On Political Books

March/April 2011 One Size Doesn’t Fit All

Frederick Hess’s big new school reform idea is that no big new school reform idea works everywhere.

By Steven M. Teles

The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas
by Frederick M. Hess
Harvard University Press, 304 pp.

Since arriving at the American Enterprise Institute in 2002, Rick Hess has become the de facto education spokesman for respectable, reality-based conservatives. His new book, The Same Thing Over and Over Again: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas,is as close as the feverishly productive Hess is ever likely to get to a genuine magnum opus. No one will be shocked that a scholar at AEI has a lot to say that will infuriate liberal defenders of the educational status quo. The book’s real surprise is that he is perfectly willing to take on the sacred doctrines of conservative education reformers, arguing that some of them may actually be hampering the process of educational innovation.

Much of what we now accept as fundamental, almost definitional, aspects of schools—that a school must be a wholly geographically based institution, for example—was a “makeshift response to the exigencies of an earlier era,” says Hess. Standard “chalk and talk” schooling made sense for a basically agrarian, small-town nation in which communications and transportation were slow and expensive and schools could rely on an army of talented, underpaid women who had few job opportunities outside of teaching, nursing, and secretarial work. The length of the school day is another relic of a time when relatively few women worked outside the house. Today it makes little sense that most schoolchildren are let loose at three p.m. when their parents often don’t get home from work until the dinner hour. Our current model is increasingly obsolete in a society where demand for high-skilled labor has accelerated, the population has become urbanized, and young people are as comfortable communicating virtually with people around the world as they are with someone at the front of the class.

Almost all efforts at major education reform over the last few decades have been compromised by the failure to recognize this obsolescence. School districts have accepted (if sometimes reluctantly) demands for higher teacher preparation standards, additional Advanced Placement classes, and a greater focus on the “core” subjects of math, science, English, and history. But more radical changes—such as replacing teachers with technology, using a global labor pool, or hiring a lower-paid staff—face much fiercer opposition. This has led reformers, for all their good intentions, to simply add more rules and regulations over existing ones. The result is an accumulation of claims on institutional time and resources which makes for an increasingly resentful bureaucracy and schools that have become unmanageable.

It isn’t just the school districts and teacher’s unions that resist systemic change. Interests as varied as school construction firms, textbook publishers, summer camps, and amusement-park owners (whose survival depends in part on America’s relatively long summer vacations) have a powerful stake in the maintenance of outdated educational practices.

All this because most of us have difficulty imagining schooling occurring outside of a single, physical place led by a full-time, salaried professional who teaches students organized by age-appropriate grades. Even more prosaic are the physical constraints of our existing schools, in which the practices of the past are often quite literally bolted in place. Challenging these deeply embedded practices would require the kind of institutional and physical creative destruction—comprehensive, systemic change from the inside out—for which even the most enthusiastic of reformers may lack the stomach.

As a result, advocates for better education have repeatedly latched on to a depressing litany of fads as the panacea for what ails American education. Believing that they have only a short window of opportunity for change, these reformers push for their ideas to be applied uniformly across the board. “New math,” standardized testing, centralization, merit pay, small schools, community control, mayoral control, and dozens of other ideas have ripped through schools, often with disappointment and disillusion not far behind.

Many of these ideas actuallydid have some merit, says Hess, in the sense that they could  help some specific students in some specific circumstances. For example, a rigorous focus on a narrow set of tested subjects may be reasonable for schools in chaotic, urban contexts where simply focusing on anything counts as success. But that treatment, like chemotherapy, has powerful side effects that should not be risked on the (relatively) healthy “patients” in more advantaged school districts.

The same can be said about the often-furious conflict over pedagogical practices. From the start, there should have been more discussion about what style of teaching or curriculum fits the needs of particular students, rather than the establishment of a one-size-fits-all model. Instead, we have seen wave after wave of disappointment, as some promising changes have been overapplied and not worked as advertised. Which, in turn, paves the way for the next overapplied fad, creating another cycle of failure and disillusionment.

Hess is a refreshing change from many other analysts who hold forth on the subject of education. He is unafraid to take on flaws even in policies he largely supports—such as merit pay, school choice, and greater competition, which, he says, were at once oversold and misunderstood.

But the most critical lesson from the book is Hess’s powerful theory about what makes schools succeed or fail. That theory, simply put, is that the basic components of schooling—parents, children, school leaders, and teachers—are irreducibly diverse. Parents have different ideas about what a “well-educated” child is, and children differ quite significantly in temperament, aptitude, habits, and interests. School leaders vary as to how they think schools should be run, while teachers have different skill levels, enthusiasm for different tasks, and ideas about what children should learn and know.

Successful education requires alignment between these four groups. Educators will always be less effective if they are made to teach in a way that they believe is wrongheaded or that they haven’t bought into. Students will have difficulty learning if they are forced to work at a pace that is too fast or too slow, or if they are taught in a manner that doesn’t match their individual learning styles. Parents can be disengaged or hostile if the pedagogy, discipline, or school culture differ fundamentally from what they think is right for their child. And schools as a whole will be incoherent and disorganized if they cannot count on some baseline of agreement as to what—and who—the school is for.

The implications of this simple set of assumptions are profound. If you take them seriously, almost every aspect of schooling—how students are assigned to schools, who teaches and how they are trained, where and when teaching and learning occurs, who provides education and who regulates it, and, most radically, how disagreements are settled—must be called into question.

Steven M. Teles is associate professor of political science at the Johns Hopkins University and the author most recently of The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.