Tag Archives: Frank Bruni

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: Continue reading