74 Interview: Elliot Regenstein on Writing an Education Reform Book That Doesn’t Alienate Teachers

Author tells Conor Williams he want to “move people out of their trenches and into a conversation about what is possible” in improving schools

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I first met Elliot Regenstein at the tail end of a 2013 work trip to Chicago. I’d visited a few schools, attended a conference on young children’s bilingual language development and tacked on a meeting with Regenstein to round out the week. He was working in early education policy at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, and I figured it would be useful to add some real world connections to our occasional online correspondence. 

I was buzzing through my chest congestion (thanks to Chicago November weather and workaholism), because I’d come to his office fresh from a visit to what seemed like an exemplary bilingual elementary campus. 

After we sat down — ostensibly to talk about early education policy — I mentioned the school’s stirring atmosphere and vibrant decorations. “It’s just obviously a great school,” I gushed. 

But Regenstein, as a local, knew a little about the school, and had a question: “How’s their data look? Is that atmosphere showing up in better results for kids?” Whatever its flaws, he said, No Child Left Behind was a response to people walking onto campuses that seemed pretty nice … even if there wasn’t a lot of learning going on. And, perhaps predictably, this particular school’s academic outcomes were dismal. 

The rest of our conversation that day stemmed from that branch — what constitutes a great school? Can any of those elements be measured? How can the measurements we choose nudge schools into better, fairer behavior that advances student excellence? 

In the intervening decade, Regenstein and I have never really stopped that discussion. Our relationship has been almost entirely built around a progressive exploration of that one big conversation. Over the years, our conversations prompted me to write a few articles exploring how education reform could, well, reform itself and advance a better, more comprehensive theory of action for pursuing educational equity. 

Leave it to Regenstein to write an entire book, Education Restated: Getting Policy Right on Accountability, Teacher Pay, and School Choice, which he published with Rowman & Littlefield this fall. Early in the book, he writes that the goal is to “surface some of the hidden assumptions that are built into the current system and the ‘invisible boxes’ that constrain our current thinking.” After years — decades, really — of largely-unchanged reform thinking on testing, school choice and teacher policies, Regenstein explores how reformers and their critics might improve their debates and make some substantive progress for kids. 

After reading it, like so many other times since that first Chicago meeting, I chatted with Regenstein recently about the future of American education policy. This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

The 74: First, I want to clarify terms. This is a book about updating and refreshing education policy thinking … can you help us get clear on what you mean by ‘education reform?’ When did the last wave of reform start, and how did it, uh, happen

Eliott Regenstein: I use ‘ed reform’ to mean pushing for things to be different and better. So I think of K–12 reformers not as a category of people opposed to some other set of people in the education space, but as people engaged in an ongoing process of trying to learn and get better and do things that are going to help children in ways that we’re not currently doing. 

Sure — that’s sort of the dictionary definition version of ‘reform,’ but there is a real thing right now called ‘education reform’ that has existed in a coherent sense, and that the book is at least in part a refinement of that intellectual tradition. And I’m curious about where you clock the history on that? Where is that reform from? Why was ed reform? What was ed reform?

Sure. That wave of reform really defined my early career. It was an interesting product of a number of centrist Democrats and centrist Republicans who had similar ideas about the role of the state, and the importance of student achievement. 

For a couple of decades, that consensus held against the extremes, and there were some good reasons that it did. One of them is that education is an issue that doesn’t neatly track with the political parties. It’s just not that big a deal at the federal level. Almost no one in the federal government is there primarily because of education — outside of the Department of Education itself. That made it easier to forge consensus.

Also, in that era, the politics of state government, while ideological, were less nationalized than they are now right, with governors who were really trying to govern. Sometimes that would require, would permit, them to bring together leaders from multiple sectors, like the business community, the teachers unions, school management officials and such. Then they’d really try to come up with policies that reflected the consensus best thinking and a recognition that schools could do better.

During that period (roughly the late 1990s through the mid-2010s), I came to see the reform movement both as extremely powerful and thoughtful, but also as having some very real blind spots. 

And those blind spots have — to mix metaphors, I guess — taken a lot of the steam out of that movement, no? Reformers have run into real opposition from a lot of folks in education. 

Well, it’s worth saying that me coming from Illinois matters here. The Illinois Education Association has a history of collaborative engagement and working with the reform community and saying, ‘Look, you have identified real problems and we want to be at the table crafting real solutions.’

A good friend from the IEA who really shaped my thinking in this book told me early on, ‘Look, all these reformers write books with interesting ideas. But then, at some point, they blame all the problems on the teachers unions, and that means I can’t share it with my friends.’ 

So I wanted to write a book that is clearly not teachers union orthodoxy, but that a union leader could read and say, ‘OK, I don’t agree with all of this, but it’s not attacking me, and I can engage with these ideas.’ 

I don’t see reformers and teachers unions as being on opposite sides. I see them both working toward improved outcomes for kids, and sharing some values, whatever their disagreements. So I hoped to identify some places where they might have common values that could lead to common change efforts in ways that they themselves have not yet articulated.

It is really hard to engage in reform, even when the teachers involved desperately want it to succeed. Hoping to succeed at reform when the teachers involved don’t want it to succeed is pure folly, a recipe for failure.

How did you pick the three themes for the book? I’m on record arguing that reformers have long been too narrow. We know more or less what reformers want to do on testing, school choice and school accountability. But there’s not been anything like a reform consensus on, say, bilingual education, school integration, pre-K, housing policy, most pedagogical questions and more. I think my argument — reformers should be broader — is in tension with your push to get them to rethink accountability, teacher pay and school choice, no?

Well, first, I am not a curriculum and instruction expert, nor am I an expert on how to develop community schools. Those are incredibly important things, and there are a lot of good books about them. But I wanted to focus as a policy writer on topics where I felt like policy was driving the wrong behaviors, and where changes in policy could lead to better behavior. So my argument is not that these topics [accountability, teacher pay and school choice] are the only important topics. They’re not. My argument is that these are important topics where policy can make a difference, and that’s why I focused on those three areas.

Right. They’re structures that are amenable to policy changes — and that changes in those areas can shift responsibility, agency, and (hopefully?) behavior. But how do you balance the real goal of changing structures and incentives to nudge educators and schools to work more equitably against the real need to give educators, local and state leaders, etc enough flexibility that they can actually feel ownership over their choices … and authentically lead?

The thing about both the federal government and states and communities is that you are constantly balancing trust and distrust. This is a big theme of the book, and in the aggregate you have to trust states to do certain things, knowing that some of them will do things that you do not like, but that in fact represent the will of the voters in those states, and the reality is that on some of these issues there is no clear right or wrong, moral or immoral answer; and that, allowing states the flexibility to try some different things might actually teach us something.

What’s the future of testing and accountability? Do they have a future? Can they still serve to push schools towards fairness?

A lot of it boils down to the question of what makes a great school, and that’s a question that I try to attack frontally. Historically, we’ve focused on schools where kids came from wealthy families who would likely have been successful, regardless of how good the teachers were. And yet, some of the best work by teachers is being done in low-income communities with students who need a lot of help: Our measurement of school quality — measuring academic proficiency on tests — was just obscuring it. So I really want us to get to a more honest appraisal of which schools are doing well and encouraging more to do well.

You used early childhood education as a foil in the book. What are some of the key things K–12 policymakers and educators can learn from early ed?

There is a lot that’s different about early childhood than K–12. And in some ways, those of us who work on early childhood policy benefit from the experience of working in an unbuilt system. In early childhood some relatively basic building blocks don’t exist, and the idea of designing them is in many ways much easier than taking a built K–12 infrastructure and reshaping it after years and years of calcification. 

For example: in early childhood, children are not obligated to show up, and schools are not generally obligated to take them. And anywhere other than D.C., there probably wouldn’t be enough spots to take all the kids who might show up. Those are a fundamentally different set of starting assumptions than K–12, where families are required to send — and the schools are obligated to take — everybody.

That shapes parental choice in meaningful ways. In early education, there’s a recognition that parents need support in making choices about where to send their child, especially because the options are so varied. They don’t always get all the help they need, but that navigational function is seen as a core value. 

It’s also the case that it is a world without standardized test results, so if you are going to measure quality, it’s going to have to focus on process more than results, because the science of getting standardized results about 3- and 4-year-old children just looks really different than it does for high school kids. That makes it intuitive for early educators to focus on things like social and emotional learning, for instance. 

That’s not to say that K–12 is wrong to do the things it does. But I’m trying to think about gleaning the best of both worlds, where we draw some of the lessons from early childhood to influence the built system of K–12 while simultaneously building an early childhood system that maintains the best values of early childhood and helps import them into that K–12 system.

I particularly appreciated your treatment of standardized testing. Tests get blamed a lot for choices that schools and teachers make, even when those are actually ineffective choices like test prep. But those bad choices aren’t the tests’ fault — better pedagogy gets better outcomes

Standardized testing ended up in the reform deal because there was a belief in many quarters that there were certain kids, particularly low-income kids and kids of color, who, if you weren’t watching their outcomes, would just sort of drift aimlessly away, and that the system would say those kids are doing fine when they were not. That value attached to standardized tests is a real one.

But it is also the case that having standardized testing count for so much in the evaluation of schools has led to a whole set of completely understandable behaviors on the part of those schools that are not actually good for a kid’s education. You don’t see that as much with kids from wealthy families, who are going to pass the test regardless, but you do see it in places where there are lots of kids who are close but need some help to pass the test. 

Often those schools think, ‘Oh, if we focus on this test, we can get them across the line,’ and sometimes they use good pedagogy to do it, and sometimes they don’t. That’s a capacity problem that policymakers are ill suited to solving. 

So if you get rid of standardized tests, there is a very real risk that a certain population of kids are going to be very badly served, and if you make standardized tests the end-all and be-all, you’re going to get some of the bad behaviors that we’ve seen in the last couple of decades.

That problem is real, that tension between tests’ value and their distorting effect is real. Essentially, my argument is: Look, you can’t get rid of that tension, but you can build around it and create counterweights and other things that are valued. 

While they’re waiting for their copies of the book to arrive, what can folks do to usher in a brighter, more constructive version of education reform? 

Honestly, one of my dreams for this book was that people would read it and write articles disagreeing with it, and that I would then email those people politely, and then I would have a conversation with them, and that we would both learn something. I mean, I do that to people —

Can confirm. You’ve sent me those notes. 

I mean, it  would be a thrill right if someone wrote me: “Here’s where I disagree with Education Restated

But look, part of why I wrote this book was for reformers to read it and think, ‘OK, I recognize this. This speaks to me and my values and orientation. But I learned something. I see things differently now.” 

Even if folks aren’t entirely persuaded by my specific arguments, hopefully they come away open minded about topics that they thought they had a settled position on. The goal is to move people out of their trenches and into a conversation about what is possible. If anybody reads this and has that experience, I will consider that a success. 

The book does have that vibe. It feels like a chance to rethink reform without abandoning it.

Well, my experience has been that it is extremely rare to change people’s minds about what they want. What you can change people’s minds about is how they’re going to act on what they want. And that part of what this book is meant to do is say to both reformers and reform skeptics, ‘Look, you’re gonna want what you want, but given what you want, maybe there are different policies you could adopt that would help you achieve what you want and make common cause with people who you haven’t always thought of as your people.’

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