Part 1: A Challenge

Two hours after the close of yesterday’s School That Can 2012 National Forum: Boston, one of our STC Boston school leaders gave me a call. He was doing his best to be polite, but I could tell he was a bit upset.


“Ryan,” he said, “I first want to say how well I think the Forum went overall.” At this point I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. “But that last session,” he continued. “Rick Hess seems to contradict everything we stand for as an organization. I just don’t get it. Why would you have people who don’t believe in sharing effective practices close out our Forum?”

My short response was to say that we didn’t just choose presenters and topics based on whether they agreed with us, but hoped to expose the STC community to a variety of ideas and points of view that might inspire conversation and thought. Rick Hess and Paul Peterson are both accomplished and intelligent thinkers whose ideas are influencing conversations about school reform, educational policy and school choice in particular, so it is worthwhile for us to be aware of them, even if we don’t agree with all their positions. Since he now realized that we weren’t in any way endorsing the ideas presented, our STC Boston member accepted my response and appeared comforted.

I was not. In fact, in reflecting on how significantly dissonant the ideas presented must have appeared, and in hearing and reading similar comments from Forum participants, I became less and less comfortable with this fundamental challenge to our core methodology as an organization and a national community of educators. Rather than ignore this contradiction or dismiss our presenters as ideologues I suggest we take their position seriously and rise to the challenge they pose.

Rick Hess in particular has argued that best practice sharing will never lead to the improvement of educational systems because 1) there is no “one best way,” and 2) even if there was, implementation is always imperfect or applied in the wrong context. He argues that children would be better served by removing barriers to innovation and allowing talented entrepreneurs to develop systems and strategies that best serve the needs of the students in front of them at the local level. Hess does accept the importance of accountability, but he argues that our system should be much less rigid and focus on a narrower band of regulations that would be less stifling of creative problem-solving.

Hess offers as evidence the fact that effective practice sharing has not yet transformed the educational landscape nor provided an excellent education for all. Clearly, most of us have seen, heard and been participants in many experiments in “best practice” sharing that prove him right.

My questions to all of you who take the work of Schools That Can, its mission and the methods we are developing seriously:

What do we have that proves him wrong? How will Schools That Can use effective practice sharing across sectors to transform the educational landscape in a way that no other organization has done to date?

Looking to STC Milwaukee, I don’t just believe, I know, we have a response to give, and I plan to offer one. What evidence and ideas can you offer to the conversation? Or, to paraphrase Clayton Christensen: in the absence of evidence, what theory inspires you to continue on?