What Education Can Learn from Rock, Paper, Scissors

Most of us know the game rock, paper, scissors. Every time my sister and I had to wait in line for anything as kids, this was our go-to way to burn time. But rock, paper, scissors isn’t just for kids–it has a lot to teach us about education reform.

Rock, Paper, Scissors rests on a simple idea. Each player has three potential tools or choices at their disposal–rock, paper, and scissors– and no single play choice dominates all the others.

  • Paper beats rock because it can wrap it up.
  • Scissors beats paper because it can cut it.
  • Rock beats Scissors because it can crush them.

Sometimes, I feel like something similar applies in education reform. Efforts to improve education rely on three major tools: Talent (which includes teachers, leaders, and other human capital), organizations, and policies.

  • Everyone agrees that quality teachers are the foundation of quality education–call them the rock. But a badly functioning organization (call it paper) can stifle quality teachers and drive them out of the profession. Something similar applies to school leaders. As the head of one school leadership training program once told me, “If I have an ok leader in a great organization, I’d bet on the leader to succeed. Great leader in a crummy organization, bet on the organization.”
  • Effective organizations attract and retain quality teachers and educators and can produce great results for kids. But lousy policies (call them scissors) can create major barriers for effective organizations–cutting off their ability to have impact. Lots of charter schools and charter management organizations have learned this over the past decade.
  • Smart policies can eliminate barriers for effective organizations and educators, provide resources, and shift incentives for schools and educators. But a lack of the right people to implement policies can crush them. That’s a major lesson of our experience with Race to the Top and teacher evaluation policies. (I’d argue that a lack of the right organizations has a similar effect–but that would mess up my rock, paper, scissors metaphor by suggesting that policy is, in fact, the weakest of the tools available to reformers–more on that later).

So, what does this mean for education reform? It’s important for reform efforts to balance attention to all these factors–talent, organizations, and policy. Since I started working in education policy 15 years ago, the field has had a tendency to swing between these areas of focus, rather than keeping them in balance. For the last 3-5 years, there’s been a lot of focus on policy change, and a lot of focus on teacher quality–but not as much focus on organizations, at least in policy and field-level thinking.

That’s why the lede of this recent Frank Bruni column on Joel Klein’s new book made me cringe:

More than halfway through Joel Klein’s forthcoming book on his time as the chancellor of New York City’s public schools, he zeros in on what he calls “the biggest factor in the education equation.”

It’s not classroom size, school choice or the Common Core.

It’s “teacher quality,” he writes, adding that “a great teacher can rescue a child from a life of struggle.”

Now, I’d be the last person to dispute the critical importance of teachers to the educational experience and outcomes at the level of the individual child. And recent research has demonstrably quantified both that impact and the wide variation in how much different teachers advance students’ learning. But too often the response in policy and public dialogue has been to talk about “teacher quality” in a vacuum–without acknowledging that teachers work in organizations that impact both their success and retention. At the same time, education reform efforts have tried to use policy–in the form of mandated teacher evaluations that include certain key elements–as a substitute for creating the kinds of organizations that are able to develop and retain talented teachers and, when necessary, intervene with or dismiss weaker ones. But, since evaluating, developing (and yes, dismissing) teachers is something that happens within organizations and institutions, we shouldn’t be surprised by the challenges that teacher evaluation policies have encountered in practice.

I personally believe that there are two key lessons of the past 5 years of education reform: 1) Reformers need to act with much greater humility and pay much more attention to how parents, teachers, and students on the ground are experiencing the impact of reforms in the context of numerous other forces impacting their work and lives. 2) Reformers need to pay much more attention to the role of organizations and institutions and to stop viewing policy change as a substitute for creating enduring institutions that can foster talent and reliably provide the experiences that we all desire children to have in schools. I’ll have a lot more to say about this in the coming weeks.