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School & District Management Opinion

Why Diane and Duncan Are Making the Same Mistake

By Rick Hess — March 11, 2010 7 min read
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Yesterday, I had the honor of hosting my dear friend and esteemed colleague Diane Ravitch at AEI for the first forum on her new book. Those interested can read about and watch the event here later today. As readers are likely aware, Diane’s book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, has created quite a stir--due largely to her argument that accountability and school choice, two ideas with which she had long been associated, have been “hijacked” by MBAs and foundation types and have served as ineffective, destructive distractions. On her Bridging Differences blog and elsewhere, Diane has lambasted Secretary of Education Arne Duncan’s enthusiasm for charter schools and accountability and the Obama administration’s Race to the Top (RTT) initiative as particularly troubling examples of misguided reform.

I have enormous respect for Diane as a historian and colleague, and readers of this blog know that I’m anything but an apologist for RTT. But I think her read on this is dead wrong. Indeed, Diane is now making the same mistake, in reverse, that she and so many school choice and accountability enthusiasts made in the 1990s (and the same mistake that Duncan makes today when he proclaims that charter schooling or merit pay “work”). Both Diane’s stance and Duncan’s reflect the misguided premise that chartering or accountability is a way to improve instruction--like a new curriculum, professional development model, or reading program--rather than an opportunity to create the conditions where sustained improvement in teaching and learning become possible.

When I listen to Diane or Secretary Duncan discuss merit pay, accountability, or charter schooling, I hear the same mistake refracted through two different lenses. Diane is disappointed because she thought accountability and charter schooling were supposed to make schools better and now condemns them for failing to deliver on that promise. Duncan seems to promise that they will make schools better. They’re both missing the central point: these kinds of structural reforms are means, not ends. Nobody should expect them to magically boost learning or improve outcomes. Choice and accountability can make it easier to create schools and systems where focus and coherence are easier to come by and where robust curricula, powerful pedagogy, and rich learning can thrive. They provide invaluable opportunities to rethink schools and systems that are too often hobbled by anachronistic policies, practices, stifling contracts and cultures. But the action is not in the fact of charters, accountability, or merit pay, but in what one does with them. And that’s a subject we’ve given dreadfully short shift for two decades, for reasons that even now befuddle me.

When Diane denounces choice and accountability as simply two more “fads,” like those she has documented in Left Back or The Great School Wars, she reflects a common but troubling confusion regarding structural reform. I share her disdain for the vapid faddism that has so long characterized schooling. Heck, my first book was titled Spinning Wheels. The problem with Diane’s argument, for my money, is that it ignores that this faddism is a product of the familiar structure and organization of schooling--and it is precisely this superstructure that choice and accountability seek to tackle.

A lack of choice can force educators to simultaneously serve families with very different demands and responses to discipline or calls for parental involvement, making it difficult to establish common norms. A lack of autonomy makes it difficult for principals to assemble a team of teachers who embrace shared expectations and instructional principles. The institutional and political turbulence endemic to school systems means that superintendents change jobs every few years, and district priorities and initiatives change along with them. Bureaucratic and contractual rules governing discipline, the school day, or professional development can trip up district leaders seeking to emulate effective school models.

Organizational focus and instructional coherence are made vastly more difficult than they need to be by our K-12 systems, with their “little-bit-of-everything” mission, geographic monopoly, industrial era contracts and staffing arrangements, ill-defined aims, balky governance structures, contested disciplinary arrangements, and the rest.

Diane has long praised the KIPP schools, for instance. But KIPP’s founders are the first to concede that they have no “secret sauce” or super-curriculum. Rather, they have aggressively and assiduously executed their model. They have added more time. They insist on strict discipline. They carefully select their teachers. They serve students and families who embrace the school’s focus and mission. None of these things are secretive, but they are all immensely difficult to do in conventional school systems hampered by contracts, statutes, bureaucratic disciplinary policies, broken HR systems, and mission creep. Choice, charter-provided autonomy, and test-based accountability make possible the focus and coherence that makes schools like KIPP work.

The problem, as I see it, is not that choice or accountability “don’t work"--but that the naïve faith that they constitute “fixes” has led us to skip past the hard work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities they can provide. As I’ve argued most recently in Education Unbound, school choice, for instance, is merely part of an equation that can create opportunities for smart problem-solving, when incentives are sensibly aligned, the landscape is cleared, and the conditions encourage and nurture excellence. And, as I argued in the 2002 Brookings volume Revolution at the Margins, the notion that “competition” from charter schooling, public school choice, or even school vouchers would simply and automatically push districts to improve was always based on a profoundly flawed understanding of bureaucratic behavior, funding arrangements, and school system dynamics. Choice is not a silver bullet solution to anything, as thinkers from Milton Friedman to Friedrich von Hayek have sought to explain. Rather, well-constructed markets are merely an opportunity to channel talent, energy, and dynamism in socially productive ways. Until very recently, would-be reformers have paid scant attention to any of this beyond championing “choice,” so it should hardly surprise that it has delivered less than we might wish.

We’ve seen the same kinds of mistakes when it comes to accountability. Accountability is not a solution; it is a toolbox. And the tools need to sharp, well-constructed, and appropriate to the task at hand if they are to suit. I’d contend that none of those is a particularly apt description of NCLB-style accountability. More tellingly, as I argued a number of years ago in the Ed Leadership article “The Case for Being Mean,” accountability works not primarily by making professionals “work harder” or by encouraging them to mimic other organizations with more impressive results, but by creating a dynamic environment in which newly empowered leaders have the opportunity and incentive to solve problems in creative ways. Unfortunately, we have often combined our push towards accountability with new dictates and more prescriptions regarding remedies and strategies while doing little to equip or prepare leaders to approach challenges in new ways. Again, such an approach almost always ensures that “accountability” will disappoint.

For all this, I’m reluctant to be too hard on Diane. She was sold a bill of goods by overly enthusiastic choice advocates twenty years ago who promised, in the words of my dear friends John Chubb and Terry Moe, “Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea....It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways.” Choice enthusiasts have long oversold the “choice is the solution” line, while soft-shoeing all the hard work it takes to ensure that choice leads to an array of good choices. Accountability enthusiasts in the Bush era repeatedly made the same error, while airily dismissing thoughtful skeptics like Dan Koretz, Bob Linn, and Jim Popham and their cautions about how tests can and should be used. Given that context, it’s hard to blame Diane for slamming choice and accountability for not delivering what boosters had promised.

And that’s why Duncan’s rhetoric concerns me so. I fear that, in failing to explain what choice and merit pay can and can’t do, he is setting us up for another round of overhyped but disappointing reform, in which we pay too little attention to what it will take for these structural shifts to deliver. I fear, like Diane, we’ll wind up disillusioned and resigned, back at square one, and once again trying to figure out how to squeeze coherence and instructional excellence out of a K-12 system that’s ill-equipped to deliver it.

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