School & District Management Opinion

The Long Progression of New Ideas

February 20, 2009 15 min read
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American Federation of Teachers President Albert Shanker, in a Nov. 2, 1981, Commentary on “The Tax Credit Debate: Arguments for and Against Aid to Private Schooling,” took issue with two of what he called the “slogans” then in use on the subject:

Choice. We want choice for all children, all families, including the poor. Obviously, with a tax credit, the choice will still be limited for the poor. The choice will still be there for the rich, and it will allow some people in the middle class to have a choice they now don’t have. But the final element of choice is really not that of the student or the parent. It’s the private school that decides.

About This Series

This is the third installment in a yearlong, occasional series examining the impact of the 1983 report A Nation at Risk.

The first installment was published on April 23, 2008, as the 25th anniversary of the report was being marked. It explored concerns about global competition and efforts by policymakers and educators to benchmark American performance against that of students in competitor nations.

The second, published Sept. 24, looked at U.S. progress toward finding more time for children’s learning. In the fourth and final installment, Education Week will examine the education system of a high-performing nation as well as the systems in several other countries.

View the complete index of stories in the A Nation at Risk series.

I would like advocates of vouchers or tuition tax credits to advocate a system where no school that receives any of this public money is permitted to exclude any child or kick out any child, except on the same rules that exist in the public sector.

Competition. There can be no real competition when you have one system that is required to take everybody and another one that can select anybody it wants. When one system must keep students no matter what their behavioral problems.

Government has imposed a set of unpopular public policies—busing, bilingual education, restrictions on testing programs, the inability to expel students who regularly are antisocial, school finance reform. It is ridiculous for government then to say that any citizens who do not like these policies will receive governmental assistance to escape them.

If the policies are no good, get rid of them right where they are, then there won’t be this big demand for private schools.


Clifford B. Janey, then the Rochester, N.Y., superintendent of schools, from “Incentive Pay,” Nov. 6, 1996.

“Success must be measured before it can be rewarded. Pay increases should not be based solely on time served in a position or the number of academic degrees held, but also on performance as measured by specific standards.”

Henry M. Levin, then a professor at Stanford University, gave an early argument for what would become the small-schools movement in his May 18, 1983, Commentary “Reawakening the Vigor of Urban Schools”:

The organizational building blocks of a strong urban school system are smaller schools with school-site governance. Although this assertion may seem to fly in the face of the venerable movement toward school consolidation and closure, research in many areas has found that small schools are better than large ones.

Lamar Alexander, then the governor of Tennessee, discussed his state’s early, incentive-based “master-teacher plan” in the Aug. 17, 1983, Commentary “An Effort to Find Common Ground on Paying Teachers for Performance,” making the following case for this innovation:

Merit pay to most teachers means a pop-quiz evaluation with a small bonus for a few teachers at the end of it. I don’t believe any state in America is considering such a new proposal, and I don’t believe any state will enact such a proposal next year. Nor do I believe any state should. Instead, it is true that in an absolutely revolutionary development in the history of public education, virtually every state legislature will be considering in January something that almost none were considering last January—how to pay teachers more for doing a good job teaching in a way that will work. ...

You can raise standards [for students], you can buy computers, you can enrich the curriculum, you can extend the school year, but it will not help a bit as long as the teachers you are hiring are worse than the teachers they are replacing.

Marc S. Tucker and David R. Mandel, then the executive director and associate director, respectively, of the Carnegie Forum on Education and the Economy, put forth a bold plan to tackle a problem that was then growing in importance, in their Oct. 7, 1987, Commentary “A Voucher Plan for Workers”:

Report after report shows that many of those who have entered our workforce with a high school education or less are illiterate or barely literate. Few of our blue- and pink-collar workers have the education required if the country is to adopt a broadly based high-skill, high-tech competitive strategy. Success depends on a massive upgrading of the skills of American hourly workers.

Under our plan, each state would first involve its business community in defining an educational standard for entry-level work in modern business and industry. That standard would have to go beyond being able to read and write a simple sentence and do arithmetic; our competitors’ workers are already well beyond that level of basic skills. The standard should demand that prospective employees show that they can think on their feet, speak and write well, exercise sound judgment in complicated situations, and draw on a thorough understanding of mathematics, science, and other subjects to find a path through a tough problem when there is no single right solution.

The state would then, as a matter of policy, make a voucher available to every public- and private-sector employee in the state, conveying the right to an education that would bring them up to that standard, at state expense. The employee could take the voucher to any provider of educational services the employee chose that would accept him as a student. Schools, colleges, and other traditional educational institutions could be expected to compete for these students.

Chester E. Finn Jr., an assistant U.S. secretary of education during the Reagan administration, zeroed in on the hot topic of “choice” in his Jan. 25, 1989, Commentary “Questioning ‘Cliches’ of Education Reform”:

Only when schools are encouraged to differ—and when educators and officials are willing to live with the certainty that some will thrive and others wither—is choice among schools an authentic reform. This means forging the softer metals associated with bottom-up school improvement on the steel policy anvil of the top-down strategy.

Stanford University’s David Tyack cautioned the increasing legion of those advocating more-exotic departures from standard schooling in his June 23, 1999, Commentary “Needed: More Educational Conservationists”:

When educational innovators want to transform educational practice, few ask what might be lost in the process. Government requires environmental-impact statements for construction projects, but not student- and teacher-impact reports for educational reforms. Who will be there to defend endangered species of good schools, or good educational programs, from the relentless, if zigzag, march of educational progress?

Believers in progress through educational reform often want to reinvent schooling. The dead hand of the past has created problems for rational planners to solve in the future. Inspired by the progress syndrome, innovators often exaggerate defects to motivate by alarm, try to wipe the educational slate clean, and then propose a short time frame for their favorite projects, hoping to see results before the next election or job opportunity or grant proposal. ...

The ideology of progress through change obscures what a “conservationist” strategy illuminates: It is at least as important to conserve the good as to invent the new.

Wendy Kopp, who would go on, as president of Teach For America, to model an alternative to formal teacher-certification systems, laid out her case for such a change in her Oct. 9, 1991, Commentary “Replace Certification With Recruitment”:


“The first step would be to abolish state certification laws altogether. The next would be for every public school district in the nation to make a new commitment to human resources. Districts would launch national recruitment efforts not unlike those conducted by every major firm in corporate America. After screening applicants initially on college campuses, districts would invite certain candidates to interview directly with individual schools, where committees of teachers would recommend candidates and principals would approve them. Schools would not be looking for individuals who could recite the textbook versions of student learning styles and teaching strategies. They would look for dedicated, creative, dynamic individuals—for individuals who had demonstrated in their past a high level of commitment and leadership; for those who demonstrate professionalism, effective communication styles, and an educational approach consisting of high expectations for all students and sensitivity to diversity; and for those with a personality and philosophical approach that would be effective within the particular school.

Those hired would [then] enter a program of training and support which each district would run in conjunction with local universities. All new teachers would receive some form of preservice training, together with an ongoing component that included extensive support and exposure to the best of current practices and research on student learning and teaching strategies.”

Political scientists Paul T. Hill and Lawrence C. Pierce of the University of Washington and James W. Guthrie of Vanderbilt University provided a rationale for the use private-sector services in public schools in their May 14, 1997, Commentary “How Contracting Can Transform America’s Schools”:

We share public education’s commitment to equity, but we think schools need greater control of their funds, staffs, and instructional methods than existing public schools now have. As political scientists, we know that any reform proposal must be politically feasible, and that total school autonomy is an illusion: No one who takes the public’s funds and educates the public’s children should totally escape government oversight. Contracting would give policymakers, parents, and community leaders an option, a way of reforming schools that neither relied entirely on government nor rejected any role for it.

Noting the escalating loss of public education’s “monopoly” status, Jan Hammond and Suzanne Tingley, a State University of New York at New Paltz professor and a New York state district superintendent, respectively, offered survival tactics in their March 1, 2000, Commentary “Competitive Strategy for Public Schools”:

Tomorrow’s successful schools will be built on the shifting sands of competition. They will consciously elect to compete for student and staff resources based on price or product differentiation. Choosing a strategy will require schools to analyze their internal resources, then identify an appropriate competency, and to select a choice that is congruent with that competency. Schools will systematically evaluate customer needs and, like businesses, make internal modifications to meet those needs. Essential to the success of tomorrow’s schools will be administrators who understand and demonstrate strategic leadership.

Ira Harkavy and Martin Blank, the chairman and the staff director, respectively, of the Coalition for Community Schools, made the case for a comprehensive vision of education in their April 17, 2002, Commentary “Community Schools”:

The organizational-development expert Peter Senge said it well: “Until we go back to thinking about school as the totality of the environment in which a child grows up, we can expect no deep changes. Change requires a community—people living and working together, assuming some common responsibility for something that’s of deep concern and interest to all of them, their children.”

That community includes our families, neighbors, and community organizations, as well as our health, social-services, and family-support agencies; our youth- and community-development groups; our colleges and universities; and our civic, business, religious, and cultural organizations.

Many of these groups are now working in schools. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, most of these existing collaborations of schools and local partners do not have a compelling vision of the community’s learning goals. In the absence of such a shared community vision, educators wind up looking as if they have the sole responsibility for educating our children. That’s a no-win trap, especially in this era of higher-stakes accountability. Just as troublesome, without a shared vision, we often find schools with outside partners who are well-meaning and willing, but who have a limited sense of how they connect to learning.

Lisbeth Schorr, then the director of the Project on Effective Interventions at Harvard University, highlighted some of the problems facing those seeking to integrate schools and community services in her July 12, 2000, Commentary “The Intersection of School and Community”:

We all know that the most important results we are pursuing cannot be achieved by single, narrowly circumscribed interventions. Most desired outcomes cannot be realized in the absence of multiple inputs from multiple sources over a sustained period of time. But this does not mean that we will work most effectively by doing everything together. As Charles Deutsch, the director of the National Committee on Partnerships for Children’s Health, has pointed out, partnerships and collaborations are not inherently virtuous. They are sometimes essential and sometimes a waste of time and a diversion. They must not be allowed to become an end in themselves.

The writer Alfie Kohn joined those expressing reservations about the rush to performance-based pay in his Sept. 17, 2003, Commentary “The Folly of Merit Pay”:

Enthusiasm for pay-for-performance runs far ahead of any data supporting its effectiveness—even as measured by standardized-test scores, much less by meaningful indicators of learning. But then that, too, echoes the results in other workplaces. To the best of my knowledge, no controlled scientific study has ever found a long-term enhancement of the quality of work as a result of any incentive system. In fact, numerous studies have confirmed that performance on tasks, particularly complex tasks, is generally lower when people are promised a reward for doing them, or for doing them well. As a rule, the more prominent or enticing the reward, the more destructive its effects.

W. Norton Grubb of the University of California, Berkeley, and Marvin Lazerson of the University of Pennsylvania addressed the growing call for high school reform in their Sept. 22, 2004, Commentary “Is the Comprehensive High School Doomed?”:

Most [high school] students have become disengaged from learning of any sort. They believe that getting a degree will help them, but they do not associate that achievement with learning, at least not what schools have to teach. ...

There are innovations developing that could help. Efforts to reconstitute high schools as small communities with a clear sense of purpose and with something serious to accomplish in their own right can be encouraged. Large comprehensive high schools are a disaster—chaotic, fragmented, purposeless factories. In contrast, schools-within-schools, theme-based schools, charter schools, magnet schools, and schools where teachers stay with their students as they progress hold out some hope that common purposes, built on a community of learners, can restore coherence, engagement, and motivation.

Harvard business professor Clayton M. Christensen, along with Michael B. Horn and Curtis W. Johnson, his co-authors for a trend-setting book on how effective systemic change is brought about, explored this process in relation to education in their June 4, 2008, Commentary “How ‘Disruptive Innovation’ Will Change the Way We Learn”:

The United States has spent more than $60 billion equipping schools with computers over the last two decades, but as countless studies and any routine observation reveal, they have not transformed the classroom, nor has their use boosted learning as measured by test scores.

That schools have gotten so little back from their investment comes as no surprise. Schools have done what virtually every organization does when implementing an innovation: Its natural instinct is to cram the innovation into its existing operating model to sustain what it already does. This is perfectly predictable, perfectly logical—and perfectly wrong.

The way to implement an innovation so that it will transform an organization is to implement it disruptively—not by using it to compete against the existing paradigm and serve existing customers, but to target those not being served or not buying what’s served.


“In the end, choice constitutes good public policy because it is fair, not because its effects are measurable by academicians who would not dream of sharing the decision about where to send their own children to school.”

Joseph P. Viteritti, then a research professor of public administration at New York University, from “School Choice: Beyond the Numbers,” Feb. 23, 2000.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, tracking the progress of school reform since the release of A Nation at Risk during his tenure, gave the young charter school movement an endorsement in his March 15, 1995, Commentary “The Charter School Plus”:


“The relentless search for more effective schools has yielded a few encouraging results but many highly visible failures. In all this questing for new curricula, technologies, and methods, both the cost and productivity of education have become high priorities for business executives, governors, and lawmakers. They are the ones who face foreign competitors, demanding voters, and escalating costs. These leaders sometimes view school leaders and their governing boards as rigid, tied to past practices, and not capable of bringing forth new solutions.

Various attempts have been made to bring the advantages of our free-enterprise system to education. Vouchers have been advanced as a means of offering choice and competition for ‘customers’ in the schools. Public funding of tuition for parents who want to send their children to private schools has been tried. Parental freedom to choose schools, it has been reasoned, will bring competition for market share; and this will tend to stimulate new ideas to be applied in a new search for higher quality and lower costs.

Out of these past efforts, the charter school idea has emerged as possibly the most promising innovation. The concept is very simple: Create independent legal entities, charter schools, and give them authority to operate schools as autonomous organizations with freedom to experiment and test new and creative solutions to problems that have been obstacles to school reform.”

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Librarian Kathryn Dorko contributed to this compilation.
A version of this article appeared in the February 25, 2009 edition of Education Week as The Long Progression of New Ideas


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