Over the last three years, faculty from the Harvard Graduate School of Education have brought together 30 national educational leaders from different corners of the field, representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives, with the goal of thinking broadly about what ideas and approaches are likely to lead to a more promising future. In The Futures of School Reform (Harvard Education Press; Publication date: September 17, 2012), these leading scholars, policymakers, and practitioners seek to challenge familiar assumptions and to generate new thinking in a variety of ways, including looking at other sectors, other nations, and emerging new technologies. Rather than attempting to reach consensus, the objective has been to map out a variety of bold visions that push on the boundaries that circumscribe our current thinking and spur fresh debate.
Editors and education reform experts Assistant Professor Jal Mehta, Professor Robert Schwartz, and Frederick Hess, Ed.M.’90, resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, highlight the shortcomings of current education reform debates, noting that “almost all of the ideas currently on the mainstream table leave the basic structure of American schooling fundamentally unchanged.” As such, The Futures of School Reform aims to challenge major pillars in the system: teachers, schools, governance, subjects, and goals.
The editors allow that not all of the proposed prescriptions in the book are politically feasible or practical in the short term. But Mehta, Schwartz, and Hess urge readers to consider these reforms as a means for broadening the largely static debate over school reform.
The Futures of School Reform offers challenging visions such as:
- “Unbundling” the school system: reorganize schools to, for instance, look like hospitals, with a corps of highly skilled teachers directly instruction while aided by a variety of support staff fulfilling the other functions that students need.
- Developing a “mixed model” of schooling: eliminate districts’ geographic monopolies and allow for student choice and markets to determine which school models—traditional, online, or hybrid—flourish and which die out.
- Dissolving the system: placing an emphasis on learning through the internet and outside-of-the-classroom experiences, rather than schooling through a “portal” where limited knowledge is delivered to students in the form of textbooks and chalkboards.
In the conclusion, the authors argue that “we put reforms through our existing system and when they don’t work as we hoped, we ask what’s wrong with the reform—when we should be asking what’s wrong with the system.” Instead, they suggest that more powerful reforms in the future would need to significantly change the existing system, either by: 1) transforming the system by changing who is doing the teaching and what they know; 2) replacing the institutions that currently comprise the system with new institutions filling the same functions but performing them better: 3) reassembling the system by changing its roles, structures, elements, and incentives; 4) expanding the system by integrating school and non-school factors; or 5) dissolving the system by providing students with more direct access to the ever-growing universe of knowledge.”
The goal of The Futures of School Reform is not to present a menu from which readers can simply choose the most appetizing entrée. Rather it is to surface contrasting assumptions, tensions, constraints, and opportunities so that together, we can better understand—and act on—the choices that lie before us.