"Fail better," says Michael Q. McShane (Show-Me Institute, AEI) in a piece at US News, arguing to reformsters for the virtue of admitting failure and building upon it. Part of his point is vaid, part is hugely self-serving and part of it is just plain annoying.
Policy ideas like charter schools, teacher evaluation and high standards first exist in the abstract. When they are actually implemented, they look quite different from state to state or district to district. What one state calls "charter schooling" might look different from charter schooling in another state. So if charter schools struggle in one state, it isn't necessarily an indictment on the idea as a whole. It might just be that the particular manifestation didn't match the context of the specific environment where it was tried. In an ideal world, we'd learn from that, and do better.
In other words,even when a policy has been tested and it has failed, that doesn't mean it's not a great policy that we should keep trying in new and different markets. This is just a variation of that golden oldie that folks used to defend Common Core-- "The policy is brilliant; you're just implementing it wrong." The policy may look like an utter failure, even after over a decade of reforminess, but honest-- any day now it's finally going to work the way we imagined it would.
This is part of a valid idea. But his list of possible causes for failure is missing one critical possibility-- your policy idea is a bad policy idea, and that sad pig won't fly no matter what shade of lipstick you try smearing on it.
He does offer a good description of the process often involved with reformy policy failures:
When a new study comes out that says a policy has "failed," we man the ramparts. Opponents (who were against the policy before any data were available) come out and tut-tut at advocates, telling them to "follow the data" or not to "cling to ideology." Advocates circle the wagons. They spin the findings or pettifog the implications. They counter with personal stories or impugn the motives of critics. Rinse and repeat.
I sense that McShane is leaning toward the use of data to really determine whether a policy is a failure or not, but that's a self-defeating inclination because so many education policies are tangled up in the question of what data we'll use, how we'll collect it, what it actually shows, and whether or not the entire data set that we're dependent on is a heaping pile of junk (spoiler alert: in the education world, mostly we're looking at the heaping pile).
But the rightest thing McShane says is in the final paragraph:
Anyone who has spent more than a day in front a classroom knows that failure is an essential part of learning.
Yes-- that's absolutely true. Failure is a necessary part of exploration and exploration is a necessary part of education. One can't help but wonder, however, if learning offers a legitimate parallel with concocting, pushing and implementing policy.
But I don't want to pick at that-- it's absolutely correct and I'm only tempted to nitpick because of my huge irritation over McShane's reformy central point.
Failure is super-okay! It's how we get better! It's a necessary part of the process!
Which is all great-- but where the heck has tis attitude been for the last twenty years.
Reformers have stapled "failed" onto "public schools" relentlessly, occasionally swapping it with "failing" for variety's sake. Public schools are "failure factories." The public school system is a "dead end," a "failed model." Students are 'trapped" in these "failing" schools, and must be liberated ASAP, because the "failure" constitutes a state of emergency that must be rectified immediately because the Fail is just So Very Bad! Nothing to learn from-- just run away from the Fail.
Now, all of sudden, failure is cool? Failure is okay? Failure is to be not only tolerated, but embraced?
McShane and Jay Greene are going to have a whole conference, a day-long celebration of the fail,
which somehow still works on the premise that public schools are to be avoided and replaced, not embraced.
Once upon a time, reformers wanted to blow up the status quo, but now that they are the status quo, somehow it has to be massaged, embraced, studied, tweaked, and lovingly nursed to hoped-for health. I am ceaselessly amazed at how one of the defining characteristics of the education reform movement is a steady and repeated redefining of term, repeated changing of objectives, constant moving of the goal posts. It is useful only in that, as everything else changes, we can see more clearly what the true values and goals of some within the movement are.
But that's a discussion for another day. Right now I'm trying to wrap my head around the news that failure is now awesome. I will wait with bated breath for that new fail love to be extended to public schools.