Thursday, March 5, 2009

Why SCORE Shoots and Misses

The other day I discussed the first meeting of a new statewide initiative here -- SCORE (State Collaborative On Reforming Education). The group is led by former Senator Bill Frist, and virtually every major leader in the state has bought in. The group is decidedly bi-partisan and contains representatives from politics, schools, businesses, and NGOs. I think the motivation for and aim of the group is laudable -- they want to bring everybody to the table and figure out a way to improve schools in Tennessee.

They give a convincing speech when they explain why their group is necessary. They emphasize that while many groups are doing good things around the state, that it's difficult to know what everybody is doing and who can help with various projects -- in other words, the system is fragmented and haphazard. They repeatedly emphasize that there's no silver bullet, so it's important that they bring everybody to the table for an in-depth discussion of what works and where we should go from here.

While I fully support the group, I have two major problems with the implementation of their plan. My first problem, and the one I'll discuss today, is that the whole program is fatally flawed unless they reverse course on their long-term plans. As of right now, they're planning on conducting the SCORE campaign for about one year. At that point in time, discussions will have been started, policies formulated, people motivated, and all problems fixed . . . or not.

The notion that they can permanently place the system on the right track in a year or less is somewhere between naive and ignorant. They justify their existence by discussing the lack of cohesion currently present -- but what do they expect to happen after they disappear? If we need a unifying presence now, there's no reason to believe we won't need it in the future. As currently formulated, the group is little more than a political campaign designed to excite everybody about education in the short-run. The current design fits perfectly into the reform and fail cycle that plagues education -- keep proposing new reforms every year or two and watch as they fail when everybody declines to buy into this reform when they another is coming soon.

At the end of the year, the group aims to have a number of reports regarding solutions and policies in multiple different areas -- which will combine to form some sort of manifesto for schools in Tennessee. It's entirely possible that a year from now the future of Tennessee schools will be much brighter than it is today, but it's more than likely that any agreed-upon reforms will be well off-track five or ten years from now without the existence of the group that drafted them. The hardest part of reform isn't deciding what reforms to implement, it's actually implementing them -- and this group won't be around long enough to oversee that process.

I fully support almost everything this group plans to do: bringing everybody to the table, having frank discussions, bringing in outside experts, and drafting plans and reports together are all significant steps in the right direction. But until the group has a plan that extends beyond a year, they're destined to fail.


Brad said...


Thanks for your kind words in support of SCORE. Like you, we believe there is no silver bullet for improving our nation's schools. Instead, we believe it's critical to bring everyone to the table to discuss "what works and where we should go from here."

We also agree that reform takes time. That's why we see SCORE as the first step in a much longer process of improving Tennessee's schools. As you know from looking at our website (, SCORE will spend the year developing a strategic plan for education reform in Tennessee. We know there will need to be follow-on efforts to SCORE, but we want those efforts to develop organically from the work we are doing and from the strategic plan we develop. Thus, we can't say for sure what those follow-on efforts will look like. Will they be called SCORE? Maybe, maybe not. But we know they are critical and we are committed to helping incubate them when we start completing our strategic plan in the fall. I hope that helps address your concern.

Thanks for your interest in what we are doing - please help spread the word!

Brad Smith
Executive Director, SCORE

Peter said...


I'm not sure it's a foregone conclusion that SCORE "shoots and misses." Not yet anyway. I was at the meeting as well (nice synopsis in the prior post by the way) and my largest concern is directly in line with yours: what, in the big picture, can get accomplished in 1 year?

And while the SCORE time-line strikes me as almost embarrassingly naive, I'm willing to temper that thought with strong dose of humility and what very well be my own naivete: The people pouring their energy into this endeavor have been around the (political) block more than a few times and they're clearly seeing something that we're not.

I also like the idea that SCORE isn't striving to become the sole purveyor of long range change - an institution with all the answers (both ends and means). A catalyst, yes, but not much more. I like the idea of order without a designer - I like it in biology and I like it in the market. It appeals to me here in SCORE as well.

We know well that education has emotional components as well as cognitive aspects. Perhaps SCORE reflects the emotional aspect of education: letting the powerful, the motivated, the invested, and the experienced know that they're not alone AND provide a forum for discourse supported with a variety of viable alternatives. With that groundwork laid, let these people go and do what they do best - all working together, each in their own way - to better education in Tennessee.

... like I said, it may well be my own rose colored glasses painting that picture. I will be surprised if anything comes of SCORE, but it will be a surprise both pleasant and welcome.


Corey Bunje Bower said...

No, it's not a foregone conclusion that it won't work. I doubt that it will work in the long run, however, if a plan to take this thing beyond a year isn't formulated. Without such a plan, even if everybody remains motivated, people and groups will start to go their own separate ways. Specialization and diversity may work in nature, but it's what SCORE argues is plaguing reformers right now.

Long-term reform is not a game -- it's serious and frustrating work. And right now this feels too much like a game to me. This can't be a political campaign. This can't be a PR campaign. It has to be genuine reform.

My guess is that a year from now some sort of plan will have been formulated, which is why I used the word "until." Until I see such a plan an action, however, I remain skeptical.

Brian Rude said...

I am always surprised when people want education reform with no idea, or at least little specification, of what that reform should be. In this case that is apparently seen as a virtue of the process. We'll decide what reform we want by discussing it. Call me a grinch once again, and I realize it's none of my business what Tennessee does, but to me that seems just the opposite of the best way to go about it. Reform in the abstract is no virtue. It's empty political rhetoric. If there are reforms that ought to be made, let's hear what the are from the outset. Let's hear exactly what we ought to change and why. Then, and only then, let the discussion begin.

I realize that in my perspective I am quite the opposite of a lot of people. But is there anything, in either politics or education, that does not warrant my cynicism? Is there any reason to think this is not just another political exercise based on political motives? Is there any reason to believe this sort of thing will be any more memorable than Goals 2000?

I’ll be glad to be proven wrong.

Corey Bunje Bower said...

BR: I couldn't agree more with your final three sentences. I fear exactly the same thing.

That said, I do think there is some reason for hope. They're not just blindly pursuing reform and setting unattainable goals -- they're bringing in people to discuss their experiences with specific reforms and creating teams to generate policy reports surrounding specific issues.

Will they be specific enough? I don't know. But I don't think this will result in a bunch of bigwigs simply agreeing that state graduation rates should reach 85% by 2020 and then patting themselves on the back for their effort and their lofty expectations.