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From "Hard" and "Soft" to "Thick" and "Thin"

This article originally appeared in Education Week.

One problem with the school reform debate today is the way we cut the debate. One common way of pitching the problem is as "hard" versus "soft." In this telling, valor is awarded to those willing to make "hard" decisions: these people support merit pay, firing bad teachers, holding schools accountable, and closing failing schools. On the other side, from this point of view, are those who are "soft": people who are opposed to measuring outcomes, who in theory want to empower teachers but in practice want to support a failing status quo. Alternative certification and charter providers are good; traditional preparation and traditional public schools are bad.

Conversely, critics like Diane Ravitch take precisely the opposite view. In their view, the villains are those who want to "privatize" the system through expanded charters, increased merit pay, vouchers, union-busting, and other market-oriented schemes that challenge the fundamental nature of public education. Ironically, despite taking this stance, Ravitch casts the debate in much the same way as do her opponents: market-oriented reformers on one side and democratic traditionalists on the other.

I think we should see the problem in a different way - the key difference is between "thin" and "thick" theories of change. Policies like top-down accountability, No-Child-Left-Behind style, are "hard," but they have a "thin" theory of change--namely that if we set standards and hold people accountable for meeting them, they will figure out how to hit those benchmarks. Similarly, two decades of experience with charter schools (writ large) suggests that that is also a "thin" theory of change - namely that if we remove regulation and give people autonomy, they will create better schools. The idea of "relinquishment" today is another example: we assume that if we deregulate and give parents choice, schools will magically improve - again, possibly, but it is all dependent on who is running those schools, what they know, what faculty they can recruit, and so forth. Thin theories are attractive, because you can put them on a bumper sticker, but producing good education is hard, and thus most things that work take a "thicker" theory of change. ...

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