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March 1, 2023
Vol. 80
No. 6

Moving from "Reform" to "Rethinking"

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In the wake of the pandemic, education leaders need less self-assurance and more open-mindedness.

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Moving from "Reform" to "Rethinking"
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Over the past half-century, a dazzling lineup of education and political leaders have urged, implored, and commanded schools to "reform." For good or ill, these efforts haven't yielded much actual change. Yet while change may be rare, in education as in other fields, there are pivotal moments of punctuated equilibrium that make big changes possible.
Evolutionary biologists Stephen Jay Gould and Niles Eldredge coined the term punctuated equilibrium to describe those moments when disruption triggers a burst of evolutionary activity.  They argued that these big shifts are typically a product of unforeseen shocks (as when the Chicxulub asteroid strike killed off the dinosaurs 65 million years ago).
In education, we may be in the midst of such a moment. The COVID-19 pandemic stressed and stretched schooling in unprecedented ways. Routines that had been in place for generations came to a crashing halt. Some families went a year or more without sending their children to school. The pandemic shattered established relationships, eroded many parents' trust, and exhausted educators.
During the pandemic, new routines took hold. Parents expressed frustration and an appetite for new options. The visibility into the curriculum and students' work that came with remote learning led many parents to become newly engaged—sometimes to educators' consternation. The pandemic fueled an explosion in homeschooling, greater familiarity with virtual learning, and unprecedented declines in district enrollments.

Beyond Spinning Our Wheels

There's a familiar "spinning wheels" aspect to school reform that can make it tough for any proposed change to actually stick. But this post-pandemic era, with its new landscape, could be a moment of punctuated equilibrium rather than another spin of the wheel.
Rising to that challenge requires leaders to find more promising ways to support students, confront learning loss, and effectively use billions in emergency federal aid. For my new book, The Great School Rethink (Harvard Education Press, 2023), I explored ways school and system leaders might rethink how to better leverage time, talent, and tools; partner with parents; and make choice work for students, families, and educators.

The Five Habits of Rethinking

The problem with change efforts in education, though, is that so many ambitious, urgent, well-meaning reforms have gone splat—with all of them written off as yet another "implementation problem." From my research and work with educators, I've learned that leaders who want to avoid that scenario, who want to meet this moment as open-minded "rethinkers" rather than self-assured reformers, should take to heart five habits.
1. Ask why … a lot! The best way to avoid tackling poorly understood problems with half-baked fixes is simply by asking "Why?," as in, "Why is this person doing this task?" or, "Why do we give that activity so much time?" Asking questions creates an opportunity to pause and reflect, one that's almost invariably more valuable than a well-practiced answer. Asking how much instructional time is actually being used for instruction, for instance, can prompt a school leader to look more deeply at how much time is lost to disruptions, what's causing those disruptions, and how they might be minimized. It's not enough to ask the questions, though. It's vital that leaders also encourage others to ask questions and foster a culture where asking why is expected (and valued). This means discouraging hurried fixes and creating opportunities for inconvenient questions.
2. Be precise and specific. Years ago, in my book Cage-Busting Leadership, I shared an example of how imprecise thinking can stymie school and system leaders. I'd been digging into a big district's efforts to stop routinely granting tenure to mediocre teachers. As I wryly noted, "There was much talk about better recruiting and improved evaluation. Yet, it soon became clear that a key reason no one was denied tenure was that the system had never bothered to generate the forms required to terminate a probationary teacher." The lesson is simple: getting specific about what the problem is counts.

This isn't about romanticizing 'innovation,' it's about acknowledging that there are times when it makes sense to overhaul comfortable routines or reimagine familiar institutions.

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3. Be deliberate. Education is filled with passionate people. That can be a terrific thing, and it's sorely needed in the wake of a pandemic that had a devastating impact on so many kids. But it also means school improvement gets tackled by those who are sure they know what needs to be done and are in a hurry to do it. One consequence is a tendency to vilify those who aren't on board with the reform du jour. Another is planning that tends toward the haphazard and imprecise; if we think we know what to do and we're in a hurry, it's OK that our plan amounts to little more than a jargon-laden, cut-and-paste PowerPoint. Instead, take a deep breath, focus less on aims than on planning how change will actually work, and then move deliberately.
4. Know that new problems may call for new solutions. When problems change, the answers may change. That's not rocket science. Back in 1900, when four out of five U.S. jobs were on a farm or in a factory, an academic education just wasn't that important. In our 21st century economy, it's crucial. A hundred years ago, there was no simple way to travel across the country, track lots of information, or casually talk to experts around the globe. Today, all of that is possible—even convenient. And, as things change, new needs, challenges, and solutions emerge. Examples of tools that might help meet the current moment in education include targeted, sustained tutoring to help struggling students get back on track or virtual-reality programs to help deliver affordable, high-quality career and technical education. This isn't about romanticizing "innovation," it's about acknowledging that there are times when it makes sense to overhaul comfortable routines or reimagine familiar institutions.
5. Reject change for change's sake. G. K. Chesterton famously suggested that we ought not "reform" things until we understand them. In 1929, Chesterton wrote,
[Imagine] a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, "I don't see the use of this; let us clear it away." To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: "If you don't see the use of it, I certainly won't let you clear it away."
Chesterton's point was that removing the fence without knowing if, say, it keeps cows from wandering into a road could be dangerous (for cattle and drivers alike). Especially when we ponder big changes or new solutions, we should always keep in mind Chesterton's caution.

Remember: Everyone Is the Hero of Their Story

When it comes to rethinking and leading in ways that will bring lasting change, the most important lesson I've learned over the years is the need to appreciate that everyone involved in schooling thinks they're the good guy. Sit with a teacher, and they'll tell you how hard they work, how unappreciated they feel, how much energy they devote to helping their students succeed, but how often they're hampered by meddling principals. Sit down with a principal, and they'll tell you how hard they work, how long their days are, how much energy they put into helping their teachers and students succeed, but how often they're hampered by the meddling clowns in central office. Talk to those "meddling clowns" in the central office, and they'll tell you. …
You get the idea. Everybody thinks they're the hero of the story. Those who don't get that are constantly wondering why so many mean-spirited people are standing in their way. But savvy leaders get that those same "obstructionists" are asking why you're in their way. Whether it involves overhauling the use of time, reshaping the teaching profession, or leveraging educational choice, those on both sides of a decision are convinced they're right.
In public schools, where kids, values, and big sums are at stake, emotions can run hot. Parents might lash out at proposals to change start times or revamp familiar programs. Teachers can see proposed reforms as an attack. Trying to "win" these debates by shaming or outmuscling doubters doesn't work so well. Worse, it has a way of fueling bitter backlash.
Leaders who dismiss parental concerns as selfish or uninformed only inflame the opposition. Waving away teacher concerns by insisting a reform is the "right" thing to do will only foster skepticism. If you appreciate that everyone thinks their heart is in the right place (and that you're the problem), hectoring is obviously a dead-end strategy. So is insisting that the research indisputably proves your point (it usually doesn't) or that you're "for the kids" (meaning they must be anti-kid).
What's the alternative? Try encouraging and planning for the changes you wish to make through rethinking rather than "reforming": Ask why, be specific, breathe deep, and act deliberately—and know that a changing world may require changing solutions (while rejecting change for change's sake).

Insisting that the research indisputably proves your point (it usually doesn't) or that you're "for the kids" (meaning others must be anti-kid) is a dead-end strategy.

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A question-driven approach to school improvement has an added benefit. When you approach this work with a fixed answer, everyone else is transformed into an ally or an opponent. They're either for your idea or else they're against it. The more you dig in, the more firmly those lines are drawn, and all the talk about buy-in and collaboration rings hollow. If you start by asking what's not working, though, and invite people to ask "why," a different dynamic emerges. The great thing about asking "How did we get here?" is that it tends to let everyone off the hook—and invite everyone in. If a program or contract provision made sense in 1975 (or 1875), that's fine; but is it the best way to serve kids today? Framed in this way, it's easier to raise issues in ways that parents and educators won't take personally. It's not about right and wrong, it's that the equilibrium has changed. This shifts the focus from denouncing villains to identifying opportunities and finding solutions—and is why rethinkers can succeed where reformers have so often stumbled.

Meeting the Moment

In the end, rethinking isn't about a prescription. Rather, it involves educators and communities jointly addressing the kinds of challenges the pandemic laid bare: parents want more options, students want to be treated as individuals, and educators want to operate as professionals. And they all want schools that feel less bureaucratic and more personal.
It's easier to appreciate these concerns than to address them. Answering the challenge isn't only a matter of passion or good intentions. After all, foundation honchos, politicos, and TED talkers love to pontificate about "educational transformation" and issue high-minded calls to "reset education for the 21st century," but these calls have yielded more press releases than actual change. The need for more than pontificating and posturing is especially true in the wake of a once-in-a-century pandemic that may have created a once-in-a-century opportunity to rethink teaching and learning. In response, it's time for leaders to embrace a deliberate, intentional rethinking, keeping in mind that established routines often exist for a reason, that it can take time to sort good ideas from bad, and that inept execution can spoil even the best ideas.
The pandemic disruption may have created a moment of punctuated equilibrium, a remarkable opportunity for a great rethink that can help address profound challenges confronting America's schools. Proceed accordingly.
End Notes

1 Gould, S. J., & Eldredge, N. (1977). Punctuated equilibria: The tempo and mode of evolution reconsidered. Paleobiology3(2), 115–51.

2 Chesterton, G. K. (1990/1929). The collected works of G. K. Chesterton, Vol. 3. Ignatius Press, p. 35.

Rick Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he works on K–12 and higher education issues. He also founded and chairs AEI's Conservative Education Reform Network.

Hess's research and writings are found in many scholarly and popular periodicals, including Harvard Educational ReviewForbes, The Hill, Teachers College RecordPhi Delta KappanEducation WeekWashington Post, and U.S. News and World Report. He also writes Education Week’s blog “Rick Hess Straight Up” and serves as an executive editor of Education Next. Hess taught education and public policy at Harvard, Georgetown, and Rice Universities and at the universities of Pennsylvania and Virginia.

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