Framing Education Reform in a More Inclusive Way

One problem with the school reform debate today is the way we cut the debate. One common way of pitching the problem is as “hard” versus “soft.” In this telling, valor is awarded to those willing to make “hard” decisions: these people support merit pay, firing bad teachers, holding schools accountable, and closing failing schools. On the other side, from this point of view, are those who are “soft”: people who are opposed to measuring outcomes, who in theory want to empower teachers but in practice want to support a failing status quo. Alternative certification and charter providers are good; traditional preparation and traditional public schools are bad. (Read more at EdWeek)

Harvard Professor Jal Mehta has written a must-read article on the way we frame education reform and the difficulties surrounding the creation and implementation of great education policy. Essentially, Professor Mehta frames positive reforms as those that enforce 4 individual concepts:

NevadaSucceedD05aR04dP13ZL-Madison4d_16x16Practice-relevant Knowledge

NevadaSucceedD05aR04dP13ZL-Madison4d_16x16Strong Human Capital

NevadaSucceedD05aR04dP13ZL-Madison4d_16x16Processes of improvement, at the School-level

NevadaSucceedD05aR04dP13ZL-Madison4d_16x16External Support and Accountability

The key here is that each of the 4 components above help buttress  and reinforce one another. No Child Left Behind for example, was very strong on Accountability, the 4th leg of the Professor’s criteria. But as he points out, it was incredibly weak on the other 3 components. In practice, this helps to explain its failure; Teachers and Students being held to standards without the necessary support to achieve said standards. In the Professor’s telling it is not a simple choice between “Hard” charter-school based reforms and “Soft” reform thats tinkers around the edges, but actually a choice in how you balance these 4 components, creating a distinction between “Thick” reforms, which balance all 4 components well, and “Thin” reforms which like NCLB, do not. At the end of the day, all reforms needs to be viewed through this lens if we want to help improve the education system and support the profession of teaching.

Unfortunately, all too often Education Reform is cast as a battle between Us Vs. Them, with reforms that come from each camp instantly being dismissed by the other side. At Nevada Succeeds, we have always believed that there is a better way to engage in the discussion – luminaries like Professor Mehta help show us that better way, and offer the tools with which to bring all members of the community together in a constructive, positive dialogue.

Luckily, there’s nothing “hard” to understand about that.