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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. Read more from this blog.

School & District Management Opinion

Customized Schooling

By Rick Hess — March 18, 2011 2 min read
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So, if you’re ready to get your geek on, have I got a treat for you. Harvard Education Press has just published Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform. The book, edited by Bruno Manno and yours truly, is an attempt to pull together a bunch of sharp thinking on how we get past just trying to “fix” schools--or to merely give families a choice between school A and school B--and how we start to think about using new tools, technologies, and talent to transform the quality of teaching and learning.

School turnarounds are a swell idea, and will occasionally work. And I’m broadly in favor of choice-based reform as a useful way to open up systems to new providers and permit schools to sharpen their focus. But these measures retain and even enshrine the assumptions of the 19th century schoolhouse, and those assumptions seem an unlikely answer to the challenges of the 21st century. (For my full riff on this score, go peruse last fall’s The Same Thing Over and Over.)

The book offers a whirlwind tour of the possibilities that emerge when we start to think beyond whole-school reform. Chris Whittle considers the rise of global schooling and the emergence of transnational school providers. Checker Finn and Eric Osberg offer a vision of educational choice that transcends choosing school A or B, and that envisions “educational savings accounts” which permit parents to customize services to their child’s needs. Joe Williams examines different outfits that are working to empower parents to make smart choices.

Doug Lynch and Michael Gottfried explore what it will take for providers to supply clear signals to consumers about the quality of specialized services in the education marketplace. Jon Fullerton explains how to provide data systems capable of supporting these kinds of decisions, by families or educators. By drawing on his experiences in higher education, Burck Smith considers how to introduce real cost sensitivity into K-12 schooling. Ted Kolderie and Curtis Johnson discuss the policy implications of all of this. And on, and on...

Bruno and I argue that creating opportunities to rethink teaching and learning requires “unbundling” the schoolhouse into its component parts, so that it becomes possible to provide a high-quality service (whether that’s promoting parental engagement, supporting algebra instruction, or delivering virtual tutoring) without necessarily “reforming” the entire school.

The “whole-school” assumption that every school must find ways to serve every academic need of every individual student has overburdened educators and institutions. As a result, they have trouble doing anything especially well. Limited systemic attention to identifying the discrete needs of students and families has aggravated the challenge, while stifling the ability of specialized problem-solvers to relieve some of the burdens placed upon the conventional school.

Outside of those providers who sell directly to affluent families, those offering online tutoring, language instruction, arts classes, and much else find enormous hurdles to serving kids, unless they want to sell to a district or open a charter school. If it makes sense to allow all students to benefit from these tools, technologies, and talent--and Bruno and I think that it does--then it is crucial to find ways around the accumulated policies and practices that lock us into a whole-school mindset.

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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.