Voices in Education

“I Used to Think . . . And Now I Think . . .”
At the end of a course or a professional development session, I frequently ask the learners I work with to reflect on how their thinking has changed as a consequence of our work together. This reflection takes the form of a simple two-column exercise. In one column, I ask them to complete the phrase, “I used to think . . . ,” and in the other, “And now I think . . . ” People often find this a useful way to summarize how our work together has changed their thinking and their habits of mind, and how we have influenced each other.

Recently, at a seminar on the future of school reform, I asked my colleagues—a group of people who have long been active in various strands of school reform—whether they would be interested in doing this exercise as part of our work together. My suggestion was greeted with nearly universal rejection. The possibility that one’s work might have changed one’s mind over a long period of time seemed just a bit over the edge for that group.

So I decided that I would take the occasion of the twenty-fifth anniversary of the Harvard Education Letter to try this exercise myself. I have been working in and around the broad area of school reform for nearly 40 years. This period has been the most active time of flux in the history of education in this country. How has my thinking changed?

I used to think that policy was the solution. And now I think that policy is the problem. I am a child of the 1960s—the New Frontier, the Great Society, the civil rights struggles, and the reframing of the role of the federal government in the education sector. I began my career working as a legislative affairs specialist at the cabinet level in a federal agency. I am the product of a public policy program. I taught for 11 years at a public policy school. And I have chaired the Consortium of Policy Research in Education, an association of universities engaged in research on state and local education policy.

Now I have to work hard not to show my active discomfort when graduate students come to me and say, as they often do, “I have worked in schools for a few years, and now I am ready to start to shape policy.” Every fiber of my being wants to say, “Use your time in graduate school to become a better practitioner and get back into schools as quickly as possible. You will have a much more profound effect on the education sector working in schools than you will ever have as a policy actor.”

What caused this shift? Every day, as I work with teachers and administrators in schools, I see the effects of a policy system that has run amok. There is no political discipline among elected officials and their advisers. To policy makers, every idea about what schools should be doing is as credible as every other idea, and any new idea that can command a political constituency can be used as an excuse for telling schools to do something. Elected officials—legislators, governors, mayors, school board members—generate electoral credit by initiating new ideas, not by making the kind of steady investments in people that are required to make the educator sector more effective. The result is an education sector that is overwhelmed with policy, conditioned to respond to the immediate demands of whoever controls the political agenda, and not invested in the long-term health of the sector and the people who work in it.

This condition seems to be a result of our particularly American form of political pluralism. It is not—I repeat not—the case in the other industrialized democracies in which I work, Canada and Australia. My own diagnosis is that this condition is a consequence of an extremely weak professional culture in American schools. Policy makers do not have to respect the expertise of educators, because there are no political consequences attached to that lack of respect.

For the future, I am putting my energy into building a stronger profession, not into trying to repair a desperately dysfunctional political system. For example, I am trying to build a practice that educators can use to observe instruction, in order to develop and strengthen the professional culture of schools. My work is increasingly focused on direct engagement with practitioners, rather than trying to “fix” schools with policy.

This article is excerpted from the Harvard Education Letter, (Volume 26, Number 1
January/February 2010). The full version can be found
here. This essay has since inspired I Used to Think . . . And Now I Think . . . Twenty Leading Educators Reflect on the Work of School Reform, a collection of essays edited by Richard F. Elmore, available now from Harvard Education Press.

About the Author: Richard F. Elmore is the Gregory R. Anrig Professor of Educational Leadership at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.