Don't keep it too simple!

Albert Einstein once famously noted that we should ?make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler.?

In spite of the string of policy victories we have seen this year (see here and here), he might be disheartened to see what has happened to the education reform debate of late.

Changing complicated systems?and there are few more complicated than our patchwork quilt of overlapping federal, state and local education policies?is necessarily iterative and incremental. Politically, you can't change everything at once, and everything you do change impacts other areas of education in ways that are often hard to predict.

Yet, in the era of 140-character debates and multi-million dollar ad buys, people on all sides often boil complex ideas down into pithy soundbytes and oversimplifications. But it's the ed reformers?the people trying to build something new?who will suffer the most from this trend because we're trending towards trading a comprehensive vision for a new kind of education system for a series of bold but isolated changes that will sell in state legislatures.

This year's ?message discipline? seems to have translated into a nearly myopic focus on teacher quality as the antidote for our student achievement woes. (In a blog post last week, Robert Pondiscio pooled together a drumbeat of soundbytes from notable reformers who touted the importance of teacher quality in the effort to close the achievement gap.)

Reformers are, of course, using this rhetoric to push important (and necessary) reforms such as overturning LIFO, encouraging alternative certification, and improving teacher evaluation. And, of course, as anyone who has worked in a school can affirm, great teachers can and do have a transformative impact on students' lives.

Unfortunately, in these like all political fights, winning often means overselling the impact of an isolated reform, rather than putting that change in the larger context of the systemic changes we need to truly drive student achievement.

Take Last In, First Out (LIFO) as the latest hot-button issue.

Will ending LIFO solve 100%--or even 10%--of our teacher quality problems? Certainly not. All it will do is help create the conditions where effective school leaders can make important hiring and firing decisions based on quality (rather than seniority) in tight budgetary times.

Of course it's essential for leaders to have the authority to make such critical personnel decisions. But as we push LIFO reforms, let's not forget that, while union rules do make it difficult, the vast majority of principals do actually have the power to document poor performing teachers out of a job. Yes, too few exercise this power. ?But why? And will ending LIFO make it easier for principals to let teachers go because they aren't moving the achievement needle? Hardly. It will merely makes it possible.

Yet, too much of our reform rhetoric suggests that changing the metrics we use to judge teachers or allowing principals to use those metrics in their layoff decisions will suddenly spur mediocre leaders to action.

That is to say that, if we want these bold teacher quality reforms to have their intended impact, they must be paired with policies that promote stronger accountability for school leaders.

Of course, this problem isn't unique to the teacher quality debate. For rigorous standards to drive student achievement, they need to be paired with improved assessments and tied to clearer accountability for results. And on.

In the end, if we reformers want to drive the kinds of thoughtful and systemic changes that are needed to improve education outcomes for all students, we need to do more than muscle through a series of bold but fragmented, isolated, and incremental policy changes.

You don't have to be an Einstein to realize that celebrating policy victories that were won by oversimplifying what it takes to run great schools and drive systemic change will catch up with us when it comes time to implement our policy solutions at scale.

--Kathleen Porter-Magee

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