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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform.

Education Opinion

Unbundling the Schoolhouse & PDK's Schizophrenic Response

By Rick Hess — November 12, 2010 3 min read

The new Phi Delta Kappan features a five-article special section* on “unbundled schooling” (Full disclosure: I coordinated it). Featuring contributions by Paul Hill, Jim Spillane, Colorado state senator Mike Johnston, Harvard’s Jal Mehta and Liz City, and UPenn’s Doug Lynch, and a piece on the “declining significance of place” that I penned with Teachers College’s Jeff Henig, the articles extend the effort to reimagine schooling that I’ve urged in The Same Thing Over and Over and Education Unbound.

What is “unbundling”? It’s just revisiting assumptions regarding the structure, delivery, and content of schooling with an eye to improving teaching and learning. The contributors explore what unbundling might look like in practice; questions of oversight, professional development, and accountability in an unbundled world; what organizations outside of K-12 have learned; challenges posed by place-based governing arrangements; and potential pitfalls.

The unbundling process is taken for granted in most of life. We think nothing of it when new entrants or even familiar names reinvent the business models that prevail in travel, home building, insurance, or publishing. Today, educators casually peruse Slate or The Huffington Post without even thinking about the disruptions and job losses these have meant for established newspapers. That’s just the way life goes. In K-12--because schooling is publicly funded, governed, and managed--that unthinking doesn’t occur of its own accord. It must be championed and nurtured. In The Same Thing, I argue that it’s ludicrous to view such efforts as “attacks” on schooling. They’re merely attempts to rethink how we tap today’s tools and talent to address the challenges of 21st century democratic schooling.

All of which lends itself to an amusing irony. I’ve been honored to contribute regularly to PDK for a decade and was pleased when PDK‘s talented editor Joan Richardson indicated she wanted to publish the “unbundling” pieces. Indeed, I’ve always thought PDK‘s receptivity to my work represented a refreshing, reassuring openness to heterodox views. Thus my surprise when I opened the PDK to see Joan’s editor’s letter, devoted expressly to denouncing “unbundling” as a threat that would involve “tearing schools, and their neighborhoods, asunder.” She writes, “To deconstruct schooling in the belief that we somehow discover a new synergy when the pieces glued back together is nothing more than magical thinking. We don’t need more hand-waving over schools. We need audacious and comprehensive approaches.”

Joan seemed determined to misconstrue the work she’d published. Does she really think savvy thinkers like Spillane, Hill, Henig, City, et al. are in the habit of “magical thinking?” The contributions are rife with sober discussion of opportunities, risks, challenges, and practical suggestions. Indeed, unbundling is the antithesis of “hand-waving"--it’s an attempt to rethink our assumptions about how schooling should be understood and provided. It’s hard for me to think of a more “audacious and comprehensive” point of departure than that.

Joan also wrote, “Every time I encounter an idea like unbundling, I’m struck by this thought: This is an idea that some folks think would be great in urban schools, but they’d never accept it in affluent suburban communities.” I’m not sure where that came from. Not a single one of the contributors suggests that they’re talking about an “urban” solution. The whole point of unbundling is to envision how we can reshape teaching and schooling to better meet the needs of their students, whoever those students happen to be.

I’m frustrated by how often efforts to challenge familiar nostrums are casually dismissed with a litany of reflexive attacks--"this is an attack on schooling,” “this is only about urban schools,” “this is all part of a privatization conspiracy"-- without regard to substance or specifics. In the end, I’m not sure how to take PDK‘s seemingly schizophrenic inclination to simultaneously publish and denounce these articles. I wonder if this ever happens to friends like Dick Elmore or Linda Darling-Hammond? I guess I’ll need to ask.

*Note: PDK limits access to their full articles to members only.

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.


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