Andy Rotherham has a great piece today in U.S. News that considers the trade-offs between transformative and incremental changes in education. Those tuned into the frequencies of the “urgency of now” are driven by the plight of, say, a first-grade child in a failing school in Camden or Yonkers who right this minute needs a school community with high academic expectations, great teachers, necessary support services, data-driven strategies to maximize growth, and accountability.. Those tuned into the benefits of incrementalism would argue that sustainable change requires the gradual acquirement of buy-in from all stakeholders, long-term strategies to ameliorate implacable obstacles like poverty and segregation, and careful nursing of parent, teacher, union leader, and legislative support.
[W]hen we think about ideas – especially policy ideas – how big is too big? Or at least too big to be useful? When does the ambition of an idea outstrip its utility or when is audaciousness exactly what’s needed to raise our aspirations and bring ideas into practice? How do we know?
The answer is that we don’t know because it’s a parlous balance. Transformative change may help that first-grader right now but alienate much of the educational community, creating future obstacles to ambitious plans. Incremental change may soothe concerns about audacity and disregard of tradition but treat that first-grader as collateral damage in the sluggish evolution of American classrooms.
Myself, I’m in the audacious camp. I know too many kids who live in Newark and Camden and the Bronx; this all feels very personal. I’m reminded of something Chris Cerf (then N.J. Education Commissioner, now Superintendent of Newark) said back in 2012 when New Jersey was debating tenure reform. One of the most contentious issues was whether or not to eliminate LIFO: N.J. is one of only eleven states to maintain this child-unfriendly practice that lays off teachers in order of seniority without regard for classroom effectiveness. In fact, an almost-done draft of the new legislation eliminated LIFO but then NJEA, N.J.’s primary teachers union, drew a line in the sand and that section was eliminated at the last minute.
Incremental progress might be fine inside the NJEA offices. But it is not good enough for the student that is assigned to a failing school without any choice available to them for a better option. The NJEA would be satisfied to tell that student not to worry about the achievement gap that has determined their destiny — it is just a “straw man” after all. But that student doesn’t care about the incremental progress we’ve made in the last two decades. Not when they are the one that is still left behind.
Rotherham reminds us that whatever strategy we use — incremental or audacious — we shouldn’t “pretend there are not consequences to various choices. Bold ambition for impact later or incremental progress now? There are few win-wins and we do kids, especially the most vulnerable, no favors when we wish away the tradeoffs around various choices and strategies.”
“Reasonable people can disagree,” says Rotherham, and there’s certainly an argument that N.J.’s ultimately incremental approach to tenure reform — extend tenure attainment from three to four years, require more meaningful and less subjective teacher evaluations, maintain LIFO — is acceptable because it isn’t very bold. But I just can’t stop thinking about that inner-city first-grader in 2012, now a fourth-grader who may or may not be able to read, and whether or not we let him down.