For much of the last week, Eduflack has been down in New Orleans, living the edu-life. First stop was the Education Writers Association (EWA), followed by a multi-day play at the American Educational Research Association (AERA).
(As an aside, EWA has to be my favorite conference of the year. I have to attend A LOT of education events each year, and I thoroughly enjoy EWA. It is a fantastic opportunity for me to get to know a lot of the reporters and bloggers I know virtually, and I always get a kick when some of the associates consider me a “journalist” because of this little blog.)
At any rate, there was clearly a catch phrase at EWA this year from the policymakers and talking heads trying to influence reporter-think. “Let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” While I would argue that none of us in attendance are exactly a 21st century Voltaire, it was an interesting observation heard over multiple days.
EdSec Arne Duncan used it in reference to ESEA reauthorization. Again stating his belief that we will have reauth done before the start of the school year (and more importantly, noting that we NEED to have it done be by the end of the summer), Duncan made clear that ESEA won’t be perfect (he didn’t quite make Margaret Spellings’ 99.94% pure remarks). But real improvements must be made to the current law. We know what those improvements are. We have some agreement on those improvements. So let’s move forward now down the good path, knowing ESEA will never be perfect for all comers.
The battle between the perfect and the good was also made with regard to teachers and value-added evaluation. In discussing the great siege on Los Angeles teachers in 2010 (the LA Times is releasing version two of its teacher database in the next week or two) and similar pending efforts in NYC, the general sense was that revealing such data is a “good thing,” albeit an imperfect thing.
And similar remarks made testing and assessment blush, particularly on issues like common standards and adequately and fairly measuring student achievement across the nation and around the world.
It is all a subtle shift in rhetoric, but an important one for the school improvement debate. For about a decade now, we were certain in what we needed to do. NCLB was perfect (or 99.94% so). RF was perfect. SBR was perfect. AYP was perfect. And even now, CCSSI is perfect. But with all of this perfection, we’ve seen little growth in student achievement and little agreement on the paths we should head, the speed we should take, and the ultimate destination we should seek.
So now we are focusing on common sense progress. What incremental steps can we take? What promising practices can we follow? What gets us half of the way forward? Instead of throwing that Hail Mary we’ve all sought in education for decades, we have made the decided shift to a “three yards and a cloud of dust” approach lately. (Sorry, Mr. Duncan, they can’t all be basketball metaphors.)
Such a rhetorical adjustment has both its pluses and its negatives. It is harder for the opposition to remain strong when they aren’t fighting an “all or nothing” approach. It is more difficult to stand against forward progress, even if it is slow. But it is also more difficult rally strong support. For supporters, who wants to go slow or compromise or wait patiently?
Will the education community’s embrace of Voltaire win the day? The challenge EdSec Duncan and his supporters in the ed space have is a matter of priority. Championing the good is a fine strategy if we can identity primary and secondary needs at this point. But with ESEA, a range of funding issues from RttT to SIG, common core standards, revisions to AYP, teacher performance and incentive issues, and a host of other topics, something has to give. In the pursuit of the good, we have to recognize that even good can be subjective. We’ll never be perfect, but we still need to determine those one or two issues on which we can be really good this year.