Mike Petrilli (Fordham Institute Big Cheese) wants to point out that there are ways to change the education system other than changing education policy. He's bringing this up now because he senses some policy fatigue in the air, almost as if trying to get everyone to behave as you want them to by passing laws in DC might not be super-effective.
He notes a great Rick Hess quote which I've seen Hess unload several times: "While public policy can make people do things, it cannot make people do those things well." This, Hess notes, is particularly true in education.
So as ESSA takes the feds off the front lines of education policy fiddling (or at least tries to), are there other pathways to change for enterprising reformsters to change the face of education? Petrilli has five:
Build a new system.
Well, yes. Reformsters have been at this for a while, from creating their own system of certifying teachers and superintendents to creating the charter sector in which a school can be anything you say it is. Yes, policy has to create the field in which such things can grow, or at least stay the foot that might otherwise stomp upon the tiny new life forms. But mostly, why not let rich and powerful people just do whatever the heck they want?
Spur disruptive innovations
Create products and services that target the end user. This is not new in some sectors. This is why prescription drugs are advertised on tv-- so that you will go tell your doctor to get you some. That way the drug company doesn't have to wait for your trained physician to decide on their own that you might actually need the drug.
David Coleman's College Board is already on the case. Take the PSAT and they'll tell you what AP courses you should demand from your school, and hook you up with some nifty test prep from Khan Academy before your parents can even say, "Now, exactly what personal information do they want from you to sign up?" The important part of the model is to make your pitch directly to the user and cut out the middle man (or school) because who needs some actual trained expert queering your pitch.
Invest in leadership
Maybe, Petrilli thinks, policy hasn't caught on because education leaders "aren’t prepared to respond constructively to the pressures created by standards, testing, and accountability." But if we could grow our own leaders, who lead the way we want to in the direction we approve of, boy, that would be swell.
Professionalize the education system by identifying
evidence-based practices and developing mechanisms for getting them into
Most professions, says Petrilli, have ways of figuring out what works and passing it along. I am not clear on his point. Are there teachers out there learning how to teach by sacrificing toads under a full moon and writing lesson plans by throwing the bones? But no, Petrilli thinks we need some kind of systematic training for educators, and once again, he envisions something set up by philanthropists. Because teaching is not actually a profession, I guess, but needs the transformative hand of a bunch of non-teachers to fix that?
Develop and sell new products into the education system.
The previous strategies are "heavy lifts" that require "a sea change in the culture of schooling." But perhaps there's a simpler way: "Sell schools services and products that will improve their practices." Build a great curriculum and sell it to schools and so doing, replace poor practices with things that work. Design a "great product that can be implemented by mere mortals."
Yes, because nothing like that has been tried before in the education field. Well, except every year forever, by every textbook publisher and program developer and even, heaven help us, by idiots who think a teacher just needs scripted lessons to be effective.
What do all these things have in common?
All five of these transformative genii need exactly the same thing-- a person (or two) who know all the secrets of education that the entire nation's worth of professional educators do not. Whether we're going to create new schools or create new teachers or create new idiot-proof curriculum or create new "products" or create new libraries of materials for the profession, all we need in each case is someone who grasps some the secret greased pig of perfect education that has somehow slipped through the grasp everybody else.
Granted, this is the same baloney solution behind policy changes-- if we just get that same genius to help Congress write policy, then everything would be better, goes the theory.
But that's all we need. Just find us these persons who know all the secrets of education and let them set up their own schools, their own teachers, their own materials, their own alternate educational universe, and all will be well. They could write a plan in an office, located some place that was central to the country, for their planning. It would be awesome.
This is a hubristic cart before an educational horse. You know what you need in order to bypass policy and change schools? You need to develop a plan that is actually valid. Your alternate schools, your alternate teachers, your alternate products-- these need to actually be superior to what we have. You might even want to consider the possibility that the resistance you feel to some of your ideas is happening for the same reason that people resisted the Edsel and New Coke-- the ideas are not good. And when you are trying to push not good ideas on people, you can try pushing them all sorts of different ways, but at the end of the day, it's not how you push that matters. It's what you push. It's hard to push your wagon down any path if its wheels are square.