An Interview with Jay P. Greene: Failure Up Close

Jan 31, 2018 by

Michael F. Shaughnessy –

Jay P. Greene is endowed chair and head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Greene conducts research and writes about education policy, including topics such as school choice, high school graduation rates, accountability, and special education. His research was cited four times in the Supreme Court’s opinions in the landmark Zelman v. Simmons-Harris case on school vouchers. His articles have appeared in policy journals, such as The Public Interest, City Journal, and Education Next, in academic journals, such as Education Finance and Policy, Economics of Education Review, and the British Journal of Political Science, as well as in major newspapers, such as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington Post. Jay Greene is the author of Education Myths (Rowman & Littlefield, 2005). Greene has been a professor of government at the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Houston. He received his B.A. in history from Tufts University in 1988 and his Ph.D. from the Government Department at Harvard University in 1995. He lives with his wife and three children in Fayetteville, AR. He blogs at www.jaypgreene.com .

  1. Your Latest book –“Failure Up Close – What Happens, Why it Happens, and what we can learn from it?“ has been edited by yourself and Michael Q. McShane. What brought this book about?

I’ve been involved in education reform long enough to see reform strategies fail and then come back as a popular new strategy when little was changed beyond its name. There is nothing wrong with the fact that we fail, but I was troubled by our seeming inability to learn from these failures so that we tend to repeat the same mistakes. I thought a book that explicitly acknowledged and tried to learn from failure would be helpful in breaking this cycle. Mike shares my concern and is a fantastic editor, so co-editing with him made this effort as successful as it was.

  1. You have many of the leading thinkers about school reform writing in this book. Did you find any common theme or thread?

There were a few common themes we identified. To be clear, we didn’t tell the authors what policies they should pick to examine or what lessons they should draw. We just invited some of the sharpest and most honest people in our field and then listened to what they had to say. We heard them note the dangers of trying to end-run regular politics even though education policy is an inherently political issue that cannot be changed successfully without engaging in and persuading people politically. There are several more common themes, but that was the one that stood out to me the most.

  1. Honest mistake—what are some of the honest mistakes that have been made in the name of educational reform.

Most of our mistakes are honest. People are trying to make education better and that is a hard thing to do. The dishonest part is when we refuse to acknowledge or learn from them. The interesting thing about the book is that the authors generally picked reform strategies with which they were sympathetic to examine critically, so almost all are treated as honest mistakes – from teacher evaluation to NCLB to vouchers.

  1. Global question- looking back on President Obama’s 8 long years in office- what were some of the successes named by your contributors?

Since this was a book about failure, we didn’t have a lot to say about successes. Even if we were writing more about successes, I’m not sure that the Obama or Bush Administrations, both of which shared similar strategies, really have many successes to which they can point.

  1. Money is obviously always a factor or variable. Did any of the contributors delve into the fiscal issues or were they all political or other factors?

The authors picked the policy failures they examined and none of them focused on resource-based reforms. I’m not sure if that is because spending more money has become less salient of a reform strategy over the last decade or if it was just the luck of what people chose to write about.

  1. Charter schools, vouchers and other “reforms” were surely mentioned. Were there any surprises?

Anna Egalite had a chapter on failure stemming from vouchers and Matt Ladner had a chapter focusing on the failures associated with a narrow focus on no-excuses charter schools. Both of these scholars are sympathetic to school choice, so seeing their clear-eyed examination of the disappointments and limitations of those efforts is very illuminating.

  1. “ Disconnect “ seems to be a word that has been bandied about a lot over the last few years. Have there been any “ disconnect “ issues that you and Michael McShane ascertained ?

There are various types of disconnects. Rick Hess and Paige Willey discuss the disconnect between expertise and policy success. Dan Willingham discusses the disconnect between what is taught in education schools and what teachers actually need to know about psychology. Ashley Jochim considers the disconnect between the lofty goals of turning around failing schools and the disappointing experience of trying to manage school improvement based on formulas written in Washington, DC. Lastly, Matt Ladner explicitly considers the disconnect between the short-term test score success of no-excuses charter schools and their less impressive record changing later life outcomes. These authors didn’t use the phrase disconnect over and over, but the concept is clearly present throughout the book.

  1. Who publishes this book and where can readers get a copy?

The book is published by Rowman and Littlefield and can be purchased directly from them or on Amazon.

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