Some Thoughts About Schools and Rules

And I’m not talking about rules regarding student discipline, but rather the rules that govern how schools – and the people in them – operate.  A good portion of the current education reform conversation has to do with “changing the rules” that govern how schools operate.  Whether we’re examining the creation of new charter schools, evaluating teachers, standardizing curriculum, or creating financial incentives for turnaround, somewhere there are rules governing the practice.  And whenever rules are examined there will be folks asking for different things.  More rules!  Fewer rules!  Rules that favor unions in a dispute!  Rules that favor management in a dispute!

But you know what I rarely hear folks arguing for?  Rules that are possible to execute in a complex system of interconnected governance entities.  Matt Yglesias makes this point in a different context when discussing counterinsurgency strategy:

… you can’t initiate a large complicated undertaking that involves coordinated action by hundreds of thousands of individual human beings and then make success contingent on perfect implementation.

Let’s apply this to schools.  Coordinated action?  Yup.  Hundreds of thousands of individual human beings?  Try millions.

I’m thinking about this today, because I spent a good portion of last week embroiled in discussions about the state policy ramifications of RtTT and other reform measures.  I’m increasingly frustrated by the extent to which policy discussions are execution-agnostic.  Teacher evaluation is a great example.  Say what you will about the complications of developing a psychometrically sound value-added measure, I’m just as concerned with the all-too-human processes of observing classrooms, recording data from those observations, and providing timely, normed feedback on those observations.  In other words, the concrete “doability” of rules is just as important as their platonic design perfection.

3 Responses to Some Thoughts About Schools and Rules

  1. Rick Larios says:

    No grand idea or brilliant ideal succeeds without some structured detail behind it. Reformers have to have not just a viewpoint on how but some clear guidance (okay, rules) on what will successfully get you the desired outcome. Education, like other complex and dynamic endeavors, requires someone(s) to do the dirty work of defining what it will take–with the maximum amount of flexibility to encourage creativity and the miminal (but not none) amount of governance necessary to ensure the rules reliably get you the desired outcomes. Obviously the best someones to do this work are those who at different levels are accountable for the outcomes, which given the complexity you referred to requires collaboration between interests that tend to contend but not collaborate. Management, unions, and those who are in the mix (policy reformers) need to step up on behalf of their common interest, America’s students, to figure out the way or ways that will get the things you identified accomplished. There seems no significant differences on the desired outcome–a quality education reliably available to all students–but until folks decide to stop doing both of the following we’ll get nowhere with traction: 1) stop exaggerating our differences and the attendant demonizing; 2) stop pretending that details don’t matter and good intentions will take care of themselves. Both are obstacles to the hard work that will make change succeed.

  2. Yeah, details matter. And the amount of details are astounding. In order to get to Rick’s suggestion #1 I’d have everyone admit that all is politics. Making tests and evaluating them is inherently political. Evaluations are inherently political. I guess we “need” rubrics and assessments and stuff like that. What we really need is “Happy Warriors” who love the politics of schooling. My biggest beef with “reform” is that too many “reformers” came to education for the best of reasons but with no knowledge of the details that are so maddening. Rheeocrats, for instance seem to have fogotten that the end result is helping kids, not destroying political opponents.

  3. Pingback: Education Reform and Counter Insurgency « Upd Consulting

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