"Letters to a Young Education Reformer" and Deescalating Our School Reform Wars

Despite being a liberal who opposes the contemporary school reform movement, I loved Frederick Hess’ Letters to a Young Education Reformer. Many of my friends get uneasy when I keep reaching out to accountability-driven, competition-driven reformers, but I bet many of his allies get far more upset with Hess’ criticism of their overreach. He is a “little-r reformer,” as opposed to a “Big-R reformer.” Little-r reformers believe that schools can do a far better job, and must be reimagined. They are less confident than Big-R Reformers that they know all the answers. Hess seeks a “big-tent” approach to education, and a small d-democratic vision for public education.

Hess explains how Big-R Reform “has congealed into a set of prescriptions, it has grown more bureaucratic and self-assured, and further and further removed from the intuitions of little-r reform.” Similarly, Big-P Philanthropy has enabled the hubris of Big-R Reform, and furthered the move towards micromanaging of diverse schools across the nation. When Big-R Reform, Big-P Philanthropy, and an activist federal Department of Education join together in an effort to social engineer public education, dissent can be quashed.

Hess and I enjoy debating with each other. That is why I’d like to follow my review in a conservative blog of his great book with this personal contribution to the school improvement discussion. It helps explain why Big-R Reformers believed that they had to roll the dice and quickly impose dramatic, “transformative,” policies on low-performing schools. If we could commit to the give and take that Hess is seeking, maybe reformers would listen to how and why their sincere but rushed mandates did so much unintended damage to our the poorest children or color.

Rick Hess’ first experiences seeking a teaching position were nearly as frustrating as mine, but with one exception. At least Hess was called “Sugar” by someone in the East Baton Rouge schools.

Five minutes after that expression of humanity, Hess had a job offer. He complains, however, that his job search had been interrupted by delays due to contract provisions and administrative routines and, even after being hired, he would soon be reassigned and re-reassigned.

If it’s any consolation to the conservative reformer Hess, my entry into teaching could have prompted the same type of indignation which produced the technocratic Big-R Reform crusade. Working as an oilfield roughneck and in numerous other blue collar jobs, as well as a legislative lobbyist, I’d learned to defuse conflicts with a joke. That skill served me well in communicating with members of the “Hoova” set of the “Crips” street gang who had taken over my neighborhood. (Communicating with Big-R Reformers has been a far tougher task.)

I was a trained as an environmental educator and I’d written a nationally respected historical monograph, but my chief qualifications for teaching social studies were years of experience in the inner city and, like Hess, an ability to read people. My first job in the classroom was to read body language and navigate around the conflicts.

My application had been ignored simply because it was different, and anything that deviated from the norm was a threat to the school system’s culture of compliance. Being rebuffed during one of many trips to the personnel office, I saw that the assistant principal of the troubled middle school (that was a block away from my home) was visiting with a top administrator. He and I had confronted dangerous gang bangers and comforted suffering children, so I insinuated myself into the discussion. We shook hands, swapped stories, and inventoried the skills that are needed in the inner city classroom. The central office administrator was livid about the intrusion, but she realized it would be easier to get me out of her office by granting me a job interview.

Part of the reason why Hess seemed to have been more upset by his hiring hoops was linked to what he learned when writing his doctoral dissertation. He had studied 57 urban districts that had implemented an average 11 significant reforms over three years. That was one new program every three months! The research taught him, “generation after generation of reform predated me. Each wave peaked, crashed, tossed up detritus, and then gave way to the rest.” Once again, I could top Hess. One year, our school had a half dozen major “silver bullets” foisted on it.

Unfortunately, Big-R Reformers were oblivious to this history of these “quick fixes,” and why their top-down prescriptions would be seen as just the latest fad to be out-lasted. Instead of listening, they sought to intimidate fearful administrations into courageousness.

Being a 39-year-old rookie, I accepted my principal’s advice, “pick your battles.” I even tried to obey administrators’ instructions the first time they gave them. Only later did I learn to ignore the ridiculous orders until they had been repeated several times. A few years later, my principal give me an uncomprehending look and asked, “You don’t believe that I believe what I say just because I say it, do you?”

I saw my hiring experience replicated throughout my career. Every year, principals hired teachers and granted tenure to people who had 0% chance of being effective in our challenging school. Why do the unpleasant but not-difficult job of firing a rookie – who had no due process rights – when it was so unlikely that a qualified person would apply for the toughest jobs? We had plenty of terrible teachers, but in almost every case, they taught (or didn’t teach) in a room that had previously been filled by an incompetent, and they were likely followed by an ineffective replacement.

And No!, I never saw the union save the job of a “bad” teacher. It was the overall system and the complex, intertwined challenges of underfunded inner city schools that made it impossible to recruit qualified teachers for every classroom. Ineffective teachers were a product of our system’s history, and they were illustrative of the fundamental dynamics that I have witnessed over a quarter of a century.

For all the reasons above, I first welcomed the fresh eyes of young 1990s reformers. Back then, it never occurred to me that they would try to use the stress of high stakes testing and competition to overcome the stress from poverty which undermines student performance. Why in the world would noneducators try to recruit and retain more professional talent by doubling down on the humiliations that drives teachers from the classroom?

Neither could I imagine that these newcomers would invest in an expensive public relations campaign to demonize educators and unions for trying to work within the system to produce incremental gains.

Although schools didn’t need to be lab rats for Big-R Reformers, who imposed their grand theories on our classrooms, we sure would have welcomed Little-r reformers who were “interested in stripping away anachronistic policies and empowering educators.” If reform had been “mostly a matter of opening up outdated systems,” then educators would have welcomed Hess’ call for “entrepreneurs, parents, and community” to “reinvent schooling.” If reformers will keep an open mind when reading Letters to a Young Education Reformer, maybe we’ll have a second chance to work together and improve our schools.

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