Don’t Surrender the Academy

The case for donors to get involved with schools of education

For two decades, education conclaves have featured impassioned reformers, frustrated by the state of teacher preparation and education research, declaring that “We’ve got to blow up the ed schools.”

Why the hostility? Instructors at education schools often throw up obstacles to some of the most promising ideas in school reform, like teacher accountability, non-traditional recruiting, alternative certification, use of monetary incentives, and school choice. Unable to get a foothold in colleges, reformers have largely surrendered the commanding heights of academe to ed-school professors devoted to protecting the status quo in school management. Reformers take refuge in the foothills—starting nonprofits and small businesses to train principals and superintendents, relying on think tanks and advocacy groups to spread their ideas, and turning to unconventional sources like Teach For America as talent pipelines. The reform community has enjoyed some success with these tactics, but it’s been inevitably limited. There are 8,000 school superintendents in America; the Broad Superintendents Academy produces a dozen great new ones annually. In a nation of 3.3 million teachers, TFA provides no more than 6,000 raring to break molds per year.

Moreover, many of those TFA alumni eventually head off to schools of education (where you must punch your ticket in order to progress along the tenure and salary assembly line set up by most school districts). There they spend years being tutored by professors who believe school choice is morally dubious, “efficiency” is a troubling concept, strict discipline constitutes cultural imperialism, and the real solutions to lousy schools are reducing poverty, adding “professional development,” and increasing expenditures.

A few dozen reformist scholars at think tanks and in academic departments are dwarfed by the tens of thousands of faculty in teacher-preparation programs at state colleges of education. Not coincidentally, the lion’s share of reform-minded academics today almost all work in departments outside the education establishment: Eric Hanushek, Terry Moe, Checker Finn, Paul Peterson, Caroline Hoxby, Marguerite Roza, Dan Goldhaber, Paul Hill, Macke Raymond, and the like are all found in economics departments, policy schools, or think tanks.

This won’t do. Economics departments and policy schools can only offer perches for a handful of education specialists. And because these thinkers are not instructing education students, they are isolated from the rising generation of teachers and school leaders. Their remove from education networks on and off campus also makes it tough for them to alter professional norms, build new communities of thought, or connect with young talent.

Teacher-preparation programs make lots of money for the colleges that run them. They enjoy strong back-scratching relationships with the local school systems surrounding them. Schools of education are closely connected with the national associations of superintendents and principals (many of whom are alumni), and they have the ear of school boards and state legislators. Even if a reform-minded dean should sweep into such a school, the rank-and-file faculty members who embody the field’s conventional wisdom will routinely outnumber and outlast him.

Given their steady revenues, credentialing authority, political relationships, and millions of alumni uninterested in major change, “blowing up” the existing schools of education is just not a viable option. That poses a thought: If they can’t beat ’em, maybe education reformers should join ’em? There would be many payoffs if new thinkers were planting their flag and bringing reform research and analysis to ed-school campuses.

For one thing, faculty at major universities have an outsized influence in setting the nation’s research agenda, steering professional academic associations, directing federal research funding, and training the next generation of education thinkers. A university setting can confer greater credibility on reform-friendly scholarship. Op-eds and declarations by Ivy League professors come with a built-in megaphone that amplifies even banal arguments and findings. Terrific studies by independent scholars or organizations can also be influential, but don’t have this same institutional heft.

Also, universities can provide stable financial support. It costs up to hundreds of thousands of dollars a year in salary, benefits, and research, travel, and office expenses to support a top-flight scholar at a think tank. Salaries and overhead support, teaching assistants, access to the college fundraising apparatus, and other university amenities massively subsidize faculty at education schools. Why should reformers cede that turf?

Further, the presence of pedigreed, reform-minded scholars can make it more comfortable for graduate students, young faculty, and aspiring educators to question ed-school dogma. Education researchers frequently drift into conventional thinking not necessarily out of conviction, but because that’s how pretty much everyone around them thinks and talks. They enter a community where academic publication, perks, and jobs all come more readily if they, like everyone else, assume certain things. The range of “legitimate” thinking can and should be expanded.

It’s a huge mistake to regard ed schools as implacably hostile. Ed schools are shifting assemblages of individuals, with views that are not preordained. Instead of writing off all the institutional heft that ed schools control, it’s time for reformers to get in the ring and work to ensure that some top colleges of education become places that can produce and host a healthy quotient of reform-minded thinkers. With the right strategy, this can be done.

Learning from the law

Forty years ago, would-be reformers in the legal community faced a similar predicament: entrenched, dominant opponents in the academy and the profession. The battle lines were different—the legal divide was much more of a liberal-conservative split, whereas school reform today attracts supporters across the political spectrum—but the dynamics were familiar.

In the early 1970s, conservative legal thinkers lacked a presence within the academy where they might convene or train the rising generation. Even intellectually curious students saw little evidence of credentialed thinkers disagreeing with liberal verities, so aspiring legal minds casually absorbed those assumptions as uncontested truths.

As Johns Hopkins political scientist Steve Teles explains in The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement, “conservatives began investing in a broad range of activities designed to reverse” this situation. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, a savvy coterie of strategic funders and reformers started to build an infrastructure to challenge the establishment. In 1980, Michael Horowitz penned a seminal report for the Sarah Scaife Foundation, urging a substantial investment to get conservatives a place at the table and a fair hearing in university programs.

Entrepreneurial lawyers and movement leaders forged ties with young legal scholars like Antonin Scalia, conservative law students, and key foundations. The coalition built a networking organization, created programs and funded faculty in existing law schools, and founded some new, competing institutions. Three efforts are particularly relevant here.

One was the Federalist Society. Launched by law students at Yale, Harvard, and the University of Chicago in 1982, the Federalist Society built networks and created forums to air conservative arguments, emphasizing discussion and debate rather than decreeing set positions. Growing quickly, it became a magnet for noted law faculty, conveying to students that conservative thought was worthy of consideration and creating a safe space to question law-school orthodoxies. Today, the Federalist Society has 40,000 members, including a raft of influential law school faculty, attorneys, advocates, and judges. This has ensured that the elite schools, gatekeepers to the legal profession, have produced a steady stream of capable, credentialed conservative thinkers.

A second relevant example, taking place at about the same time, was the push by legal reformers to create “law and economics” programs at top law schools. The Olin Foundation spearheaded an effort to fund faculty, curricula, and guest lectures, which introduced the logic of competitive markets and a tempered view of government regulation into legal decisionmaking. This strategy benefitted from millions of dollars in private philanthropic funding during the 1980s, predominantly provided by Olin, but also by donors like the Bradley, McKenna, Earhart, and Sarah Scaife foundations.

As a third precedent for ed-school reform, consider the rise of the George Mason University School of Law. In 1985, Henry Manne, a recognized authority in law and economics, was recruited to build a law school from scratch. Whereas law and economics programs at elite institutions had to adapt to institutional norms, Manne was free to launch an Austrian-flavored program free from such constraints. While lacking a significant endowment, alumni network, or institutional brand, the new school enjoyed enormous success as a place of refuge for conservative scholars, some of whom went on to win Nobel Prizes and other honors.

Three strategies

For donors seeking to apply the successes of the legal reform movement to the world of education, the examples above suggest three broad strategies.

A first is the Federalist Society model, which entails launching an organization to help ensure that junior faculty and graduate students in schools of education encounter reform thinking and have the opportunity to take its tenets seriously. A network of Federalist Society-like chapters at elite education schools (including Harvard, Stanford, Vanderbilt, Columbia, and so forth) could bring new voices to campus, advocate for new course offerings, and make the case for more intellectually diverse hires. There’s a ready array of relatively inexpensive but potentially promising complementary investments in campus chapters, including scholarships, post-doctoral fellowships, and conferences.

A second strategy is the law and economics model: endow new faculty chairs reserved for reformists, create lecture series, and fund new instructional programs. Universities are often amenable to establishing new chairs or programs, even when current faculty object. Education schools may prove surprisingly open to donors interested in supporting individuals or programming focused on education markets, teacher incentives, accountability, entrepreneurship, and such. Dumping in money without carefully spelling out conditions would simply subsidize the status quo but, if requirements and boundaries are defined in long-term agreements, the legal experience shows that defeatism is unwarranted. Indeed, recent ventures like Harvard’s Strategic Data Project (headed by professor Tom Kane) and Stanford’s Center for Education Policy Analysis (headed by professor Susanna Loeb) show that it’s possible to launch initiatives that remain admirably free from convention and committed to empirical rigor.

The George Mason model entails founding new institutions. Here, readers may think of terrific startups like the Relay Graduate School of Education or the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. But these programs are small and relentlessly focused on teacher preparation, meaning they don’t provide the ancillary benefits of a university. One tack might be to invest in building those programs into something much more akin to a full-service education school. Another would be to create new, free-standing departments within existing schools of education focused on alternative certification or new ideas for addressing pressing problems. A third possibility could be to approach elite universities that don’t have schools of education (like Rice or Georgetown) and offer to found a flagship program centered on a reformist perspective.

What this means for K-12

The ground is fertile for these changes. Twenty years ago, it would have been tough to identify a half-dozen education professors at elite institutions who were sympathetic to the tenets of contemporary reform. Today, there are dozens of such faculty, who are fair-mindedly studying teacher pay, accountability, charter schooling, and much else once verboten.

Teach For America is pumping hordes of alumni through (mostly elite) ed schools, while more than one fourth of Education Pioneers alumni have degrees in education. Even faculty are more open to reform than before. Pollsters Steve Farkas and Ann Duffett reported in 2010 that 66 percent of teacher-prep faculty think that the system “needs many changes” and 86 percent say it should be “easier to terminate unmotivated or incompetent teachers—even if they are tenured.”

Funding from donors like the Gates, Walton, Kern, Broad, and Arnold foundations for new organizations and research has shifted the center of gravity in K-12 education policy. This is a propitious moment to consider institutionalizing some of the new perspectives on specific campuses.

In truth, this has already been tried in education, to excellent effect. A decade ago, a pair of $10 million gifts from the Windgate Charitable Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation established a Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. These donations, complemented by the university’s matching gift program, created six endowed chairs as well as generous fellowships for ten graduate students each year. Arkansas recruited Jay Greene, an authority on school choice, away from the Manhattan Institute to chair the department. A political scientist who had spent his early career in think tanks and departments of political science, Greene is the kind of scholar one would never have expected to turn up in a school of education. He quickly moved to recruit a similarly unconventional faculty, including Patrick Wolf, a political scientist who had led the federal evaluation of the D.C. voucher program, and Robert Costrell, an education economist who had advised Republican governors. With deep coffers and extensive contacts, the department was able to arrange a steady stream of A-list speakers, becoming something of an academic salon for reform-minded scholars.

Arkansas’s education-reform department has put a decidedly non-elite education school on the national map. The faculty, funding, and culture attract graduate students interested in questions of school choice and teacher pay. Graduates meet a glaring need among reform organizations for young, smart, trained scholars. Arkansas alums can be found today in influential roles at places like Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes, the Arnold Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, and my own American Enterprise Institute.

The Arkansas example suggests that the legal reform strategy is not only viable in education, but relatively cheap. The investment to establish this program is dwarfed by the dollars that foundations have spent to build alternatives capable of doing these same things in non-campus settings.

Taking reform to the next level

This is not to say that donors already involved in education reform should alter or abandon their current strategies. The point is just that there is a promising opportunity for savvy, complementary investments that can offer a terrific long-term return. K-12 reformers have done a good job launching a barrage of advocacy and reform organizations and fighting in the halls of policy. These results are notable. The success of the conservative legal movement offers education reformers of all political persuasions a lodestar for taking their movement to the next level.

Some tactics that can help on this score:
First, think long term. The key donors behind legal reform trusted the individuals they funded to build results incrementally, without harrying them to meet immediate “metrics,” an approach that runs contrary to much philanthropic strategy today.

Second, breaking up a sclerotic orthodoxy is all about airing ideas, not (at least initially) seeking converts. Rather than promoting specific platforms, entities like the Federalist Society emphasized free and open debate. This allowed novel ideas to become more familiar and receive a fairer hearing in the hallowed halls.

Third, invest in people. The success of the legal-reform movement in influencing the bench, the canon, and the legal education culture was the organic result of the academic and professional networks it fostered. The organizations created had no short-term policy agenda and did no advocacy. (In this way, these investments were very different from K-12 reform efforts today, where short-term advocacy has been heavily emphasized.)

“Blow ’em up” is the disgruntled cry of the defeated. Reformers should instead try to plant their flag, too, on the commanding heights. The goal is not to silence other voices, but to break the monopoly and insist on a fair competition. This makes for a manageable task—after all, it’s a call to make colleges of higher education more diverse. How can a twenty-first-century academic oppose that?

Reformist groups like TFA, the Broad Superintendents Academy, and Democrats for Education Reform have challenged comfortable assumptions, attracted talent, created professional opportunities, and forged networks and forums that allow fresh thinking to emerge. Now, imagine if these were not lonely outposts deep in the foothills but housed right within established schools of education. That would be good for research, good for policy and practice, good for aspiring educators and leaders, and very good for America’s kids.

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