate it, the ideas wind up in the hands of people who weren't part of the original conversations," and the whole endeavor goes south. She said, "In college, we're taught not to say, 'I think.' But I wish we'd say, 'I think,' more often, because we often speak as if we know things that we don't actually know. I don't think the evidence suggests that letting 1,000 flowers bloom fails. You may think that, but saying 'I know' suggests you know something that you don't actually know."

Mike Feinberg weighed in with some pithy wisdom from the classic film Spinal Tap, observing, "There's a fine line between clever and stupid." At KIPP, he noted, "For our first 180 schools or so, we let them bloom. Some were beautiful, some were duds. But now we're at 200 existing schools, and it's no longer a blank canvas for the school leader. It's not paint-by-numbers, either; it's not like any dummy can do it. But we give leaders a framework and a set of tools, without suggesting that we've got it all figured out." Feinberg said KIPP still wants leaders who feel empowered to figure new things out, but "we don't need everyone to reinvent the wheel when it comes to school number 201."

However, Feinberg admitted that he wrestles with making sure that KIPP get this balance right—that they stay on the right side of that fine line between being clever and stupid. He said, "We spend a lot of time thinking about what if the next version of [co-founder] Dave [Levin] and me were two teachers in our schools." Feinberg recalled the tale of his early efforts back when he was a teacher—how, after encountering waves of bureaucratic resistance, he ultimately resorted to sitting on Houston superintendent Rod Paige's car for five hours just to get permission to launch KIPP. He said, "I hope to God that we haven't created a structure where the young guns who have a great idea feel like they need to get out from under the man. We make it a point to keep asking ourselves, 'Have we become the man?'"

It's a good question with no simple answer. But I think the way Chris, Jeanne, and Mike reflected on it illustrates how we can sort through the real challenges of school improvement. It's not by getting lost in abstract debates, but rather by grappling with the need for a healthy balance between dynamism and coherence, between reinventing the wheel and devising better answers.

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