The Education Establishment is Dead, Long Live the Education Establishment?

The king is dead, long live the king.” Have you heard that one before? It’s a phrase a variety of countries have used to simultaneously announce the death of a monarch and the ascension of a new one. The phrase has survived into the modern era in part because it provides an excuse to use the word epanalepsis and in part because it turns out to be a pretty poignant description of the lack of change when regimes shift.

I was reminded of this old phrase while reading a recent blog post by American Enterprise Institute education guru Rick Hess, who has been working for a while now to prevent education reformers from morphing into a new education establishment. This particular post is in response to a number of folks who took issue with a previous Hess post criticizing the amount of bureaucratic paperwork involved in crafting state education plans under the Every Student Succeeds Act. You know, like the 150-page one Colorado submitted in May. In that post, Hess wrote:

The vapidity of the exercise would be unremarkable if everyone clearly understood that these filings are the kind of pointless, paper exercise demanded by 21st century bureaucracy, and that the only thing that matters is what states and districts actually do after they’ve submitted their plans. But what’s disconcerting is how much enthusiasm the education intelligentsia has invested in these latter-day TPS reports. It makes them look more than a little like Initech’s paper-loving mandarins—and that’s not something I would wish on anyone.

Now, I happen to know someone who served on Colorado’s Every Student Succeeds Act Hub Committee, which was responsible for molding and approving our state’s ESSA plan. That someone was my policy friend Ross Izard. And while I know Ross was proud of a few accomplishments during that process—blocking an attempt to expand teacher licensure, ensuring as many students as possible are included in state accountability calculations, and starting a conversation about new, non-test-based ways to measure school quality, to name a few—he also viewed the process as excessively bureaucratic. Hess is not alone in his questioning of these enormous ESSA plans and their overall value.

Whether or not state ESSA plans truly make a difference in education remains to be seen. Like Ross and Hess, I have my doubts. But there’s something more essential in Hess’s argument, something that I believe education reformers need to hear: Despite (or maybe because of) their many successes and great strides, reformers now run the risk of becoming what they’ve all been working against for so long: an education system concerned more with self-preservation and system development than meaningful change.

From Hess’s most recent post:

A decade ago, most of those who thought of themselves as “reformers” worried that education was awash in paperwork, jargon, and bureaucracy. They argued that streamlining hidebound rules and routines was a big part of empowering families, communities, and educators. There was a presumption that a central aim of school reform should be helping schools be more nimble, creative, and responsive…

…Ultimately, it feels like we’ve lived through a sea change in school reform, one which means reformers are increasingly inclined to behave as proud stewards of a new establishment. As I put it in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, “The same reformers who once sought to combat stifling bureaucracy have slowly become a new breed of bureaucrats. Of course, as you’d expect, they don’t see it that way. That’s not because they’re innately bossy; it’s more a function of where they now sit.” Many reformers now see themselves less as a vanguard trying to create room for others to reimagine schools, after all, than as guardians of ambitious paper plans to promote the “equitable distribution of teachers.”

This statement is Hess’s version of the old phrase we opened with: The education establishment is dead, long live the education establishment.

If I’m honest, a clear-eyed look at the sheer complication of education systems today—even those I happen to like—does evince a sort of bureaucratic bloat that should concern us. The goal of reform should be to help schools innovate, adapt, and evolve so that they can best meet the needs of their students. There will always be a need for accountability and reporting and the like, and those things fill a critical role in the march toward better student outcomes. But maybe we should spend a little less time defending the most recently erected castle walls and a little more time looking forward at where we go from here.