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Is Progressivism Derailing School Reform?


Over the past decade, a massive, bipartisan education reform movement has been gaining momentum, bringing together governors, teachers, school counselors, multiple presidential administrations, and idealistic young college students. It is the force behind programs like No Child Left Behind and the Common Core Curriculum, as well as a number of charter school and voucher programs at the state level.

While the reformers have poured their energy into scoring these policy victories, they haven’t built a group of leaders who can successfully implement them in schools around the country. At least, that’s the criticism levied by Frederick M. Hess in National Affairs. He notes that many ambitious reforms have been stymied by an education bureaucracy that has become nearly impervious to change. Yet rather than confront this problem, many reformers are content to celebrate and move on as soon as legislation is passed.

In Hess’s eyes, the problems stem from the progressive impulse in the movement, which has left many leaders convinced the the key to education reform is simply putting the best policy in place and assuming the rest will take care of itself:

These efforts [No Child Left Behind and Race for the Top] have paid short shrift to the simple and frustrating fact that, while public policy can make people do things, it cannot make people do those things well. This is especially salient in education for two reasons. First, state and federal policymakers do not run schools; they merely write laws and regulations telling school districts what principals and teachers ought to do. And second, schooling is a complex, highly personal endeavor, which means that what happens at the individual level — the level of the teacher and the student — is the most crucial factor in separating failure from success. In education, there is often a vast distance between policy and practice….

Moreover, while the education-reform coalition is bipartisan, staff members at the vast majority of foundations, advocacy groups, and associations lean heavily to the left. The practical result is that reform is marked by an uncanny confidence that noble intentions and technocratic expertise are enough to drive social change. Too often, even conservative advocates of school choice or teacher-tenure reform exhibit an exaggerated faith in the ability of high-level policy change to deliver hoped-for outcomes on the ground.

Ironically, this progressive impulse led to the creation of the same monolithic school bureaucracies that are now the chief opponent of education reform:

In the early 20th century, enthralled by the promise of “scientific management,” Progressives fought to import into schooling (and government) the same managerial practices they admired in successful industrial enterprises. Ellwood Cubberley, dean of the school of education at Stanford University and the father of the 20th-century school-leadership movement, explained that before 1900 schools had been like “a manufacturing establishment running at a low grade of efficiency.” The solution was to bureaucratize and standardize schools. But the measures intended to improve efficiency and quality have, over time, become drivers of inertia, inefficiency, and ineptitude.

Indeed. This is why we have always been wary of reforms that attempt to impose from on high a uniform standard for the nation’s thousands of school districts. While we, too, share many of the convictions of the education reformers, we believe that America is simply too large and heterogenous a country for any Washington education bureaucracy to understand, much less manage. Instead, we would prefer a system that devolves as much power as possible to parents, allowing those with the greatest knowledge and the highest stake in the school systems to decide what is best for their districts.  Vouchers remain the most promising way of accomplishing this.

Anyone with any interest in education reform should give this piece a read. It exposes a key weakness in the reform movement, and avoids the usual tired criticisms from those with a vested interest in the status quo.

[School building image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • Pete

    What is preventing school reform is naked self-interest.

    Every semi-parasite that is employed in the ed-industry fights to protect her own narrow self-interest at the expense of the children.

    The greatest example of this destructive behavior is the actions of the teachers unions like the NEA and AFT.

  • f1b0nacc1

    You are inaccurate describing the various members of the education-industrial complex as “semi-parasites”….
    There is nothing “semi” about them…they are parasites, plain and simple

  • Anthony

    The report comprehensive indictment on state of historic reform effort in delivering public education K-12 (both charter and regular schools). For me, there are two takeaways: 1) “Formal policy is often no match for countervailing pressures of localized incentives, institutional cultures, situational imperatives, and internalized obstacles. 2) Massive educational industrial complex of training and professional development programs, 14,000 school districts, 1,300 teacher-preparation programs, 1,100 educational-leadership programs, a web of professional associations….”

    Finally, Hess, though focused on education reform, misses applicability to 21st century disintermediation in other sectors his recommendations follow – what he discusses impact generally more than public education going forward.

  • Stacy Garvey

    I think serious reformers understand now that the ultimate goal should be a dismantling of the district school system. Charters, vouchers, online schools, homeschooling all undermine, compete and drain resources from the status quo model- that’s a good thing. Weaken the beast and provide alternatives and it will die – slowly, but it will die.

  • Bruce

    It is rarely mentioned that the word “education” is not mentioned in the Constitution. It was always intended to be a state function. The Founders obviously believed in society funding education, but not the Feds. Unions and bureaucracy ruined public schools and much of the destruction was intentional to create voters that vote a certain way. For this blog to ask if Progressivism is derailing school reform is a bit naïve. Of course it is!

  • Corlyss

    “Ironically, this progressive impulse led to the creation of the same monolithic school bureaucracies”

    Why is this ironic? What’s the one thing you know for a rock solid certainty about Progressives? That you put them in power and they want to dictate to everyone what everyone should think, do, and say. Another name for that is tyranny. Tyrannies have to be monolithic.

  • Jack Klompus

    Keep in mind that there actually are many dedicated teachers who do go to work every day and do their best to educate kids, many of whom have little if any interest in learning any barely any sense of self-discipline. A lot of communities have high quality school systems with passionate teachers and, go figure, parents that are invested in them and show it by holding their kids and their schools accountable.
    Of course there are lousy teachers like there are people who do a myriad of jobs poorly. It’s unfortunate that they’re able to hide behind the shield of unions that, rather than represent their best interests, do their best to keep the bad teachers from being held accountable.
    In a lot of schools, bad management and overpaid administrators are the cause of the rot. Large school districts have layers of bureaucrats collecting large paychecks for doing “work” whose contribution to quality education is suspect at best.

    • Montgomery Draxel

      As my wife, a high school teacher of 12 years says, “You can’t out teach bad parenting.”

      Communities with good households and parents that are engaged will always have better school systems, because of the calibre of student and level of accountability via the parents.

      Getting rid of bad teachers helps, but it won’t solve the fundamental problem: misbehaving students are taking up the lion’s share of time and effort.

  • Bruno_Behrend

    As many of the comments here indicate, “reformers” are in a pitched battle with a powerful political bureaucracy.

    Like many reformers, Hess’ mistake is the pipe dream of fixing the existing system so that it can work.

    It Isn’t desIgned to work, and the people runnIng it have no Interest In it workIng. Education in America is beyond reform. It requires “transformation” through dismantlement.

    Therefore, there should be no “negotiation” with defenders of the status quo. Their defeat should be the only goal.

    Like the USSR, today’s education establishment (Government Education Complex) in America is an imooral, malignant force in the world, and needs to be defeated.

    This is done through vouchers, charters, digital and home schooling, which are neceaary to create the infrastructure of independent learning institutions the nation needs.

  • teapartydoc

    Of all of the big lies pushed by progressives, school consolidation was one of the biggest. Not one of the promises of consolidation have come to pass. What has happened is that many of our children have turned out to be alienated, dysfunctional murderers who still can’t read.

  • Montgomery Draxel

    The poor quality of the Primary education system in America is due to the broken family in many communities. You can throw all the money you want at those schools (and we do, actually) and it isn’t going to help the feral children running rampant, if they even show up at all.

    The way to fix the education system in America is through hardcore welfare reform and social shaming of anyone having children outside of a committed relationship / marriage. In fact, we should be paying married families with no criminal record and college degrees to have children instead of the other way around.

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