Monday, February 3, 2020

I Shot An Arrow Into The Air

I shot an arrow into the air,
It fell to earth, I knew not where;
                -- "The Arrow and the Song" Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Rick Hess recently wrote an EdWeek post offering four insights about education policymaking, and as if often the case with Hess, I started to write a reply in the comments section and then it got too long and so here I am. Here's a quick recap of his four ideas--

This might end badly
Media has fostered a funhouse-mirror sense of policy. The journalistic (and internet) tendency to reduce everything to good guys and bad guys has obscured the degree to which many sides are occupied by decent people with honorable intent. Hess perhaps underestimates the degree to which politicians in this age have fed this beast with their scorched earth devotion to winning, no matter what the cost.

Policy is driven by the brokers and bridge-builders. Bomb throwers have their place, observes Hess, but they aren't the ones who Get Stuff Done. It's a fair observation-- Betsy DeVos's general ineffectiveness as a Secretary of Education could well be explained by notting that she is a bomb-thrower in a bridge-builder's job. On the other hand, her boss is the quintessential bomb-thrower, and it hasn't slowed him down much. And there's another huge caveat here-- where are you building those bridges? Because ab bridge between two differing ideas that are both wrong is not a helpful bridge.

Effective change-makers listen more than they talk. Hess's explanation, coming after a few decades of modern ed reform, is worth a full quote:

Academics and single-issue advocates love to show up with recommendation X or the results of study Y and tell policymakers and school system leaders what they really need to do. Frequently, these fervent declarations are unaccompanied by a familiarity with why things currently look like they do or what it would take to follow their advice. It turns out that leaping into complicated, long-running policy discussions is a lousy way to convince people who've spent months or years wrestling with these questions; it seems less helpful than presumptuous.

That's a quick an explanation of why most of modern ned reform has landed with a big, fat thud as you'll find anywhere.

Evidence rarely changes minds, but it still matters. It is true that humans in general are resistant to evidence contrary to what they already believe. But education policy discussions are notable for a really huge amount of bad, specious baloney evidence. Start with anything that equates "scores on a single narrow standardized test" with "student achievement" or "teacher effectiveness." One of the challenges of education is that it involves a whole lot of really important things that are nearly (or completely) impossible to measure. But some folks are so deeply hung up on a need for "data" to do anything that we now have a cottage industry in creating and measuring proxies that don't measure anything worth measuring, no matter how much you massage them or how much verbiage you bury them under.

Which brings me to the point that I find screaming out of all four of these other points.

You know who has the best evidence of how policy actually works out in the classroom? Teachers.

You know who is virtually never involved in policy discussions? Teachers.

This remains one of the most infuriating things about the modern ed reform movement. For the moment, never mind the disrespect implicit in the exclusion of teachers from policy discussions-- it's just an ineffective way to do policy. A bunch of policy experts gather around with a bunch of political policy makers, usually in a comfy lounge paid for by some corporate sponsor or other, and they start shooting arrows over the wall at the schoolhouse on the other side. Then thay have a spirited argument about where the arrow landed-- but they never talk to the people who actually work in that schoolhouse.

It's like engineers who decide to add a feature to the drive train in a car, but never talk to anybody who actually drives the car they remodeled. It's like medical professors who create a new procedure, but never talk to a doctor who has used that procedure.

This is the story of Common Core. A small group of amateurs get together and decided, without talking or listening to actual teachers, that national standards were needed. They cobbled some together without input from actual teachers, and then they got a really rich amateur to help them push it. From conception through implementation, the Common Core machine kept teachers out of the room (and no, getting union leaders to buy in later doesn't count). You know why so many teachers initially dismissed it as The Next Big Thing? Because every Next Big Thing comes with a dozen features that, in the first ten minutes, an actual teacher can look at and go, "Well, that came from someone who was never in a classroom."

But it is the lesson that reformsters have resolutely refused to learn. Every single epiphany about a flaw in the program has been something that teachers had already been screaming for years-- but nobody in these policy discussion was listening. Common Core? We'll just say teachers helped write it and they''ll never know the difference. High stakes testing? Ignore them-- they're just upset that our superior amateur intellects have figured out a way to catch them screwing up. Charter schools? This is a cool idea, only instead of having seasoned teachers run them, let's set them up so that the teachers don't have any say in what goes on. "Teacher"? If everyone's so hung up on that label, let's just come up with a way to give our trusted amateurs that label.

Again, I'm not ranting (this time) about the disrespect or devaluing of teaching. I'm ranting talking about an approach to policy-making that is geared for failure. I'm talking about policy discussions being held by all the folks huddled in the back seats, hunched over maps and compasses and when the actual driver of the vehicle starts hollering, "Hey, folks!" because she can see what's in the road ahead, they just shush her until the bus hits a tree or sails off a cliff and then, even then, they decide the flaw in their system was that they didn't hold the map correctly.

And no-- involving a few carefully vetted teacher voices doesn't count-- particularly if you have no intention of actually listening to them. And reformsters-- you have to police yourselves, because while some of you, I believe, are decent human beings interested in bettering the education world, some of you are money-grubbing parasites who want to keep teachers out of the room because teachers will kill their pitch and hurt their ROI.

Education policy discussions are filled with far too many people who have no idea where their arrows land or what they hit. It is one of the most Kafka-esque features of education policy. I pull a lever, and somewhere that I can't see, something happens. But I don't actually go and look, and I don't actually talk to someone who is an eyewitness to that end of the process. It makes no sense.

Media can make a funhouse mirror of policy discussions because so few of those discussions are informed by actual classroom teachers (and journalists mostly don't talk to them, either). Policy may be driven by bridge-builders, but without teacher voices, they'll build those bridges between two bombed-out bomb-thrower citadels. Effective change-makers may listen, but they'd do better if they were listening to teachers. And evidence does matter-- but most of the real evidence about education is collected daily by classroom teachers. Accept no substitutes.

Every thinky tank policy shop political office etc etc etc should have a bank of many, many teachers. Hell, I'd accept it if the bank included lots of retired teachers-- we aren't so busy any more. It would take a while to build this bank, because teacher trust has to be earned. Every panel discussion, every conference, that discusses policies that affect the inside of a classroom should include people who work inside a classroom (and not just ones that are vetted for friendliness). Who knows? It might actually save us more wasteful misguided education fiascos.

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