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School & District Management Opinion

An “American” Approach to K-12 School Reform

By Rick Hess — November 28, 2011 4 min read
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A recent series in The Atlantic has explored the “secrets of innovation” and asked which nations the U.S. ought to emulate in seeking to regain our competitive edge. As part of it, I was asked to offer my take on the K-12 question. Despite all the preaching by the high priests of international mimicry (see Marc Tucker’s new book Surpassing Shanghai or, well, anything by McKinsey & Co.), I counseled that the U.S. would do well to chart our own course. (An earlier version of this piece appeared in The Atlantic, but I thought I’d share a tweaked version with RHSU readers.)

When asked how to boost America’s educational competitiveness, a staple response is the emphatic assertion that we need to be more like Nation X. It can be South Korea, Finland, or wherever country the guru has visited most recently. But, just for a moment, let’s entertain the radical proposition that a better course is to tap into uniquely American strengths like federalism, entrepreneurial dynamism, and size and heterogeneity.

Those besotted with international envy find it hard to accept that America’s “handicaps” are the inevitable flip side of its unique strengths. Rather than figuring out how to undo them, we would be better served figuring out to leverage them.

American federalism frustrates “Nation Xers,” who see states not as laboratories of innovation but as unruly children that need to be firmly brought into line. Thus, they champion national policies for teacher recruitment, preparation, and evaluation. Yet, as with welfare reform, our federal system offers invaluable opportunities to explore different approaches to incentives, monitoring, and delivery. Since the “right” model of teacher evaluation or preparation is hardly self-evident, much less the “best” way to help teachers use new technologies like computer-assisted tutoring or online instruction, this natural variation provides an invaluable asset.

American growth and prosperity have long been fueled by a dynamic private sector supported by sensible public investments in research, transportation, and ensuring honest and open markets. In automobiles, air travel, appliances, media, personal technology, software, and any number of venues, entrepreneurs have lit our path.

America is a really big country. By population, it’s the third largest in the world, and it boasts the most racially and culturally diverse society in history. This is a huge impediment for those who dream of mimicking national policies suited to tiny islands of homogeneity, like Finland. However, this makes the U.S. capable of embracing and supporting many models of teaching and schooling, with each still able to reach critical mass.

The idea that America has unique competitive advantages in K-12 is a radical one. More prevalent are grandiloquent international best practice reports, from the likes of the National Center on Education and the Economy or McKinsey & Co., in which the authors identify a couple of homogenous nations the size of Minnesota that produce good test scores, cherry-pick a few of their educational practices, and then draw broad prescriptions.

Such reports represent a triumph of the bureaucratic mindset and a disdain for America’s historic strengths. Earlier this year, the Washington Post‘s Charles Lane eviscerated the fascination with Germany’s economic “miracle” as a case of latching onto a “foreign flavor of the month.” He recalled the awe that the smart set once evinced for the economies of “Japan, Inc.” and the Soviet Union, and noted that Germany’s current success benefits from liberalization “that made the country a little bit more like...the United States.” Lane wisely advised, "[While] there’s plenty we can learn from the Germans, Japanese, Chinese, [and everyone else]...Americans need to identify our comparative advantages--social, cultural, political and economic--and exploit them, instead of worrying about copying the competition.”

Embracing America’s comparative advantages requires appreciating that, when the world changes, the challenges, as well as the tools, talent, and technology at our disposal, also change. Seeking to provide high-quality instruction to every child in the 21st century is a sea change from our agenda a century ago--when we only expected one student in ten to finish high school and when it was impossible to instruct a child who was 1,000 feet away. Today, we can meet new demands by drawing upon a talent pool and tools unimaginable in 1911.

American K-12 schooling is a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving on this front. Non-profits like Teach For America, Florida Virtual School, The New Teacher Project, Carpe Diem, and Citizen Schools are showing new ways to recruit and utilize educators. For-profits like Wireless Generation, Tutor.com, Pearson, Discovery, and Rosetta Stone are offering up a range of ways to harness new tools and technology to support teaching and learning. Figuring out how to leverage these new problem-solvers is a place where our state systems, districts, and schools have fumbled badly. This is an area where would-be reformers have devoted far too little attention. Meanwhile, not only have the “best” performing nations not done any better on this count, but the schemes promoted by those covetously eyeing Finland inevitably entail oodles of regulations and rule-writing calculated to stifle such providers.

Indeed, if we look to nations that are gearing up to lead the pack in 2052, rather than 2012, we see that countries like Qatar and India are busy spying on these American ventures to help them make the leap. We would be well-advised to take the hint, and to push forward by drawing on what the U.S. has always done best.

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