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School & District Management Opinion

The Same Thing Over and Over

By Rick Hess — November 05, 2010 6 min read
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“The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
—Albert Einstein

Apocryphal or not, this quote stands as a damning indictment of decades’ worth of school reform efforts.

Earlier this year, my dear friend Diane Ravitch raised a furor when she charged in The Death and Life of the Great American School System that advocates of test-based accountability, mayoral control, and charter schooling had overpromised and naively imagined that these structural measures could “fix” our education woes. This ferocious blast was well-timed and well-aimed, and resonated mightily.

However, Ravitch also went much further, labeling such measures a sinister assault on public education. It was here that her useful blast at faddism got ensnared in a familiar trap. Ravitch allowed the shape of today’s public schools and school districts to define the mission of public schooling. Thus, attempts to rethink governance, teacher evaluation, or incentives become “attacks” on public schooling.

This leaves us wedded to arrangements that may have made sense a century ago, but that are poorly suited to today’s goals or to making the best use of 21st-century tools and resources. If our goals and tools have changed, and they have, it’s only sensible to ask whether yesterday’s compromises and chance decisions ought to steer our course. The proper measure of whether proposals are consistent with public schooling ought not be whether power, politics, or finances shift, but whether we’re doing a better job of educating all children in ways that ensure they master essential knowledge and skills, develop their gifts, and are prepared for the duties of citizenship.

Would-be reformers like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are as myopic as their opponents, casually swallowing intact the familiar assumptions of districts, schools, age-graded classrooms, Carnegie units, and teacher job descriptions—and then imagining that the addition of merit pay, value-added metrics, and fanciful turnaround plans will be enough to set matters right.

Thus we wind up, time and again, in disheartening reruns. On the one hand are self-impressed “reformers,” again like our earnest secretary of education, who promise that measures like mayoral control or charter schooling hold the key to “fixing” our schools. On the other are the National Education Association and its allies, steadfastly bleating that such measures are a betrayal of common schooling and that the only viable path to improvement is more money and professional development.

Every sensible insight, such as the utility of reimagining teacher accountability, becomes a caricature as advocates try ham-handedly to cram it into play—whether as Florida’s Senate Bill 6 last spring, which would have tied teacher compensation to student test scores, or in the Los Angeles Timesvalue-added analysis of teachers this past summer.

The result is a profound mismatch of ends and means. That’s no great surprise.

It took more than three centuries after the first statutory education laws were adopted in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, in 1647 and 1652, until we actually got 90 percent of American students to show up in school every day. It’s hardly surprising that a system which spent centuries struggling to get students off the street and into schools, where they would be provided with minimal instruction, wasn’t built to educate every student to a high level.

This problem isn’t unique to education. Plenty of once-dominant private ventures—from Pan Am to Bethlehem Steel—have struggled to reinvent themselves when labor markets, technology, and customer demands have changed. Unable to refashion themselves, many have given way to younger, more agile competitors. Because that Darwinian process does not play out by itself in schooling, structural reform is essential to creating the room where problem-solving can happen.

We often seemingly fail to appreciate how much has changed since common-school and Progressive reformers shaped our schools in their battles to Americanize youths and get them out of the factories and in front of literate teachers.

Since the Progressive Era ended 75 years ago, our expectations have skyrocketed, with policymakers today insisting that all students need to master skills once thought the province of the elite. The expectation that our schools would mold students into “republican machines” has given way to an emphasis on diversity and tolerance, reducing the premium on homogeneity. The pool of available careerist teachers has dramatically shrunk as new opportunities have opened to women, even as professional mobility increased and the pool of educated professionals interested in teaching grew. And the ability of new technologies to assess student mastery, facilitate instruction, and enable virtual schooling has undergone a revolutionary expansion.

We’re hardly the first to be uncomfortable with change. While skeptics of technology today fret about the fate of the book, it was once books and the printing press that were feared by educators who worried that students would learn the wrong things, if left to read on their own. It was Sir Roger L’Estrange who wondered in the 17th century “whether more mischief than advantage were not occasion’d to the Christian world by the invention of typography.”

Reformers get swept up in enthusiasms and manias rather than in problem-solving. While some reformers tout mayoral control as a solution, the real challenge is the primacy of serial geographic monopolies that require every district to meet every need of every child—making it enormously difficult to do anything all that well. A century ago, this model was a best practice, as when people bought their tractors and their toothbrushes from Sears, Roebuck and Co. Today, however, coordination of provision is no longer a major challenge, enabling an array of providers to focus on the high-quality, cost-effective provision of particular goods or services.

Reformers wax enthusiastic about merit pay, while leaving intact notions of the teacher’s job description, school staffing, and the organization of instruction. Indeed, today’s “cutting edge” merit-pay strategies depend utterly on teachers’ retaining sole instructional responsibility for a group of students in a tested subject for 180 days. Rather than viewing pay reform as a tool for rethinking teaching, reformers wind up layering merit pay atop industrial-era pay scales.

Reformers celebrate alternative certification and extended learning time, yet seem to take for granted the primacy of colleges of education and the notion that all students necessarily require a standardized school year with a bureaucratically specified number of days and hours. Such assumptions learn nothing from promising ventures like San Diego’s High-Tech High School or New York City’s School of One.

The new decade ought to loom as a dynamic and enormously creative era addressing our educational challenges. We’ve set heroic goals, are constructing remarkable tools, and have an opportunity to rethink the very shape of teaching, learning, and schooling.

Yet we once again find ourselves rehashing tired debates between public school “defenders” and self-described “innovators.” On the one side are those who insist we cling to the rhythms of schoolhouses erected to sanitize Catholic immigrants. On the other are Race to the Top enthusiasts promising that data systems and more impassioned school leaders, along with a dollop of “science,” will set matters straight.

We don’t need “innovation” or to “protect” public schools. The truth is far simpler, and more frustrating, than that. Yesterday’s structures are ill-suited for today’s ambitions. Rethinking them is not an attack or a solution; it is just the inevitable precursor to crafting better answers to today’s challenges.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 10, 2010 edition of Education Week as The Same Thing Over and Over

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