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Book Review: Cutting through the Hype

In “Cutting through the Hype”, Jane David and Larry Cuban summarize the bare essentials of 23 popular reform ideas, and their intended and actual effects. From class size to standards based reform to data driven instruction to turnaround schools, the big lesson is clear, not one of the 23 ideas is working on a large scale as its originators intended. For each reform, the authors propose a hypothesis about what it would take to actually make it work. They also accuse policy-makers and reformers of being characteristically bad at incorporating important lessons from a history of failed reforms into their future work. At the end of the book, for these slow to learn policy-makers, the authors summarize the essential lessons consistent across failed reform efforts. Here are a few of their big ideas that resonated with me:

“It’s not what you do, but how you do it.” Teacher performance pay is a great example of this principle. According to the authors, while performance pay has been tried a number of times over the course of the 20th century, it has “self-destructed” each time due to two primary factors (1) teacher do not view the systems’ judgments about performance as reasonable and fair and/or (2) the system is not set up to fund performance pay for the long term. Decisions about how a measure of performance is created, who is involved, how the system is explained, and how it is funded are as important as the idea of performance pay itself.

Pay attention to essential conditions of the reform’s success. Turnaround approaches that terminate all existing staff assume that there is a healthy pipeline of qualified teachers ready and waiting to step into positions at the lowest performing and most challenging schools. Using a data-driven approach to identify students’ skill gaps is only helpful if teachers have support to design new strategies to re-teach skills differently and better than the first time. In almost every story of failed reform, there is a compelling story about how one or more conditions absolutely crucial to success has been neglected.

Stay away from standardized or extreme solutions. Reform ideas are often launched from the policy world, which tends to frame ideas in extreme and standardized terms, allowing for too little nuance.  It’s either phonics or whole language approach to teaching reading. Curriculum should either be wholly scripted or entirely left up to creative teachers, writing should either be about process or grammar…the authors give a laundry list of such polarized education debates. Yet, it’s usually the case that the right answer lies in a blended and/or customized approach. Scripted curriculum is a good tool for some subjects, schools, or teachers, and in other cases, results are best when teachers have complete autonomy. In most cases, the answer likely lies somewhere in between the two extremes: some elements of a curriculum should be scripted and others left up to the teacher.

The most important lesson I took away from the book is that we don’t often (or maybe we never) get reforms exactly right the first time, and we need to expect that and account for it. This means being strongly grounded in our ultimate goal, as well as clearly laying out (and providing for) the assumptions implicit in our theory of action. It means involving practitioners in the design of reform to ensure we are able to anticipate as many unintended consequences as possible. And, most importantly, it means planning to gather feedback and adjust approach frequently after we roll out any reform effort, because we will do some significant number of things wrong on our first try.

Many of the David and Cuban’s ideas correlate with ERS thinking. We often help partner districts think through how to shift resources to accomplish comprehensive reform efforts that target all essential conditions and allow for customization across schools. For me, the 23 short vignettes on popularized reform efforts offered important reminders of the challenges associated with implementing reform ideas big and small. As the authors point out, reflecting on past failure is often the best way to improve future chances of success!

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