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RHSU Classic: Of K-12 Talkers and Doers

This month marks the 10th anniversary of Rick Hess Straight Up, making it a propitious time to revisit some favorites from the past decade. For each of the Top 20 which run this month, I've offered a quick reflection or thought as to why it remains a personal favorite. 

In the wake of my books Cage-Busting Leadership and The Cage-Busting Teacher, I spent a lot of time talking to educators about why they find policymakers so frustrating and what they might do about it. Meanwhile, I've spent two decades talking to policymakers about why their efforts frequently seem to disappoint, what it takes to do better, and why they should have a more modest sense of their ability to help schools improve. I penned the following, which became a key theme of Letters to a Young Education Reformer, in an attempt to sort things out and bridge some of the mutual misunderstanding that suffuses schooling. Now, on to number 11, originally published on August 7, 2015.

In life, there are doers and there are talkers. Doers are the people who teach students, care for patients, coordinate deliveries, manage businesses, drive trucks, build houses, code software, engineer products, and the rest. Talkers are people who talk about these things.

Now, as I talked about last week, there is a role for us talkers. Talkers have a role to play, so long as they keep in mind it's the doers who are actually doing things. In schooling today, however, I'm afraid that way too many well-intentioned talkers have forgotten that they don't actually do stuff. They seem to confuse talking with doing. In particular, they seem to imagine that their ability to muster moral indignation is reason enough to dismiss educators who raise reasonable concerns about problematic reforms.

This has all struck me again over the past few weeks as folks have reacted to my new book The Cage-Busting Teacher. What's particularly striking is how some talkers seem to regard attention to the stuff of doing as a show of insufficient "reform" ardor. I've heard self-proclaimed reformers dismiss any concern for teachers frustrated by idiotic accountability systems as "pandering." They've scoffed at the notion that timid, inept district management shares the blame for problematic staffing, telling me that this just "excuses the unions." They quietly insist that focusing on cage-busting teachers is "fine" but distracts from the more pressing business of "getting the policies right."

I couldn't disagree more strongly with such sentiments. As someone who's been an unapologetic school "reformer" since last century, back before it was cool, I can confidently say they reflect a vision of "reform" that I regard as misguided. To my mind, a healthier view embraces a few simple tenets governing the relationship between talkers and doers.

  1. The point of school reform is to create systems and schools where educators can better teach all students in ways that cultivate all their gifts.
  2. Because schools and classrooms are complicated, variegated places, it's hard to devise uniform rules and routines that work well. This may be possible to pull off in a school or a system, where the leadership is accountable for results and able to exert some control over practice, but it's enormously difficult beyond that.
  3. This means that most efforts to push improvement strategies from the state or national level are suspect. Not because they're ill-intentioned but because those crafting the policies are neither in a position to implement them nor ultimately accountable for the results of their handiwork.
  4. Moreover, as I've said time and again, policymakers can make people do things—but they can't make them do them well. Unfortunately, when it comes to school improvement strategies like school turnarounds and teacher evaluation, how they're done matters infinitely more than whether they're done.
  5. This means that the most valuable service talkers can perform is help to create room for the doers to do. They can do this in state capitals and in Washington by working to promote transparency for a robust array of outcomes, drop a hammer on mediocrity, and free educators from the tyranny of outdated regulations and orthodoxies.
  6. There is a cottage industry of philanthropy-fueled talkers who craft ever-more refined schemes for getting the talk about policy just right, seemingly in the hope that—if they do this well enough—the doing will take care of itself. It doesn't.
  7. There's nothing especially romantic or pro-teacher here. There is a respect for teachers as the professionals who actually do the work but also the recognition that that respect is contingent on the quality of the work they do.
  8. And the work educators do is, in no small part, a function of the systems and policies in place. This is where the work of the talkers matters and why talkers have a useful role to play.

There's a symbiosis between doers and talkers that's been lost. Especially unhelpful has been the tendency of many well-meaning talkers to confuse their impassioned social-media rants and panel tirades with actual doing. Now, don't get me wrong. I'm as reform-y as ever. I still favor vouchers, charter schooling, differentiated pay, high-stakes accountability, and so on. But I also believe that the point of these reforms is to position doers to, you know, do. That's how I thought about it when I was a doer 25 years ago, and that's how I think about it as a talker today.

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