Published Online: March 28, 2011

The Futures of School Reform:
An Introduction and an Invitation

If we keep doing what we’re doing, are we going to get there?

The past decade has seen unprecedented efforts to try to better educate our neediest children, to fulfill America’s promise of equal opportunity for all. There have been glimmers of progress, particularly in math, but we’ve little confidence our current strategies offer a path to a world where America’s schools provide our nation’s children with an opportunity to realize their potential and their dreams. From this concern, a national working group on the “Futures of School Reform” was born in 2008. Composed of a dynamic cohort of education researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, the group had the charge of thinking anew about why current strategies for improving schools were insufficient and to lay out possibilities for how to achieve the nation’s ambitious aims.

Our endeavor was modeled after a similar effort by the Pew Forum on Education Reform, which one of us—Robert Schwartz—had helped launch in 1990. That group, which also brought together about 30 leading researchers, policymakers, and practitioners, coalesced around the promotion of standards-based reform. Twenty years later, two things are clear. Ideas have consequences—that effort spurred standards-driven reform in the states and helped form the basis for a federal standards-based reform strategy that culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act. And, whatever the merits of these developments, even their staunchest advocates concede that they have not been sufficient to deliver the transformational improvement we, the authors, believe American schooling requires.

The challenges are not limited to reform efforts of the states or the federal government. While excellent schools exist in virtually every urban district, it is difficult to point to a single large district where these schools are the norm rather than the exception. And while there are terrific individual charter schools and charter-management organizations, the evidence suggests that, on balance, charter schools are thus far no more successful than regular district schools. Even the most bullish members of the entrepreneurial movement acknowledge that there are substantial challenges of going to scale.

At the same time, there is strong reason to think that a more promising future is possible. The work of leading schools—public and public charter—demonstrates that it is possible to do dramatically better. The work of other leading nations demonstrates that it is possible to create school systems that are both higher-performing and more equitable. Examples from other sectors provide a range of ideas about how to attract and retain talented people, match them to appropriate roles, and create mechanisms for improving quality over time.

So, what might a more promising path look like? Unlike in 1990, we don’t think there is a single approach that would-be reformers should collectively embrace. Consequently, we have organized our work not around the goal of achieving broad consensus about a particular reform path. Rather, our goal has been to produce a variety of visions for what might come next to spur discussion and debate. In December of 2010, we approached Education Week to help bring this discussion to the public.

This Isn’t About One More Jar of Snake Oil

If the response of some readers to all of this is a weary, “Swell, just what we need, more fads and slickly packaged snake oil,” we’re entirely sympathetic. Indeed, one of us—Frederick Hess—wrote a book titled Spinning Wheels, which argued that urban districts were drowning in incoherent, half-baked innovations.

So we are decidedly not championing “innovation.” After all, decades of experience have left educators and parents justifiably skeptical of what is often little more than slick, vacuous jargon. When a fresh idea that may hold promise does come along, it is all too often oversold as a miracle cure. Advocates demand that favored measures be adopted everywhere, as rapidly as possible—until sensible ideas are turned into ill-conceived fads that eventually lose favor. The result is a tyranny of sequential orthodoxies: a succession of ill-designed or oversold schemes that take good ideas and then try to supersize them into inevitably disappointing new orthodoxies.

This exercise by our working group is an attempt to break that cycle by eschewing miracle cures in favor of tough-minded, creative problem-solving. American schools and schooling evolved to address particular challenges. Those challenges have changed over time, as have our tools for meeting them—yet our school systems have remained remarkably static. Most reforms amount to little more than an attempt to slather a nifty new paint job on the old chassis.

Seven Visions for the Future

The seven Commentary essays and a related blog, The Futures of School Reform, are an attempt to think about how we might begin to re-engineer that very chassis for new terrain and for making use of newly available tools, talent, and technology. So, the organizing question in each essay is not, “Is this new?” but “What’s an important problem we need to solve and how might we better solve it?”

Not all of the proposals will be politically feasible, or practical in the short term. Some readers will, doubtless, deem one or another piece downright objectionable. That’s OK. After all, while technology skeptics fret about the “perils” of virtual learning, it was once books and the printing press that were feared by educators worried that students would learn the wrong things if left to read on their own.

There is no presumption that these visions are the only or the best paths forward. Rather, they reflect the passion and expertise of the contributing authors. Our hope is that they may stir rich discussions about policy, institutions, pedagogy, technology, and the rich opportunities to rethink American schooling in the light of a new century.

You will encounter a range of ideas in the weeks ahead. These include a proposal to transform schooling from an industrial-age bureaucracy into a knowledge profession and lessons from PISA’s leading nations on how to move toward higher performance. There are ideas on how to reorganize the field to make it more attractive to talent, and, conversely, a recommendation to stop looking for more “super-people” and instead to “unbundle” teaching into a more manageable job. There is an argument for a new and different role for markets in schooling, a proposal to marry school and social reform, and a vision that looks beyond schools altogether. These ideas overlap in places, but they also conflict, sometimes sharply. Our hope is not to see them as isolated possibilities but as provocations in a debate over the future of our schools. We invite you to comment on The Futures of School Reform blog, where we will respond to your views of our proposals, and where we will also post your alternative paths for the future.

Twenty years is a long time. Twenty years ago, Teach For America was but a Princeton thesis, the Internet was not available to the public, the strong consensus was that the federal government should have a limited role in education, and many of the organizations that dominate the educational landscape today were nonexistent. Twenty to thirty years is also how long it took school systems in countries like Finland to turn into educational leaders. Significant improvement is clearly possible in a generation—if we devote our energies to the right path. But which path is the right one? We are looking forward to the debate.

Vol. 30, Issue 26

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