NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Educational Leadership

October 11, 2013

In recent years, a growing group of reformers has exhibited an interest in fundamentally reshaping education policy. After decades of fumbling efforts to promote 21st century skills, site-based management, smaller high schools, "professional development" and other pedagogical fads, reformers have shown impressive discipline in overhauling musty tenure laws, expanding school choice, holding educators accountable for performance and insisting upon forceful interventions in low-performing schools, says Frederick M. Hess, director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

Rewriting policy constitutes only half of a reform agenda. Real change requires that the reform coalition focus much more attentively on the second half of the improvement agenda: cultivating and supporting teachers, principals, district leaders and state officials willing and able to rethink old norms.

  • It is vital to produce leaders willing and able to leverage new opportunities and to support them as they do so.
  • In a vibrant private sector, this process unfolds organically and invisibly.
  • In a publicly governed system, it needs to be helped along.
  • Indeed, doing so can represent a crucial private, non-governmental contribution to the education-reform effort -- one that conservatives ought to find uniquely appealing.

Absent such efforts, reformers will narrow the scope of collective bargaining only to see superintendents fail to take advantage of their newfound freedom. They will enact teacher-evaluation and turnaround policies that will disappoint as leaders fail to act competently and decisively in the face of contracts, embedded routines and recalcitrant cultures. They will find themselves fighting unnecessary battles and seeing landmark victories undone.

If education reform is to help America build a 21st century school system we can be proud of, it must keep its eye not only on the glamorous policy questions, but also on the everyday details of how our schools are run.

Source: Frederick M. Hess, "The Missing Half of School Reform," National Affairs, Fall 2013.


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