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Telling Stories About Education Reform

For reasons totally unrelated to education policy, I've been thinking about the power of story and narrative to shape our thinking and how we live. But it's true that narrative also plays a powerful role in contemporary education policy debates. Indeed, these debates are often much less about the pros and cons of specific policies than they are about the narratives we use and clashes between competing narratives.

A certain education reform agenda, one with which I tend to identify and sympathize, has had considerable success in re-forming education policies in the past five years in large part because of its ability to craft and effectively wield a powerful narrative--pitting David-like reformers against Goliath-like special interests, all for the interests of low-income children trapped in a system that treats them like Dickensian waifs . Waiting for Superman and its peers in the recent slate of edu-reform documentaries reflect both this narrative itself and the recognition that narratives are critically important to shaping the overall progress of education reform.

More recently, a counter-narrative has emerged to combat this narrative. As my friend Kevin Carey has noted, the attacks on "corporate reform" and "corporate reformers" don't actually make much sense in rational or policy terms. But they're not supposed to--they're not policy argument but narrative, and a narrative that links the concerns of critics of the competing reform narrative into a host of other very powerful narratives about what's going on more broadly in this country and the world right now.

Narratives are really powerful tools in policy debates--often more powerful than logic or data (although the best and strongest narratives are those that have compelling data to support them). But the problem with argument by narrative is that it's easy to get swept up in the narrative and disconnected from the realities of policy pros and cons, implementation challenges, and the limits of what policy and public actors can and cannot do. Narratives are powerful tools for making change, but narratives themselves can't change much of anything. As any one who compares their dating life with the typical romantic comedy knows, the real world is full of messy complexities that don't fit neatly into a clear or compelling narrative. And policy debates that ignore those realities are unlikely to produce the best results in the harsh light of the real world.

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