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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

The “Systems” Question

By Rick Hess — October 28, 2010 2 min read
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Just had an exceptionally energizing lunch. I’m down in New Orleans, at the invitation of the Grantmakers for Education, to debate my friend Linda Darling-Hammond on the most promising tack for reform-minded philanthropy. Linda and I were the luncheon entertainment in a concise debate, ably moderated by Kent McGuire.

The focus wound up being on the question of “systems” reform. And it occurred to me that there’s a real problem with how we usually address this. On the one hand, Linda accurately flagged the problem with “popcorn” reform--when a slew of little initiatives bubble up across districts, and then fade out. In Spinning Wheels, I called this “policy churn.” On the other hand, there’s a fascination with studying Finland or Florida, and then saying “we need to do what they do.” The problem with the first is well-documented, and the problem with the second is that such attempts have consistently failed to deliver (aside from the fact that they tend to be driven by the experiences of tiny countries or the temporary successes of singular states or districts.)

It can seem there’s no way out of this frustrating trap. Thus, our conversation got framed as Linda defending “systems” and me attacking them. But I think that’s the wrong way out. The problem is not “systems,” it’s that our aged, serial geographic-monopoly school districts are hamstrung by policy and process, contracts and culture. Problem-solvers spend 70% of their time fighting for permission to unwind outdated practices and rules, before they ever get to focus on what counts. When these systems do embrace “innovations,” nobody owns the new initiatives and they just linger on aimlessly--like old sports equipment in the downstairs closet.

We need new problem-solvers that can then build systems that support their work. Rather than presuming that all of these new systems will be focused on building and operating familiar “schools” or recruiting teachers for conventional job descriptions, many of these ventures will focus on doing a particular thing or set of things very well. If those ventures are for-profit, with all the attendant incentives to scale aggressively, so much the better. Outfits like Wireless Generation, Schoolnet, Tutor.com, K12, and National Heritage Academies, as well as KIPP, TFA, and New Leaders for New Schools, are all building systems. The nice thing about these ventures is that they “own” their reforms and are solely committed to executing them--not to meeting every need of every child in a given geography. The 21st century “system” may well be a spider web or latticework of these.

That’s a system, but it’s a real different vision from what we usually mean by system reform. If this is interesting, but unsatisfying or confusing, check out The Same Thing Over and Over (due out in two weeks) for a more extended discussion.

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