No more top-down education reforms. It's time for a grassroots revival.

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Bill Jackson

Editor’s note: Fordham President Michael J. Petrilli recently published a long-form article titled, “Where Education Reform Goes from Here.” Others have responded to that essay, and this post furthers that conversation.

In his recent essay, “Where Education Reform Goes From Here,” Mike Petrilli offers a solid menu of ideas for state and local policymakers who want to stay the course on school choice and accountability, improve teaching, and radically redesign high school. Personally, I find many of his ideas compelling. If I were a state policymaker, I’d be tempted to go big or go home, as Peter Cunningham suggested, and I’d be poring through Sandy Kress’ evidence about what works.

And yet I think something important is missing from Mike’s perspective: Looking ahead, I think we need to look much more at the how of education reform. For example, which of Mike’s ideas might be implemented by whom, and why?

The big, successful change efforts in American history have started with grassroots personal and spiritual change, continued to gain life in local institutions, and then and only then reshaped state and national policies. The abolition of slavery, the growth of universal primary and secondary education, the Progressive Era, and the Civil Rights Movement all proceeded roughly along these lines.

Modern education reform flipped the script. The nation’s governors met with then-president George H. W. Bush in Charlottesville in 1989 and set the stage for national education standards and more aggressive state leadership to improve teaching quality. When it comes to education, we’ve never had the equivalent of the Christian revivalist gatherings of the late nineteenth century that paved the way for the policy changes of the Progressive Era.

If you ask parents today what more they want from their children’s schools, you’ll get a wide variety of answers, but higher scores on standardized tests—the primary school quality measurement mechanism to date for the education reform movement—will not show up on most parents’ top-ten lists.

It’s time to flip the script back.

What if, as education reformers, we thought more about the revival stage, and then more about how to support the local practitioners who are breaking through and showing us how it’s done? Then, as it is written in the Book of Job, we can sit back and watch “the sparks fly upward.”

What might the education reform revival look like? Who knows. To get some clues, let’s spend more time with people like Colleen Dippel at Families Empowered, Veronica Palmer at Colorado RISE, and Matt Hammer and Jose Arenas at Innovate Public Schools.

Revivals are conversations among leaders and followers, and boy do we need those kinds of conversations. The “preachers” need to talk about how not all the children are OK. They need to raise awareness among parents that children don’t just need to be getting B’s. They also need to be independently reading good books, discovering important ideas, and demonstrating they can read and write well.

Then how might we kindle the fire so the sparks fly upward? Let’s study lessons from practitioners of “positive deviance” in healthcare and other fields. And then let’s reframe our mission as helping them go further faster to help more kids and to enable their good ideas and methods to spread.

It’s a local activity. What if all of us national education reformers agreed to hold hands and repeat a thousand times: “Education reform Is primarily a local activity”? And then those of us in Georgia went to listen and learn from and support leaders at schools like Arabia Mountain High School, and those of us in Arkansas went to listen and learn from and support leaders at schools like Marshall High School? Lisa Keegan and other people in Arizona are trying to do this.

Over time, this kind of thinking will catalyze the creation and growth of institutions that support excellent leaders and teachers, organizations like KIPP, Relay Graduate School of Education, Great Minds, Leadership for Educational Equity, and Pacific Charter School Development. The real reform action is in these national organizations and the thousands of local ones like them.

“Here is something to which every policymaker should aspire: using government authority to encourage non-government authority,” Andy Smarick wrote recently in his excellent Weekly Standard essay, “A Modest Proposal.” Amen.

Bill Jackson is the founder of Raise Ready Kids and GreatSchools.

The views expressed herein represent the opinions of the author and not necessarily the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.