educationreformMy 10th grade girls are all into HUGE purses, the size of backpacks. They can be very distracting as the girls rustle through the bag’s cavernous depths on a quest to find any and all manner of items. This spring I decided to institute what I thought was a fair and simple policy where purses would be placed in designated areas around the room before class began to eliminate this distraction.

The outcry was immediate and strong. The girls didn’t see the need for the new system and thought I didn’t understand them. (I’m a non-purse-toting man after all!) Many of them made passionate after-class arguments why this was a really bad idea. Had I not quickly reworked the system I may have ended up with an all-out rebellion on my hands!

This provides a perfect illustration for what I see occurring on a grander scale in Tennessee when it comes to education reform policies.

When it came to my purse problem, my solution to the problem of the purses became a problem in its own right that threatened to derail our entire classroom. I didn’t take the time or make the effort to understand those I was trying to serve. Education reform right now is in a similar place in Tennessee. While reformers are trying to improve the system, the perception is that they don’t care about the thoughts and feelings of important stakeholders. This has led to a strong backlash that, if left unchecked, could derail the entire education reform movement in Tennessee.

The Perception Problem

Let me be clear at the onset: I support the education reform movement. I believe that the status quo is not acceptable and that change is needed. I believe that our state’s reformers have the best motivations in their efforts to improve educational for kids. In the past three years we’ve achieved some remarkable outcomes and seen Tennessee become the fastest improving state in the country when it comes to education. My own personal experience tells me that reformers do care about stakeholder perceptions in Tennessee and that they do want all parties at the table.

The problem is that the public doesn’t perceive things this way. The general perception is that, in their rush to fix our education system, policymakers have systemically ignored the experiences and the opinions of those who work with kids the most, parents and teachers. Education reform is increasingly perceived by parents as a movement led by people that don’t care about the perspective of those in the communities they are serving. And it’s increasingly perceived by teachers as a movement led by people who don’t’ care about the experiences of those in the classroom.

I’ve shared my own beliefs, but I’m not here to rule conclusively on whether or not this perception is reality. I think that there are enough people out there already doing that. But from a policy perspective it really doesn’t matter if it’s true or not. Perception is more important than reality, and the reality is that this perception is increasing opposition to education reform in Tennessee.

The Source

This perception can be traced to the speed with which we’ve seen reform policies implemented in Tennessee. This speed is partially due to Tennessee’s status a first round recipient of millions of Race to The Top funds along with Delaware. In the last three years we’ve seen the elimination of teacher collective bargaining (not a part of RTTT), changes to teacher evaluations and teacher compensation and the adoption of new standards. We’ve seen attempts to tie teacher licensing to test scores, implement new state tests and create a school voucher system. We’ve seen the growth of school takeovers through the ASD and a veritable explosion of charter schools in urban areas.

I’m not commenting on whether any of these policies are good or bad. But either way, this is a LOT to accomplish in three years by anybody’s standards! And it can become a problem because, in general, human beings tend to be risk averse and avoid big changes to the status quo unless they understand why they are needed. Gaining widespread acceptance of so many big changes necessitates following a few principles.

First, policy makers need to make sure that people understand why they need these reforms.

Second, policy makers need to ensure that they continue to solicit the expertise of those that spend the most time with children, parents and teachers, before making their decisions.

And third, policy makers need to make sure that they incorporate stakeholder feedback into plans and do what they say they will do.

The Rebellion

So have these three things been happening in Tennessee around education reform? It depends who you ask, but my reading of the public perception in Tennessee is that people feel that if these things are occurring at all, they are token gestures at best. People feel that they are being ignored, and this feeling has become the accepted reality for a growing number of stakeholders.

This isn’t anything I can quantify in Tennessee other than my own observations gleaned from following education reform through newspapers, blogs and social media. That said, this feeling does follow a trend we’re observing around the country which has seen increased opposition to education reform policies such as Common Core, teacher pay, school spending and vouchers.

We’ve started to see this feeling play out in a number of ways here in Tennessee. At the state level, teachers, school leaders and elected officials are expressing increased dissatisfaction with the reform movement’s leader, Commissioner Kevin Huffman, in some cases calling for his resignation. We’ve also seen legislation aimed at eliminating the Common Core State Standards from Tennessee and pulling out of the new PARCC assessments and the defeat of a statewide voucher system.

At the local level in Memphis, we’ve seen public parent meetings turn into heated shouting matches over simple policies like the power to name a school. Even positive policies like teacher salary bonuses are being opposed because they are based on initiatives that are perceived as having been designed without stakeholder input.

The Warning

This should sound alarm bells to reform-minded policymakers. People don’t feel that they are being heard or that their thoughts are being valued. And it doesn’t matter if this is true or not. The perception is what it is, and really when it comes to politics that’s what matters. And if perception continues along its present course, we could see the tide turn against reform all together. This we cannot afford. Is there anything be done to reverse course?

I have three thoughts on this. First, policy makers need to take the first step to show the public that they’re willing and ready to listen to the thoughts and opinions of key stakeholders. A good first step would be to slow down the application of some policies such as using the new teacher evaluation system in personnel decisions.

Second, policymakers need to be transparent in showing that they are taking the feedback and incorporate it into their plans. They should also make sure that they are open about the ideas they are considering in order to give the public more time to digest those ideas. We did this very well at the onset of education reform by engaging numerous stakeholders around Race to The Top, and we need to make sure we continue doing this as we move forward.

Third, policymakers need to be sensitive to public opinion going forward with future reform efforts. We can’t continue to implement policies in the face of growing public opposition. They might make it through in the short run, but doing so threatens the long run sustainability of these same efforts.

Just like my girls resisted when they thought I didn’t understand them, so the people of Tennessee are showing increasing resistance to education reform efforts because they’re feeling like their policy makers don’t understand their thoughts and desires. If we’re not careful, this resistance may turn into full-out rebellion that sees the halting and rolling back of existing reform efforts.

It’s not too late to change public perception, but reform-minded policymakers can’t ignore this growing opposition. If they do so, in the long run they may achieve the exact opposite of their intent and leave our kids back at square one.

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