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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

How School Reform Can End Up Like Stone Soup

Reform is almost never just a simple question of “what works”
By Rick Hess — September 06, 2022 3 min read
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As schools seek to spend federal COVID-relief funds and overcome the devastating effects of school closures, there’s been a run on all manner of interventions and programs—from tutoring to summer programs to SEL.

The admirable urgency and optimism with which advocates promote these and school leaders embrace them can make it tempting to suspend skepticism and wave away potential complexity. This isn’t a new challenge. It’s bedeviled generations of would-be school reformers.

On that count, as I observed several years ago in Letters to a Young Education Reformer, the old parable about “stone soup” is instructive in explaining why. In case you don’t remember it: After the Revolutionary War, three soldiers were making their way home through the New England winter. Cold and hungry, they came upon a village. They knocked on doors, asking for carrots, onions, rabbit—anything that villagers could spare—only to get turned away. Finally, the soldiers knocked on a door and asked only for a cooking pot. The villager said, “Sure.” The soldiers filled the pot with water from a nearby stream, built a fire in the middle of the village, and set the pot to boil.

When a couple villagers stopped by to see what was up, one of the soldiers tossed a large stone into the pot. When a villager asked about the stone, the soldier explained, “We’re making stone soup. When it’s ready, you can have some. It’s amazing. You’ll love it.” He paused. “The only thing,” he said, “is that it’s even better with a little carrot.” The villager promptly said, “I’ve got some carrots. I’ll go grab a couple.” After those got tossed in, the soldier mused, “This is going to be sensational, but stone soup is better still with a little onion.” Another villager popped home and brought back a few onions. By the end of the day, the pot was filled with good stuff, the soldiers gorged themselves, and the villagers all agreed that stone soup was the best soup they’d ever had.

The tale should feel familiar to anyone who has seen promising school reforms dazzle and then disappoint. Pilot programs invariably benefit from enthusiastic leadership, foundation support, intense hand-holding from experts, waivers from contracts and district regulations, teachers and families excited about the program, and more. Not surprisingly, things tend to work pretty well. Seeing the results, eager imitators try to scale the innovation to new sites that don’t have any of that support. The result? The reform disappoints, and onlookers lament about implementation problems. Frequently, the “reform” amounts to the stone in the soup. When other schools or systems try it, the other ingredients usually get left out, and would-be imitators wind up sipping hot pebble water.

In the throes of passion, it’s all too easy to overlook these pitfalls. Even after scores of similar failures, an ardent reformer can insist, “But this stone works so damn well! I’m sure we’ll see these same results elsewhere, even without those other frills.” Thus, school reform starts to resemble Charlie Brown’s perpetual race to kick that football, only to be thwarted each time Lucy yanks it away. Passion leads reformers to redouble their efforts, seeking an even better stone or to run to the ball even faster. You won’t be shocked to learn that this doesn’t usually work. Reformers are better served by cultivating a dispassionate appreciation for the reality of reform.

In the end, the measure of a would-be school reformer shouldn’t be their passion but whether they yoke that passion to forethought, humility, and reflection. This means not just citing evidence they like and dismissing that which doesn’t help their cause. It means knowing that reform involves winners and losers, values and unanticipated consequences, and is almost never a simple question of “what works.”

That’s a high bar. But I think it’s a useful one.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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