The Moment Calls for a Vision in Education Reform

Photo of Rick Hess and Arne Duncan
Rick Hess (left) and Arne Duncan

Last week, at the American Enterprise Institute, former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and I had a discussion about the future of school reform with The New York Times’ Erica Green (you can watch the video here). Meanwhile, on the other side of town, Rep. Matt Gaetz and his group of online mischief-makers were causing chaos in the House.

Despite the current state of affairs, our conversation was civil and friendly. This may come as a surprise considering our history of disagreements during the Obama administration on topics such as Race to the Top, teacher evaluation, Title IX guidance, and the Common Core.

In our discussion, we covered various topics including testing, parents, “book bans,” leadership, and chronic absenteeism. I don’t want to go into all the details here (you can watch the video or read a summary here), but I do want to share five thoughts that stood out to me.

First, based on my experiences in my book “A Search for Common Ground” with Pedro Noguera and my “Straight Talk” exchanges with Jal Mehta, finding common ground on important principles is easier than it seems. Despite the sensationalist media coverage, there is often significant agreement between people with different viewpoints. It’s possible to reach 50 percent or even 60 percent agreement if we sit down and have honest discussions. Of course, there will always be areas of disagreement, but we can make progress by focusing on the points we do agree on.

Second, Duncan expressed a desire for strong leadership and shared goals. This resonated with many people. He called for a bipartisan focus on early-childhood access, 3rd grade reading scores, graduation rates, and postsecondary completion, recognizing that there will be disagreements on the best approaches to achieve these goals. It’s interesting how this idea of national goals echoes the historic Charlottesville meeting where the nation’s governors and the first President Bush embraced a set of goals over three decades ago, leading to the Clinton-Bush-Obama school reform era.

Third, our conversation reminded me of the complexity surrounding the topic of parents. For example, the issue of “book bans” came up. This is often portrayed as a polarized issue, but when we delve deeper into the concerns of parents regarding explicit content in elementary school libraries, it becomes clear that there is room for common ground. Similarly, when it comes to chronic absenteeism and youth well-being, both schools and parents have a role to play. Schools must fulfill their responsibilities, but parents also need to ensure their children are not excessively reliant on technology and are getting enough sleep and attending school regularly.

Fourth, it’s evident that school “reformers” cannot simply revert to the policies of the past. Even those who were enthusiastic about programs like No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, and the Common Core need to recognize that those reforms were not perfect and must be adapted to the current context. We can’t expect outdated policies to be effective in today’s educational landscape. The future of school reform will likely be different from its past, and that’s perfectly fine.

Finally, observing Gaetz’s attention-seeking behavior and the subsequent media coverage and financial support he received serves as a reminder of the detrimental effects of performative behavior in American society. While there are toxic individuals from both the right and left in the education space, I believe that established organizations have also contributed to the problem. Organizations like the National School Boards Association and the American Library Association have prioritized theatrics over inclusive leadership. Instead of addressing parent concerns and distinguishing legitimate grievances from unacceptable behavior, these organizations have taken extreme positions. The NSBA went as far as calling irate parents “domestic terrorists” in a letter to the Biden administration, despite most cases not involving any actual threats. Similarly, the ALA has failed to bridge the gap between parents concerned about explicit materials in school libraries and those advocating for freedom of expression. These organizations have sacrificed their credibility and hindered constructive dialogue in the process.

Duncan argued that we need leadership from various sources to move forward with school reform: governors, mayors, educators, parent leaders, and national officials. It’s clear that adults need to step up and prioritize the well-being of our children. We need more constructive voices in education. Let’s work toward that and pave the way for the future of school reform.

This post was originally published on Rick Hess Straight Up.

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