Back in my advocacy days nothing would bug my colleagues and I more than some national “thought leader” making some sweeping statement about the success or failure of vouchers or charters in Wisconsin. Why did it drive us so nuts? Every morning we would go about the hard day-to-day work of education reform advocacy. This involved putting out fires, visiting schools, lobbying, conducting research, working with state agencies, building constituencies, managing complex relationships, and lots of busy work. We had extremely effective leadership and when everything came together it was quite impressive. In our minds what we did was real and impactful, whereas thought leaders debated one another, made headlines, and ultimately had minimal impact on actual policy.
Who were the thought leaders? Academics, think-tank types, pundits, prolific social media users, bloggers, and the like. These days I find myself writing blog posts, conducting research, tweeting, and following the debates (and even engaging) within the community of thought leaders. Uh oh. I admit feeling a bit conflicted about my engagement as a though leader type. I am thinking this conflict, as well as my current and past positions as I follow a discussion among education scholars regarding Betsy DeVos, and the evidence for and against voucher and charter policies. As is usual in these debates, both sides of the argument believe the evidence is on their side, while the other side is being ideological.
I tend to disagree with the whole premise of the debate. Last week I tweeted “Do vouchers work? Do charters work? Don’t accept simple yes or no, context like design, public acceptance, policy goals are everything.” The tweet was a reaction to the misalignment between the reality of school choice policies and the way we study them. I see the value of random control trials, I really do, but the reality of school choice is much more complex than what these studies prove (or disprove). I argue the value of a voucher or a choice is dependent on the organizations involved, making school choice work means using the schools as the unit of analysis. But I could be wrong, I have been before!
More important, and something I learned while working in Milwaukee, are values. K-12 education is the most expensive function of state and local government; it impacts everyone as a student, parent, or taxpayer. As I preach in my budgeting course, how society chooses to spend its resources is a reflection of its values and priorities. So what are our priorities in K-12 education? Test scores, attainment, safety, choice in and of itself, religion, permanence, transparency, accountability, equity, customer satisfaction, entrepreneurial activity? I think the answer to the question differs by place, by time, and by audience. This poses a problem for us scholars and (gulp) thought leaders searching for definitive answers. They may not exist. So what to do?
Personally I think there is value to Robert Pondiscio’s call for humility, i.e. recognizing that we do not know what we do not know. I also enjoy applying public administration theories of the hollow state and network governance to K-12 education. Finally, I take great interest in school boards, whom I suspect can serve as a legitimizing agent in the sea of paradox that is education policy.
So as frustrating as thought leaders can be, it is good that well-meaning talented people are engaging in education reform discussions. I have come to realize that their work is impactful in setting policy agendas, research agendas, and informing the broader discussion of K-12 education policy. The more voices the better.