Successful Education Reform Much Harder Than Just Passing New Policies

All my education reform friends out there, you and I very likely have been getting too comfortable. Or perhaps just too naive, or maybe too lacking in ambition. Leave it to the American Enterprise Institute’s Rick Hess to splash a bucket of water in our faces. But trust me, we needed the dirt knocked out of our eyes and ears.

Last week, Hess penned for National Affairs his latest thoughtful piece chocked full of insights that many education policy advocates and insiders know, but few are willing to say. Given numerous observations like the following, I recommend reading “The Missing Half of School Reform”:

But reformers have greeted with a surprising lack of interest the seemingly self-evident fact that the fruits of policy innovation depend as much on how policies are carried out as on whether they’re carried out. Advocates, foundation officials, and education-policy experts show less interest in implementing the reforms they have enacted than in tackling the next big project — whether that is promoting Common Core standards or championing President Obama’s push for a massive expansion of pre-K schooling.

Moreover, while the education-reform coalition is bipartisan, staff members at the vast majority of foundations, advocacy groups, and associations lean heavily to the left. The practical result is that reform is marked by an uncanny confidence that noble intentions and technocratic expertise are enough to drive social change. Too often, even conservative advocates of school choice or teacher-tenure reform exhibit an exaggerated faith in the ability of high-level policy change to deliver hoped-for outcomes on the ground.

So not to leave us hanging out there with a sense of gloom and despair, Hess comes up with five practical solutions to fill in the gaps where education reform advocates often fall short:

  1. Education leaders need “to challenge established routines and entrenched cultures”
  2. More focus ought to be given to alternative types of education executive training
  3. Reformers need to get their hands dirty in addressing the content taught in educator training programs
  4. Advocates should more thoroughly explain in detail how successful reforms have been achieved
  5. Employ a reform-minded attorney to help navigate the regulation and overcome the risk

Experience has taught some I know the importance of the first and last solution offered, and I have no doubts that number 3 is a critical piece. But the fourth point in particular struck me. Hess recently came out with a paper (co-authored by Max Eden) detailing how Colorado’s Douglas County has become the most interesting school district in America. And now my Education Policy Center friend Ben DeGrow is releasing his own piece along the same lines — Douglas County: Building a Better Education Model.

Smart and successful education reform isn’t as easy as many would like it to be. Taking into account the recommendations made here, it’s time to grow the network and expand the good results that come from not just passing good reform-minded laws, but also from doing the hard work that follows.