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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

Schools Are Trying to Do Too Much

How much should we expect schools and teachers to do?
By Rick Hess — June 12, 2023 3 min read
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Over the past year or two, there’s been a lot of talk about educational “unbundling.” I’m glad. After all, more than a decade ago, I helped import “unbundling” into K-12 when I penned the ASCD book Education Unbound, which delved deep into the idea; edited a special section of Phi Delta Kappan on “Unbundling Schools”; and penned “Unbundling’ Schools and Schooling” for The Futures of School Reform. That’s why headlines like “The Great Education Unbundling and How Learning Will be Rebundled” warm my dyspeptic heart. I’ll talk about the concept more in a moment, but for those who are unfamiliar, “unbundling” is reflecting on and unpacking the many roles schools have bundled together to reassemble them in more fruitful ways.

It’s terrific to see the idea getting traction. But I’m also concerned that we’re in danger of losing the thread when it comes to the logic of unbundling. The more overheated devotees of personalization and education savings accounts seem to imagine that unbundling means families will wind up custom-assembling every student’s education. That risks turning unbundling into something chaotic, frustrating, and intimidating rather than the healthy opportunity for rethinking that it ought to be.

A quick step back can help clarify things. Once upon a time, communication and transportation imposed harsh constraints on schooling. Back in the 1980s (much less the 1880s!), students really needed to be in the same room as a teacher to learn from them. For students to read a book, schools needed classroom sets of printed copies. Students could only be mentored or tutored by adults who lived within driving distance and had the time and means to meet them at school or the local library.

Schools provided a sprawling array of services to students who lived in a geographic area. It made sense but was also a lot to ask. After all, it’s hard for any organization to do a lot of different things, much less to do them all well. Well, advances in technology have made it so that schools no longer need to be one-stop shops for everything. It’s now possible for students to access books, tutoring, and even whole courses online, creating an extraordinary opening to ask how schools and their faculty and resources should be organized to most effectively meet students’ needs and foster learning.

“Unbundling” is a matter of unpacking the many roles, responsibilities, and tasks that schools have bundled together and then assembling them in more fruitful ways. This means asking what schools and educators should do by themselves or when they might want to tap today’s vibrant ecosystem of nonschool resources and programs. Instead of lamenting how much schools and teachers are expected to do today, it’s a call to ask what we should expect them to do.

After all, teachers operate as lesson designers, lecturers, evaluators, remediators, hallway monitors, counselors, tech troubleshooters, secretaries, and more. Unbundling asks whether it has to be this way. Can some of these tasks be outsourced to tech, nonteaching staff, or community partners? Can some of these tasks be eliminated or handled differently?

None of this necessarily entails new burdens for parents or families. While it creates terrific possibilities for those parents who want to take advantage, the point is not to require satisfied parents to do more. Yet, there’s a real temptation to turn unbundling into a “reform” that can be pitched to funders and used to make the case for education savings accounts.

This promises to turn unbundling into an unwanted bureaucratic rigmarole that frustrates many parents. I’m a big fan of expanding choices for families. That said, if unbundling complicates parents’ lives and gives them more work to do—even when they’re already pretty satisfied with teachers, programs, or schools—then it’s a recipe for bad policy and bad politics.

After all, unbundling isn’t supposed to be about putting more on parents but about putting schooling together in more promising ways. This can absolutely include more parental choice. But it can also mean that states or districts think differently about instructional delivery. It can be about finding better ways to use tools, time, or talent. That kind of purposeful redesign is the point. Both unbundling and expanded educational choice are good things, but they’re not the same thing.

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