Albert Einstein reportedly once said, “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” As I note in my new book, The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas, apocryphal or not, this line is a devastating assessment of a half century’s worth of school reform. To avoid educational insanity, we need to recognize how circumstances have changed and embrace a diverse array of reform efforts suited to the twenty-first century.
A year ago, my friend Diane Ravitch raised a furor when she charged in The Death and Life of the Great American School System that advocates of test-based accountability, mayoral control, and charter schooling had overpromised and naively imagined that these structural measures could “fix” schooling. This ferocious blast was well-timed and well-aimed, and resonated mightily. Ravitch went much further, however, labeling such measures a sinister assault on public education. Her useful blast at faddism got ensnared in a familiar trap: her stance allows the compromises and accidents from a century ago that shaped today’s public schools and districts to define the mission and scope of future public schooling. Thus, attempts to rethink governance, teacher evaluation, or incentives become “attacks” on public schooling.
The temptation to define the purpose of schooling based on the familiar leaves us wedded to arrangements that may have made sense a century ago, but that are poorly suited to today’s goals, tools, and resources. If these goals and tools have changed--and they have--it is only sensible to question whether yesterday’s concessions and chance decisions ought to steer our course. The proper measure of whether proposals are consistent with public schooling ought not be whether power, politics, or finances shift, but whether we are doing a better job of educating all children so they master essential knowledge and skills, develop their gifts, and are prepared for the duties of citizenship.
Harvard University Press officially launched The Same Thing last week. To get a feel for the argument, check out my November AEI Education Outlook “Doing the Same Thing Over and Over.” Or, if you’re inclined to something more rambunctious, featuring a healthy dollop of guest stars, check the live stream of today’s AEI launch event today from 5:30-7:00 p.m. EST. The event will feature Indiana state chief Tony Bennett, Louisiana chief Paul Pastorek, Gates Foundation policy chieftain Stephanie Sanford, and yours truly tussling over what “reformers” are getting right, what they’re getting wrong, and how to avoid repeating a half-century’s worth of familiar missteps. I think it’s safe to say that my critique of popular reforms like mayoral control, online instruction, and merit pay as frequently failing to break free from yesterday’s assumptions will provoke sharp insights and hard-hitting pushback from these heavyweights. Hope you get a chance to tune in and check it out.
The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.