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]