December 11, 2014

The Spinach of Education Reform

By Bellwether

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Education policymakers, practitioners, and thought leaders across the country have spent recent years doubling down on Common Core, teacher evaluation and tenure reform, innovation and technology. These policies have led to heated political debates and dramatic headlines. They are trendy, high profile, and federally incentivized. They are the candy of education reform, in demand and hard to resist.
Of course, it is necessary to prioritize. But I wonder if we are choosing wisely. Are these policy issues commanding so much of our collective attention that we are undervaluing high-impact policies that have a delayed, indirect, or less visible impact on students and teachers?
For instance:

  • Education research: Thomas Kane, Russ Whitehurst, the Knowledge Alliance, and others have highlighted the need for more and better investment in rigorous education research. Teachers are on the front lines of implementing new standards and blended learning models, but an analysis of the research on professional development casts significant doubt on whether teachers are receiving effective support.
  • Procurement rules: Digital Promise published a new report this week on procurement challenges with education technology. Procurement has also thrown a curve ball to the implementation of Common Core-aligned assessments in Tennessee and Florida and sidelined countless smaller projects, such as those described here.
  • Teacher retirement plans: Pensions affect multiple aspects of human capital management in schools—where teachers work, whether they are willing to move, and how long they stay. My colleagues Chad Aldeman and Leslie Kan are among the few who regularly draw attention to this topic.

Policies like these are the spinach of education reform, but they are critically important. Addressing them may even make other policy reforms and their implementation more effective. Then why have we seen such little progress on them?
Tedium probably has something to do with it. These issues are a far cry from page-turners and generally are not the press release fodder a Public Affairs Office is looking for. The average tenure of education leaders may also have an effect. The Council for Great City Schools surveyed urban superintendents and found an average tenure of just 3.2 years. The tenure of state chiefs is probably about the same. This is hardly enough time to focus on more than a few signature policy issues. Finally, the benefits of research and pension reform are delayed. Elected officials have weak incentives to champion reforms when the benefits are unlikely to materialize until after they have left office.
Until it attends to issues like research, procurement, and pensions, the education reform community will be pursuing more popular policy issues with one arm tied behind its back.

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