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The Value of a Simple Question

• Neil Ruddock

restroom sign1


I recently finished reading Tom Wolfe’s classic work about the Mercury 7 astronauts, The Right Stuff. 

To any kid-at-heart who ever set foot in the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum or elbowed a sibling out of the way to get the window seat on an airplane, the book is literary manna. Of all the wonderful stories, though, I was most interested in an incident Wolfe recounts about Alan Shepard’s historic flight.

Shepard was sitting atop the rocket that would make him the first American in space. Packed into his capsule like a sardine, Shepard encountered a problem that the nation’s best and brightest scientists and engineers had neglected: a restroom.

Though the flight itself was only about 15 minutes, the launch was delayed several times. Killing an American hero on live television was not part of the schedule. The coffee Shepard had consumed for breakfast didn’t seem to care about spaceflight caution, however, and was making its presence known.

Shepard relieved himself, despite the consternation of NASA staff. The successful flight relieved the staff. And the underlying lesson is one that education reformers should remain mindful of as we head into the holidays: the value of the simple question.

Reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act is now a done deal. While the various experts weigh in on the impacts of specific provisions, the back-to-basics sentiment of Congress (underlying the changes) is clear. Nearly 50 programs consolidated. With a few exceptions around school rating systems, more discretion for states and districts over accountability and funding streams. No more federal imprint on teacher evaluations.

The extent of the new freedom and flexibility is raising some eyebrows in the world of wonks. Every human being likes freedom and creativity. But most of us crave some degree of structure as well.

Votes don’t happen in vacuums, though. The 359-64 margin in the U.S. House to revamp federal K-12 law is a teachable moment for education reformers. The greatest blueprints and policy papers in the world mean nothing if they do not account for the folks in schools who have to implement. And the best laid plans are running into the reality that there may simply be a few too many of these plans out there, and not enough focus.

As is often said, there are no silver bullets. The challenges of K-12 will not be conquered in isolation. And a singular focus on a universal choice program, or the greatest teacher evaluation program, or the most scientifically sound curriculum (respectively) will not get the United States where it needs to go in the modern economy.

Multifaceted does not mean micromanagement, though. The new K-12 framework provided by Congress will make the work in state capitols even more vital than it already was. It will put a higher premium on state policymakers being clear about expectations and firm in their resolve. It will require a doubling down of reformers being visible and engaged at local school board meetings.

The freedom may also give some of our best teachers and principals the ability to spend a bit less time on paperwork, and a bit more time on meeting the expectations.

In other words, Washington is submitting a policy Christmas list to states and districts that is shorter, and which will hopefully allow for a return to focus on the basics. That is a good thing.

In that spirit, I plan to dispense with the Christmas lists that my siblings have provided and shall instead buy them gift cards, then reallocate the time I’d have spent shopping to take them for a nice cup of coffee, really focus on being a better family member to them.

Provided the coffee shop has a restroom, at least.

About the author

Neil Ruddock

Neil serves as a Regional Advocacy Director at the Foundation for Excellence in Education. He came to the Foundation after 3½ years with the Indiana Department of Education, first as legislative liaison and policy advisor and most recently as director of the Hoosier state’s new school voucher program. Neil has also served as a policy analyst for Educational Testing Service, and began his career on the staff of then-U.S. Senator George Voinovich. A native Ohioan, Neil is a proud graduate of Notre Dame and holds a Masters degree from Johns Hopkins. He is also a long-suffering Cleveland Browns fan. Neil serves as the Regional Advocacy Director for the Central region and his portfolio of states includes: Illinois, Indiana, Iowa, Kansas, Michigan, Minnesota, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Dakota and Wisconsin. Contact Neil at