The Education Reform Book is Dead

I have a new piece in 10th anniversary edition of Education Next reviewing education reform books of the last decade.  My somewhat over-stated thesis is that the education reform book is dead — that books don’t have nearly as much influence in shaping the education policy agenda as they used to.

Here is a taste:

Why is it so difficult to identify a book that embodies the incentive-based reforms of the decade and relatively easy to list books that argue against them? One reason is that books have lost their place as primary vehicles for shaping education policy. Just like in other realms, books are being displaced by other media.

A film like Waiting for “Superman” can have considerably more influence over education policy than any book. Articles and reports can be released on the Internet as soon as they are written. Even blogs are swaying education policy discussions to a greater extent than books. The power of blogs is especially clear when it comes to debating the merits of the research on various policy questions. There is little point in writing a book that reviews and adjudicates research findings when online articles and blog posts can do the same thing and be available within days or even hours.

The lack of policy influence that is attributable to recent education-reform books is not for lack of sales. Some have even become national best sellers. The problem is that policymakers and other elites are less likely to be among their readers. Instead, the buyers increasingly seem to be those actively participating in education reform debates; the people actually shaping policy appear to be paying relatively little attention.

For example, teachers and others hostile to incentive-based reforms consume works by Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Tony Wagner to affirm their worldview. These books are not setting the agenda for policymakers. They are feeding the resentment of practitioners to an education reform agenda that draws its inspiration from nonbook sources and is advancing despite the hostility stirred by such books. These best-selling volumes are, in the words of their intellectual nemesis, “standing athwart history, yelling stop.”

One Response to The Education Reform Book is Dead

  1. Daniel Earley says:

    By contrast, I’m reminded of how successful Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in sparking its intended shift in public opinion. Of course, it wasn’t merely a book, but the most popular form of media consumption of its day. Its strategic equivalent today would definitely be as a movie release.

    I suspect that a near linear correlation exists between the time investment required to consume any media and the ingrained bias of the audience. Penetrating and disrupting our echo chambers requires much more nimble media forms, and even that is no small task. At the simplest extreme, even youtube and facebook essentially only perpetuate our echo chambers as well, just with much lower barriers. Of course, those lower barriers end up inviting a tide of attempts to capture our attention, which ends up reducing itself to noise. Selection bias is a tough egg to crack and requires an adept strategist indeed.

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