Education Opinion

One Size Fits All

By International Perspectives on Education Reform Group — May 06, 2011 3 min read
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By Ben Daley

Several years ago, I attended a conference for teachers. The speaker at the podium was defending their support for a law that requires all teachers in the state to use the same textbook. The crowd of teachers was getting restless to the point that several were shouting back at the speaker. Exasperated, the speaker bellowed into the microphone, “But not every kid in the state goes to your school!” Yes, I thought, but your policy is affecting the kids in my school!

Recently, I was on a conference call discussing how to influence national education policy. One educator on the call said, “Well, I realize that this might not be feasible, but I was thinking about how England has a schools inspectorate where teams of people go out and examine schools to see if they are effective, rather than relying exclusively on multiple choice test results.” The response from one person on the call was to say, “We don’t have the capacity to do this everywhere all at once right now, so it’s not possible. Although I guess we could do a pilot... (and their voice trailed off dejectedly).” I wished I had thought to respond in the moment, “Hey, repeat what you just said, but in an enthusiastic tone of voice: We don’t have the capacity to do this everywhere all at once right now, but we could do a pilot!”

It seems to me that a key challenge for policy makers in any arena is to implement policies that help make the worst cases better while simultaneously avoiding making the best cases worse. Take the effort by some to “teacher-proof” the curriculum.

Those who want to teacher-proof the curriculum apparently see examples of ineffective teachers and want to do something about it, so they create a scripted curriculum and pacing guide. I imagine that they think to themselves, “Well, this may not be perfect, but it’s better than what those teachers were doing before.” I am willing to concede that it might be true that this kind of support helps some percentage of struggling teachers. Still, beware the law of unintended consequences. Some years ago, one of our local school districts embarked on such a plan. As a result, a number of strong teachers came to work at High Tech High, in their words, because they were “fleeing the district.” Years later, while that district is pursuing other strategies, we continue to benefit from the presence of these strong teachers. This district, presumably, continues to suffer from the absence of these same teachers.

It is frustrating to be on the receiving end of one size fits all strategies. As a school practitioner, no amount of flexibility is too much. I can’t imagine ever thinking, “Wow, those regulations have really improved our schools!” Still, at a national level, I do not think it is right to say that we should have no regulations, just let the market decide everything. I think we need a balance between bottom up, market driven mechanisms, and top down policies.

But please, policy makers, a nod to the Hippocratic oath: first, do no harm. One size fits all policies may make our worst schools better. They definitely make our best schools worse. Some subtlety is needed.

What do you think? Is it true that “sometimes in order to treat everybody fairly, you need to treat everybody differently?” Or is that a slippery slope, and we must impose the same policies on everyone? Is it possible and desirable to identify great schools and teachers and get out of their way while still implementing top down approaches to improve schools and teachers that struggle?

Ben Daley is the Chief Academic Officer for High Tech High and a faculty member at the High Tech High Graduate School of Education. He blogs occasionally at www.bendaley.com.

The opinions expressed in The Futures of School Reform 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.