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Winter 2013

Futures of School Reform

Futures of School Reform coverIn some ways, argues Assistant Professor Jal Mehta, the United States school system has been a tremendous success.

"It's probably our single most popular public institution," he says. "It enrolls 90 percent of our students, and it meets a wide variety of different goals and needs."

But — and there is a but, he adds — "if the goal is to challenge persistent achievement and attainment gaps by race and class and to play a powerful role in equalizing life chances, the history of school reform is pretty depressing."

As he points out in his new Harvard Education Press book, The Futures of School Reform, which he coauthored with Professor Robert Schwartz, C.A.S.'68, and Frederick "Rick" Hess, Ed.M.'90, there has been no shortage of ideas on how to "fix" education. Vouchers. State standards. National standards. School choice. Merit pay. Small schools. Charter schools. More money. More time. More accountability. And these are just the ones tried in the past few years.

Unfortunately, they write in the book, "if we were to honestly appraise all of this activity, we would have to conclude that the results have not been what we hoped." When it comes to making real gains in education reform, "if we keep doing what we're doing, we're never going to get there."

And so four years ago, Mehta and Schwartz decided to see what they could do. Realizing there really weren't any existing groups talking comprehensively about what was wrong and what could be done, they took the next logical step: They started one. But they didn't want the Futures of School Reform working group to be just academics, so they pulled people from various circles and with differing ideologies, including academics, government officials, politicians and policy wonks, practitioners already working on reform, foundation folks, entrepreneurs, and one international deputy minister of education.

When Hess, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research in Washington, D.C., was first approached, he says he was hesitant, wondering if this project would be more rehashing of the same old ideas.

"I was always worried about that," he says. "In fact, I'd like to think that we were so aware of the tendency to rehash that we made avoiding that trap our organizing principle. When it came to inviting participants, structuring deliberations, and considering takeaways, I think we worked very hard to steer clear of a consensus format, which would simply yield more of the same — or of simply giving folks a platform to reiterate their familiar talking points."

They also invited the world, literally, to be a part of the discussions by hosting a seven-part series on Education Week's online commentary pages, explaining to readers, "This isn't about one more jar of snake oil."

As a result, there were often heated (but welcome) debates, within the group and from online followers, with a wide range of opinions on what could be done, what wasn't working, what sounded good but wasn't feasible, and even on what the real problems are. Core group members did, however, agree on one thing: When it comes to education reform, we're thinking too small. Making incremental changes won't work, given that the basic structure of schooling is the same: same teachers, same schools, same subject matter. However, Mehta says, thinking in a bigger way is a challenge.

"Inertia is powerful," he says. "Structures are created and layered upon, but rarely fundamentally changed or transformed. Schools are critical public institutions that are responsible for children, and hence we are reluctant to change them too much. Many people benefit from the current system, and it's not in their interest to change it. We are all imaginatively challenged. We have trouble seeing outside existing paradigms. For all those reasons and many others, it's easier to tinker than to make more fundamental change."

Does this mean we basically need to start fresh with schools and how we educate kids? Blow up the Industrial Age model and start from scratch? In the last chapter of the book, Mehta says he sees five options: transform, replace, reassemble, expand, or dissolve the system.

"Transform is keeping the structures as they are, but creating a teaching profession with a level of knowledge and skill that would change what happens inside those structures," he says. "Replace is essentially creating new institutions to do the functions of the old. Reassemble is to break schooling into its components and recreate anew. Expand is linking schooling and other social agencies, and dissolve is imagining a world where students are more directly connected to knowledge and the mediating forces of schooling get weaker. Essentially I think that without making changes in one or more of those directions, we really are just tinkering in ways that won't have real lasting changes."

Quote, Unquote

“We could start to tackle the teacher-quality problem not by finding more superheroes able to master a hugely demanding job, or by placing boundless faith in training and professional development, but by rethinking the way we define the role so that more people might do it well. This entails ‘unbundling’ the teaching job so that each teacher is not asked to excel at so many things, and reimaging it in such a way that permits individual teachers to spend more time doing what they are best at.”
— Rick Hess, Ed.M.’90, and Olivia Meeks, chapter 4, “Unbundling Schools and Schooling”

"As the sheer volume of information increases, the portal associated with formal schooling begins to look increasingly restrictive and, in a world of direct access to information, increasingly dysfunctional. What qualifies as ‘official’ knowledge looks old-fashioned in an age when there are many possible portals for access to information and many possible ways to attach meaning to that information through the process of learning.”
— Lecturer Elizabeth City, Ed.M.’04, Ed.D.’07; Professor Richard Elmore, C.A.S.’72, Ed.D.’76; and Doug Lynch, chapter 6, “Redefining Education”

Consider a simple thought experiment. Suppose we could go back to square one and design the nation’s education system from the ground up, in a way that seemed most productive. Would we build an extreme, all-government system in which choice and competition are virtually absent? For most people who are actively involved in the nation’s reform movement, the answer is clearly no.”
— Terry Moe and Paul Hill, chapter 3, “Moving to a Mixed Model”

"Let’s start with what these [high-achieving] jurisdictions do not do. Several of the most significant features of recent education policy debate in the United States are simply not found in any of these countries — for example, charter schools, pathways into teaching
that allow candidates with only several weeks of training to assume full responsibility for a classroom, teacher evaluation systems based on student test scores, and school accountability systems based on the premise that schools with low average test scores are failures, irrespective of the compositions of their student populations. Nor is choice or competition a main driver in any of these countries, though several have some degree of parent choice.”
— Professor Robert Schwartz, C.A.S.’68; Ben Levin, Ed.M.’75; and Adam Gamoran, chapter 1, “Learning From Abroad”