That the current effort to improve and reform American schools has made some mistakes is hardly remarkable – history teaches us not to expect anything different from a two decade plus effort to tackle a complicated social problem and it always looks easier from the stands. More interesting are particular missteps, whether they could be avoided, and how to address them.
One that I believe has not gotten sufficient attention in the education context is the question or risk or stakes and what it means for people affected by various changes. It’s a piece of the larger issue of social and economic divergence in this country. When you spend time in a place like the Bay Area in California its impossible not to notice the difference in the culture toward work, institutions, and personal efficacy relative to other parts of the country and other industries. It’s not merely anecdotal. Surveys show that workers there are much more comfortable with creative destruction, risks, and losing or leaving their job at any point. An Accenture survey last year, for instance, found that almost 40 percent of Silicon Valley workers said they would leave their job “tomorrow” if they were upset with their company. Only one in four workers nationally say the same thing. Even fewer would say that in education where job security trumps many other values and priories in the organization of school systems. To some extent reasonable people can disagree about whether this state of affairs is good, bad, or mixed. But it’s not debatable whether underlying personal economics and competitive job skills play a role.
Have education reformers been as attuned to risk and what it means on an individual level as they should be? And if not, why?
Here’s one theory: For many people in the reform world risk is real but also buffered. Yes, there are plenty of people in the reform world who grew up in challenging circumstances with few material resources, we have some our team at Bellwether and they’re all around the country in various education roles. Many more than you’d know from the rhetoric of critics. But, given the demographics of college-going in this country, unsurprisingly many more grew up comfortable. Those circumstances will cause you to look at risk differently. Be honest, there is an enormous difference between taking a risk when the cost of absolute failure is returning to your parents garage with your tail between your legs and taking a risk when the cost for you or your family could be economic catastrophe. The informal upper-middle class social insurance that exists in this country is a powerful enabler.
Extend this to school systems where people are being exhorted to take more risks, be comfortable with less job security, and walk a higher risk/reward professional tightrope and you can see how those issues might be perceived differently depending on where someone is in life. Recognizing this is not a reason not to transform our educational system – which plays no small role in perpetuating material insecurity for many Americans – but it is a reason to be attentive to what disruption and adverse consequences mean and how they’re perceived by different stakeholders. It’s also an argument for policies that balance risk with reward. In D.C., for example, teachers could chose a higher risk evaluation system but it also came with substantially higher pay.
All this is not dissimilar to trade, a policy with macro benefits but acute adverse consequences for some individuals that a good society should seek to ameliorate. So we can’t stand still or fail to try to restore some balance between adult and child interests in the school system. Today’s state of affairs in the education sector is obviously untenable for the country. It is, though, worth pausing when you hear someone calling for more risk taking without an accompanying discussion of what those risks will mean to those ill-prepared to bear them and what can reasonably be done about that.