The Missing Half of School Reform

Frederick M. Hess

Fall 2013

In recent years, a growing group of reformers has evinced an admirable 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.

The coalition pursuing these reforms has been remarkably bipartisan. On the left, leading proponents have included Democrats for Education Reform, the Center for American Progress, and the Obama administration's Department of Education. On the right, they have included Jeb Bush's Foundation for Excellence in Education, George W. Bush's Department of Education, and a passel of bold governors. This loose coalition has been supported by a broad array of like-minded foundations and advocacy groups.

Progress has been undermined, however, by the reform coalition's casual faith in the kind of social planning typically associated with the progressive left. The reformist faith in prescriptive policies was famously evident in the Bush administration's signature No Child Left Behind Act, but it has been equally evident in the Obama administration's Race to the Top program and even in efforts by state-level reformers to impose complex teacher-evaluation formulas and school-improvement strategies.

These efforts have paid short shrift to the simple and frustrating fact that, while public policy can make people do things, it cannot make people do those things well. This is especially salient in education for two reasons. First, state and federal policymakers do not run schools; they merely write laws and regulations telling school districts what principals and teachers ought to do. And second, schooling is a complex, highly personal endeavor, which means that what happens at the individual level — the level of the teacher and the student — is the most crucial factor in separating failure from success. In education, there is often a vast distance between policy and practice.

But reformers have greeted with a surprising lack of interest the seemingly self-evident fact that the fruits of policy innovation depend as much on how policies are carried out as on whether they're carried out. Advocates, foundation officials, and education-policy experts show less interest in implementing the reforms they have enacted than in tackling the next big project — whether that is promoting Common Core standards or championing President Obama's push for a massive expansion of pre-K schooling.

Moreover, while the education-reform coalition is bipartisan, staff members at the vast majority of foundations, advocacy groups, and associations lean heavily to the left. The practical result is that reform is marked by an uncanny confidence that noble intentions and technocratic expertise are enough to drive social change. Too often, even conservative advocates of school choice or teacher-tenure reform exhibit an exaggerated faith in the ability of high-level policy change to deliver hoped-for outcomes on the ground.

Reformers have also been inclined to leave implementation to others for more mundane (and understandable) reasons. Putting new policies into practice and changing what teachers and school leaders actually do involve tackling a massive education-industrial complex of training and professional-development programs. Policymakers are confronted by 14,000 school districts, 1,300 teacher-preparation programs, 1,100 educational-leadership programs, a web of professional associations, and a community of professional developers — many of whom view reformers with skepticism, if not outright hostility. Earlier reform efforts failed when their champions got mired in changing "professional practice" while ignoring policy. This failure fueled an over-correction: While in the past reformers tried to change culture without changing policy, now they are trying to change policy without changing culture. The resulting policies and systems of accountability are frequently overmatched by the incentives embedded in professional and political culture and the fact that most school leaders, school-district officials, and state-level personnel are neither inclined nor equipped to turn ambitious policy reforms into reality.

In response, the progressively minded seek increasingly prescriptive state and federal policies, hoping thereby to finally compel obedience. The lethargy and foot dragging they see in so many schools and systems is taken as evidence that they need to wield the whip hand ever more firmly. The result is new layers of mandates and bureaucracy, and more grudging, half-hearted compliance.

This problem has largely escaped the attention of observers and critics. It is quietly acknowledged by serious reformers, but rarely discussed. When the focus was on changing school culture, it was clear to anyone paying attention that nothing much was happening. Now, in the modern reform era, observers of education policy can see new laws and programs. Naturally enough, they assume such action means that big things are happening (thus, for instance, the enthusiasm for the Obama administration's Race to the Top program). But, on the ground, the story is rather different.

Of course, there is nothing new, or unique to education, about social reformers being more than a little blasé about what happens after their legislation gets enacted. It is an inclination common to many ambitious policy projects, and has been the undoing of many a grand progressive experiment. Normally, conservatives see this as cause for regarding progressive designs with great skepticism. In K-12 schooling, however, the bipartisan nature of the exercise means the neglect of practical concerns has itself been thoroughly bipartisan too. Consequently, the challenges of implementation have not come in for nearly enough scrutiny. Only by first seeing this problem and then taking practical steps to see new policies put into effect can the champions of American education reform have a real shot at realizing their grand goals.


The inclination of reformers to invest single-mindedly in aspirational legislation at the expense of implementation has proven costly. Again and again, attractive, sensible reforms have disappointed in practice, breeding impatience and cynicism and fueling the unending search for the next big thing. Administrators and teachers have learned to just wait out each new wave of policy innovations, counseling one another that "this too shall pass."

Examples abound. In recent years, sparked by concerns that existing teacher-evaluation systems were toothless and failing to identify low performers, reformers have fought for more rigorous evaluation systems. Lending urgency to the push was the New Teacher Project's widely cited 2009 study "The Widget Effect," which famously reported that more than 99% of teachers across the nation were routinely rated "satisfactory." In Florida, a year after then-governor Charlie Crist vetoed a controversial 2010 teacher-evaluation bill at the behest of the teachers' union, reformers passed a similar bill under Crist's successor, Rick Scott. When signing the bill, the governor enthusiastically asserted that, "Exceptional teachers will now be distinguished, celebrated and rewarded for their dedication and skill."

The Florida bill mandated that all teachers be evaluated based upon a set of formal observations and student gains on achievement tests (requiring the creation of a slew of new tests to gauge learning in every subject and grade). But after all of the effort and political capital expended to enact the program, tens of thousands of hours spent observing and documenting teachers, and tens of millions of dollars spent developing the requisite tests (some of which are still being hotly debated and so have yet to be implemented), when the preliminary results were announced in January of this year, 97% of teachers were rated effective or better.

In Tennessee, a Race to the Top grant winner and another state regarded as an exemplar of teacher-evaluation reform, 98% of teachers were rated at or above expectations. In Michigan, the figure was again 98%. Obviously, no one thinks these results reflect a true measure of teacher quality. Rather, they mean that the enormous effort and expense invested in these teacher-evaluation reforms have thus far achieved next to nothing.

The reason is a straightforward failure of follow through. Legislators can change evaluation policies but cannot force principals to apply them rigorously. And it turns out that, even after policies were changed, principals still were not sure what poor teaching looked like, still did not want to upset their staffs, and still did not think giving a negative evaluation was worth the ensuing tension and hassle — especially given contractual complications and doubts that superintendents would back up personnel actions against low-rated teachers.

A similar story can be told about "school turnaround" policies intended to aggressively intervene in persistently low-performing schools. The 2009 federal stimulus bill included a hefty $3.5 billion for school-improvement grants. Reformers celebrated the grants as a chance to turn around struggling schools that have defied waves of previous such efforts. What has been the result? In a 2012 analysis, researchers at the University of Washington's Center on Reinventing Public Education noted that school systems in Washington state failed to move aggressively, even when armed with millions in federal school turnaround dollars. The researchers observed that school systems almost uniformly spent the funds on more staff, time, and professional development, and "approach[ed] the work on turnaround in ways...only marginally different from past school improvement efforts."

Researchers blamed many factors, "including politics, fear of controversy, lack of knowledge, and the constraints of collective bargaining." These led school and system leaders to favor "incremental additions to ongoing activities" rather than new, potentially transformative measures. The findings were reminiscent of those from an extensive evaluation of the federal Comprehensive School Reform program, which provided funding to nearly 7,000 schools between 1998 and 2006. The education non-profit WestEd reviewed that program in 2011. It reported that just one-third of the grantees had even followed through on their commitments, that participating schools were no more likely than other comparable schools to have implemented the promised reforms, and that the performance of participating schools was indistinguishable from that of comparison schools. Policymakers can require interventions, but they cannot mandate that such interventions be pursued wisely or well.

This frustrating state of affairs is prevalent even in charter schooling. Reformers have long hoped that charter schools might serve as an end run around the recalcitrance of public-school bureaucracies. In theory, charter schools free educators from the iron grip of contracts, regulations, and rules, allowing them to re-imagine how schools are led and what teachers do. More than two decades since the enactment of the first charter-school law, this promise has not been realized.

Here too, the gap between promise and reality is explained in large part by the gap between policy and implementation. There are 6,000 charter schools in America, and the vast majority of them simply have not taken advantage of their unique autonomy. The National Center on School Choice at Vanderbilt University reported in 2011 that the role of charter-school principals "was not significantly different" from that of traditional district principals. Researchers at the reform-minded non-profit Public Impact have noted that charter schools structure teacher pay much as local school districts do. In a 2011 study of charter-school collective bargaining, the Center on Reinventing Public Education's Mitch Price noted that "charter school contracts look quite similar to their district counterparts." Successful charters have used their autonomy to lengthen the school day and school year and to establish rigorous expectations and behavioral norms, but few have leveraged their autonomy to go much further.

Given all this, it should come as no great surprise that charter schools have generally failed to deliver the great gains once foretold. The most authoritative study to date, a 2013 evaluation of charter schools in more than two dozen states by Stanford University's Center for Research on Education Outcomes, reports that charters are now performing slightly better than similar district schools in reading and about the same in math. That is hardly the profound improvement that advocates promised. Charter-school leaders tend to abide by familiar public-education norms and nostrums, even when rules or collective-bargaining agreements no longer bind them. More than 20 years after the advent of charter schooling, the school-level leadership ready and able to exploit new opportunities is still evident only in rare and scattered instances.


The right response to these disappointing trends is certainly not to abandon the reform agenda. It is, rather, to properly appreciate a lesson that the great political scientist James Q. Wilson taught long ago: Formal policy is often no match for the countervailing pressures of localized incentives, institutional cultures, situational imperatives, and internalized obstacles.

Getting public employees to actually do what policymakers think they've told them to do turns out to be immensely difficult. Indeed, in his classic work Varieties of Police Behavior, Wilson cited controlling bureaucratic discretion as the problem of public administration — a fact that remains plainly true in education. Indeed, education reformers have the disconcerting habit of being so intent on promoting "social justice" that they have little time or interest to invest in the stuff of bureaucracy, administration, or regulation. With remarkable regularity, self-styled reformers dismiss practical complications as excuses undeserving of attention. This makes the frustration and distrust of so many educators easy to understand.

In education, as in other government-dominated sectors, the burdens of regulatory compliance, expansive contracts, bureaucratic sprawl, and harsh consequences for missteps coupled with the limited rewards for risk-taking have driven entrepreneurial leaders from the field or into the shadows. What has taken root instead is a culture of exquisite caution and routinization.

Some reformers, even on the right, explicitly counsel against worrying too much about any of this, dismissing concerns about the culture of education as evidence of a quaint failure to understand that incentives, accountability, and self-interest will assuredly (eventually) force even recalcitrant actors into line. But there are two major problems with this line of argument.

First, education reform is always partly a political exercise. Public schools spend public money to educate the public's kids, and policymakers and the public can easily sour on disruptive measures that do not seem to deliver useful change. Success depends on public support, and a wave of disappointments can undermine even popular and sensible ideas. Simply waiting for a new generation of leaders to finally make today's big ideas work will not be a viable strategy if public sanction is withdrawn and the reforms are abandoned. Moreover, if policies disappoint due to inept execution, it is unrealistic to assume that the public will blame trusted teachers and principals for fumbling the details rather than far-away advocates and legislators for pushing dumb ideas.

Second, while faith in the power of incentives is sensible enough, reformers are sometimes driven by wishful thinking about how those incentives actually play out in reality. The school leaders refusing to change their ways are responding to incentives: Principals, superintendents, and school-district officials inhabit a highly politicized space, where the benefits of bold action are frequently dwarfed by the costs of angering key constituencies. For all the eager talk of teacher evaluation, school turnarounds, charter schooling, and much else, the reform agenda has not sufficed to fundamentally alter that dynamic. This means its success is dependent upon leaders eager and equipped to leverage new opportunities and run the accompanying risks, but our education system is not well suited to producing or attracting such leaders.

How did educational leadership become such a morass? Ironically, ambitious reformers from a prior era had much to do with causing the problem. In the early 20th century, enthralled by the promise of "scientific management," Progressives fought to import into schooling (and government) the same managerial practices they admired in successful industrial enterprises. Ellwood Cubberley, dean of the school of education at Stanford University and the father of the 20th-century school-leadership movement, explained that before 1900 schools had been like "a manufacturing establishment running at a low grade of efficiency." The solution was to bureaucratize and standardize schools. But the measures intended to improve efficiency and quality have, over time, become drivers of inertia, inefficiency, and ineptitude.

The problem is not that educational leaders have wished for this state of affairs; it is that those century-old industrial-management concepts have never really gone away. In the private sector, old giants like UNIVAC, TWA, and Polaroid give way to the likes of Google, JetBlue, and Apple if they fail to respond to the needs of a changing world. Entrepreneurs don't have to "fix" sclerotic firms because those firms give way to upstarts that boast fresh talent, scrappier cultures, and less rigid management. But schools and districts do not go out of business. Thus, aged routines prove remarkably resilient. Intrusive regulation, petty bureaucracy, the vetoes wielded by various constituencies, and collective bargaining have frozen in place old salary schedules, work rules, school designs, and governance systems. Indeed, these have bizarrely come to be treated as quintessential features of schoolhouse culture. Efforts to import insights or practices from 21st-century management are routinely denounced as a "corporate" assault on schooling, and even on democracy itself.

Few K-12 leaders are equipped to push against this inertia, and most do not have much exposure to other ways of thinking about leadership and management. The roughly 1,100 programs that train school and school-district leaders have typically reinforced the old norms while failing to help the people who run our schools think about how to run much of anything. A national survey of education professors in 2008 found that zero percent of education-leadership faculty claim a primary scholarly emphasis on collective bargaining or school-business management; only 1% claimed a specialization in school-community relations, and 2% claimed an emphasis in either personnel management or technology.

Education leaders work in a culture in which waste and mediocrity are not treated as particularly urgent concerns. This is made painfully clear in the most widely read books on school leadership. Thelbert Drake and William Roe argue in The Principalship that "running a tight ship" is a "distortion of the goal of educating children." Michael Fullan and Andy Hargreaves tell principals in their enormously influential What's Worth Fighting for in Your School? that "[t]he worst thing to do is to write off apparently poor or mediocre teachers as dead wood, and seek easy administrative solutions in transfers or retirements." It may seem bizarre to suggest that using time and money wisely is a distraction, yet that notion recurs with startling consistency in this literature.

The journals that school and system leaders read reflect a similar, studied disinterest in the practical side of what it takes to lead change. The most widely read journal in the field is the monthly Educational Leadership. Between January 2009 and September 2012, in the midst of a struggling economy, the magazine's stories mentioned collaboration 142 times, professional development 180 times, and culture 214 times, but had almost nothing to say about management practices. The term "collaboration" alone tallied more appearances than the combined mentions of regulation, licensure, compliance, maintenance of effort, productivity, collective bargaining, layoff, arbitration, grievance, due process, labor agreement, and negotiation.

The consequences are predictable. Leaders express little interest in streamlining operations or boosting efficiency. In a 2010 survey, though 84% of district leaders said their district was "inadequately funded," surprisingly few of them had looked for ways to reduce their costs: 73% said they "never considered" reducing employee pension benefits; 70% never considered outsourcing custodial or maintenance work; 48% never considered finding new transportation efficiencies; and 75% never considered closing or consolidating schools. The Association of School Business Officials reported in 2011 that just one-third of administrators said that evaluating the effective allocation and use of resources was one of their top three responsibilities.

Champions of school improvement have been able to identify the elements of "effective schools" for at least four decades, going back to the seminal work of Harvard's Ronald Edmonds in the 1970s. The challenge, through the whole of that period, has been replicating and sustaining isolated successes. While reformers are right to focus on the policy changes that might help expand the reach of sensible practice, they've given short shrift to just how the mindset of administrators, superintendents, and principals can undercut even the most dramatic of policy victories.


The culture of schooling means not only that many reform efforts fail to keep their promises but also that many efforts to lift legal constraints on innovation are not actually necessary in the first place. Many of the problems reformers are trying to solve are the result less of legal or administrative constraints than of the absence of the knowledge, desire, or nerve required to break the patterns of the past.

For example, while reformers engage in ferocious state legislative battles to allow districts to take merit into account when laying off teachers, most large districts relying on seniority-driven layoffs are doing so of their own volition. While 70 of 90 large school district contracts examined by the National Council for Teacher Quality in 2011 declared seniority to be the primary determinant when making layoffs, two-thirds of the 70 were in states that did not mandate the use of seniority. In other words, district leaders have willingly bargained away their discretion (although they obviously remain free to fight for new terms in their next contract). Responsible leadership or district governance would render such policy fights unnecessary.

Observers are often surprised by this state of affairs. Given a dozen years under No Child Left Behind and the experience of fierce state and federal policy battles, they imagine that school systems have already done all that they can — and that only policy-driven change will enable schools to get smarter about things like teacher evaluation, pay, and dismissal. But often that is simply not the case. Attorney Daniel Weisberg, former chief of labor strategy for the New York City Department of Education, relates, "When I first got into education, I was amazed how rarely I heard, 'We're doing this because this is the right policy for kids,' and how often I heard, 'We have to.'" Starting out in New York City under then-chancellor Joel Klein, Weisberg recalls being told that principals needed five negative letters in a teacher's personnel file before that teacher could be "discontinued." At first, he thought the culprit was the city's muscular teachers' union. Yet, upon a closer look, it turned out the contract was not to blame — as a contractual matter, one letter could suffice. Even after extensive staff training, though, Weisberg continued to hear the five-letter excuse. Where was it coming from? Weisberg found that it was not the union but "our own district lawyers in the field." It made the lives of the attorneys easier if they had stacks of paperwork when trying to fire a teacher.

Ariela Rozman, CEO of The New Teacher Project, similarly recounts, "We went into [one troubled Midwestern district] expecting to find a very restrictive contract. [But] we found a very limited, small contract that covered only a few specific topics. And the reason the district was doing a ton of forced placement was because that's just the way [human resources] had operated for years. But the superintendent believed it was better to be out there lambasting the union than to be cleaning up his house internally."

Rozman says this kind of thing is dishearteningly common. Superintendents and school boards have learned that scapegoating unions is often easier than taking tough steps or adopting a negotiating stance that would provoke conflict. Meanwhile, they have found that credulous reformers can be distracted into blaming the union bogeyman, letting administrators off the hook.

Lackluster leadership can even threaten to undo crucial wins. Consider the case of Milwaukee Public Schools. In 2011, the Wisconsin legislature adopted Act 10, which restricted the scope of bargaining and required teachers to contribute to the cost of their health care and pensions. In anticipation of Walker's governorship, MPS renegotiated its collective-bargaining agreement with the Milwaukee Teachers' Education Association, asking employees to make what the union president called the "historic" concession of contributing 1% (2% for families) of their salaries for health-care coverage.[Correction appended] That amounted to $184 million for the 2010-11 school year alone. MPS could have redirected tens of millions of dollars from benefits into classrooms, but its local leaders chose to curry favor with the teachers (and the union) and substantially delay the benefits of the hard-won state legislative battle.

MPS only delayed key changes; it could not render them moot. But there are plenty of cases where local districts have done just that. In Indiana, for instance, the legislature also moved in 2011 to limit the scope of collective bargaining. Yet, dozens of districts went ahead and left restrictive contract language intact, even though doing so now violated state law. After a year or two, these choices become the new conventional wisdom, with district officials operating under the assumption that their hands remain tied — even when they are not.

There are exceptions to this pattern, of course. When Adrian Manuel took over as principal at the low-performing Accion Academy in the Bronx, he knew dramatic change was required. Part of his strategy entailed giving staff one full day a week to collaborate on improving the quality of instruction. He needed to do this without extra funds, and he was committed to doing it without sacrificing instructional time. The problem was that the mechanics of the plan would require some teachers to teach more than three classes in a row — a violation of New York City's collective-bargaining agreement. Manuel explored his options and found that, in New York City as in many other districts, teachers at a particular school can waive nearly any part of the master contract if a sufficient percentage of them vote to do so. His staff voted unanimously for the change. A few years later, Accion Academy was one of New York City's best-performing middle schools.

Administrators around the country have a surprising wealth of similar options, but most choose never to explore them or make use of them. And reformers have too often allowed themselves to turn a blind eye to this state of affairs.


Because education reformers tend to treat implementation as somebody else's problem, the contemporary school-reform landscape is dotted with advocates declaring "mission accomplished" after winning policy changes — rather than ensuring that those changes have the desired effect. Indeed, major funders ask advocacy groups to tally their legislative successes, and advocates eagerly rake their wins and move on, gearing up for the next legislative fight.

But 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. Progressives are mistaken when they assume that new policies will necessarily yield entrepreneurial, dynamic leadership, and conservatives are equally wrong to imagine that simply rolling back federal mandates or challenging teachers' unions will do so. Bureaucratized, compliant, fearful cultures don't reform themselves; they require reformers willing to tend to the soft tissue of institutions, norms, and leadership. Such an effort should begin by focusing on five areas that have received far too little attention to date.

First, there is a great need for school-, district-, and state-level leaders able and willing to challenge established routines and entrenched cultures. Today, potential leaders typically must endure mandated preparation programs in "educational administration" at schools of education. Licensure requirements give education schools a firm grip on entry into the field, dissuading change-minded educators, discouraging talented people who might otherwise consider a career switch into education, and dulling the sensibilities of those getting trained. This summer, for instance, a state judge unseated Paul Vallas from his position as superintendent of schools in Bridgeport, Connecticut, because he had not completed a required course of study. (Vallas remains in place as he appeals the decision.) This decision came despite the fact that Vallas had previously garnered positive reviews over more than a decade as superintendent in Chicago, New Orleans, and Philadelphia.

But rather than focus on producing change-minded leaders, reformers have too often shown themselves willing to settle for small changes within the existing system. This summer, in a disheartening example of regulatory capture, New Leaders (formerly known as New Leaders for New Schools), a heralded non-traditional recruiter of principals, called for imposing new licensure burdens on potential educational leaders.

It is useful to keep in mind that private-sector organizations, both for-profit and non-profit, generally do not require the licensing of leaders. For instance, the MBA degree is a credential, not a license. That is because the skills in question are broad and amorphous rather than technical, while certification works most effectively when the standards for mastery are clear and concrete. The MBA model should be the standard in education as well. Governors, state legislatures, and state school-board members have it fully in their power to remove old licensure restrictions to allow a broader spectrum of seasoned managers to enter leadership positions in education.

Second, in recent years, a number of alternative leadership programs have emerged. Programs like New Leaders, the Broad Foundation's Superintendents Academy, Education Pioneers, and the KIPP Academies' Fisher Fellows that were launched early in the last decade have been joined by newer entrants like Rice University's educational entrepreneurship program and the Leadership Institute of Nevada. These programs bypass traditional school-of-education training programs, with the Rice University program breaking new ground a few years ago by getting approval to license principals and superintendents through the university's Jones School of Business.

The freestanding Leadership Institute of Nevada brings together two dozen school and system leaders for a year of intensive executive education. Both the Rice and Nevada programs seek to create a critical mass of connected leaders in a community or state who will be willing and able to deliver on the promise of reform. State legislators and officials can encourage more such programs by granting business schools, policy schools, and entrepreneurial new programs the authority to certify education leaders so that they can compete for jobs. Unlike vague threats to dismantle schools of education, this has the promise to create meaningful competition. University officials and trustees ought to encourage the pursuit of such opportunities. And funders and policymakers can help provide the resources to launch these new programs. The Houston Endowment played a critical role in launching the Rice program, and Nevada governor Brian Sandoval pushed the state to provide crucial seed funds for the Leadership Institute of Nevada.

Third, the substance of what prospective school leaders learn matters enormously. Frustrated with and appalled by schools of education, reformers have long washed their hands of anything that requires them to wade in the muck and mire of what those schools teach. One result is that they have largely abandoned the question of how to train leaders to the education professoriate. Theories of leadership, management, staffing, budgeting, and the rest are all colored by traditional education-school nostrums. This applies to the most widely read texts, articles, and resources, as well as to the questions taken up by academic researchers. These norms are so pervasive that they typically dominate even the kinds of reform-minded training mentioned above. There is an enormous need for scholars and thinkers who can articulate reform-minded leadership strategies, pen volumes that sketch a different vision, create alternative curricula, and challenge the hegemony of entrenched educational leadership — in the same way that conservatives in recent decades have challenged the liberal law-school professoriate. State officials can revisit requirements for education-administration programs, pushing institutions to revamp the design of their courses of study with an eye to the aptitudes, skills, and knowledge they have long slighted.

Fourth, those instances in which leaders have leveraged their existing authority or found a way to make reforms work on the ground are rarely explained, highlighted, or celebrated. There are plenty of huzzahs in education circles for principals or superintendents who get test scores or graduation rates up, but remarkably little interest in anything other than airbrushed narratives of how they did so. Popular accounts and professional accolades tend to emphasize the role of charisma, curricula, coaching, and consensus, while skipping past the meatier questions of how to redeploy public funds or alter teacher roles without running afoul of contracts or statutes. After all, while educational leaders are far more focused on raising student achievement today than they were 15 years ago, it is a mistake to confuse eagerness with knowing how to challenge convention and transform organizations. Even willing leaders do not know where to find advice on how to renegotiate teacher contracts, make fuller use of charter autonomy, aggressively evaluate teachers, or radically re-organize persistently low-performing schools. Models of such behavior are not discussed in their conferences, celebrated in their associations, or written about in their professional journals.

As one who has inhabited and studied the world of education reform for nearly two decades, I will further stipulate that this inattention to the mean, gritty, regulatory and practical stuff of execution is today nearly as pervasive in "reform" circles as it is elsewhere in the field. Advocates, funders, and reform-minded academics have a crucial role to play in changing this state of affairs. They can do vastly more to identify those school and system leaders who are already doing what supposedly cannot be done, celebrate them, and document and disseminate information about what they are doing. Such efforts can start to tilt cultural norms, while making it easier and less intimidating for less entrepreneurial educators to follow suit. Reformers, advocates, and funders ought to start reviewing every conference agenda and strategic document to see if they are devoting as much attention to the missing practical half of the reform agenda as they are to policy fights. Launching a magazine, association, or conference focused on the work of executing reform could go a long way towards providing a forum for discussing such work and creating a community around it. What is required now is a concerted effort to reduce the transaction costs that hold thousands of well-intentioned but ill-equipped and ill-trained leaders back and that hobble so many once-promising ideas.

Finally, it is worth keeping in mind that educational leadership entails spending public funds on someone else's children. This is as true in a charter school (or under a voucher system) as it is in a traditional district school. The public nature of schooling means that education will always be subject to the vagaries of democratic decision-making and the inevitable array of laws, rules, and regulations. Driving improvement therefore requires some command of regulatory minutiae and some capacity for legalistic thinking. Superintendents, school boards, and principals need help negotiating contracts, finding their way around federal regulations, learning what reforms have made possible, and much else. But these leaders are generally ill-equipped for this part of their job. Sympathetic, talented attorneys willing to help reform-minded leaders find their way could make a great difference. Today, however, such legal support is all too rare. Lawyers who represent districts, whether as in-house counsel or on retainer, prioritize risk avoidance and minimizing conflict. Philanthropists, business leaders, or reformers could help districts to connect with or draw on local law firms or attorneys to provide pro bono support. After all, the typical attorney does more than 40 hours of pro bono work a year, and education reform routinely crops up as a cause of particular interest.

Another potential source of talent is new law-school graduates, especially the hundreds graduating each year who have previously taught through Teach For America or participated in the Education Pioneers program. While it is hard for school districts to compete with private-sector legal salaries, more than 10% of graduates from the top 20 law schools annually take jobs in the public sector with a median salary of $52,000. That is talent that could be recruited and cultivated to assist with the gritty work of putting policy reforms into action. There is a clear need for a new entity, call it "Lawyers for Education Reform," that could facilitate partnerships between districts and law firms, set up recruiting chapters on campuses, provide the kind of research and analysis of regulations and contracts that is so sorely needed, and serve as the hub for further action in this arena.

Steps on these five crucial fronts would also have a secondary, enormously salutary effect. The incentives and accountability created by education reform are often too weak to overcome the political and bureaucratic obstacles that prompt leaders to stick with business as usual. But public recognition and external networks can dramatically increase the rewards for bold leadership and the costs of timidity. If leaders knew that measures that promise short-term pain but long-term improvements in performance (like squeezing budgets, redesigning pay systems, or revamping dumb work rules) would be recognized, it would be easier for more to try — and to convince their own superiors that the benefits of public acclaim might outweigh the costs of action. Meanwhile, if advocates and reformers were more intent on calling out timidity and excuse-mongering, the temptation for superintendents, school boards, and principals to hide behind contracts or rules could be curtailed. After all, for most school and system leaders, educational leadership is largely a relationship business, so reputation matters — for its own sake and for future advancement.


Rewriting policy constitutes only half of a reform agenda. It is equally 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.

*Correction Appended: The text originally stated that MPS committed to paying the full cost of teachers' health and retirement benefits in anticipation of the passage of Act 10. In fact, the renegotiation took place before Act 10 was officially proposed, and teachers were asked to contribute 1% or 2% of their salaries toward their health-care coverage and that of their families. (Return to text)

Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and the author of Cage-Busting Leadership.


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