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

For almost the entire span of America’s experiment with universal education, we have had two ways of dealing with the diversity and conflict that are inherent in public education. For those without substantial mobility or means, that approach has been democracy: parents and other interested community members argue about what schools should do, and then the majority determines what plans will be put into place. Parents and their children can either accept what they are given or organize through the political system for change.

Persons with means and mobility, however, have a different set of educational options: they can try to match their preferences and attributes to a public jurisdiction they think is appropriate; they can supplement public schools with other educational experiences in order to bring their children’s education closer to their preferences; or they can opt out of public schools entirely and place their children in private schools. The preferences of the well-to-do thus are aggregated through the classically liberal mechanisms of choice and markets, while those without such means must content themselves with majoritarian, democratic mechanisms.

One takeaway of Hess’s argument is that, where education is concerned, democracy is distinctly inferior to liberty. The basic issues we fight over in education, he suggests, are not susceptible to definitive settlement. We will never agree on the question of what it means to be truly educated, because this is a matter of principle and preference rather than science. We will never be able to come up with a single model of schooling that works for everyone, because the needs and habits of students differ so dramatically. The reforms most likely to creative vibrant, creative organizations are those that are most freely consented to—those in which students, parents, teachers, and school leaders are all on the same page, because they have agreed in advance on the fundamentals.

Rather than aggressively imposing a single set of best practices on all schools, then, Hess argues for narrowing the scope of choices that are made by majorities, and increasing those made by smaller, self-chosen groups of common sentiment. Policy changes that insist on one way of compensating, training, and recruiting teachers, one way to use the school day or year, one way of organizing classrooms or defining what should go on in them—regardless of how they try to establish this uniformity—are steps in the wrong direction. “The frustrating truth,” Hess tells us, “is that there are no permanent solutions in schooling, only solutions that make sense in a given time and place.

“Rather than education reform again being, as in the 1980s, a matter of prescriptive state policies on teacher ladders and additional course requirements, or as in the 2000s, a matter of accountability systems and mandated interventions in low-performing schools,” he continues, “perhaps it is time for an agenda that creates room for problem solvers rather than prescribing solutions.” Much the same thing could be said about other reform favorites, such as the adoption of Common Core State Standards (a set of standards now approved, as of this writing, by forty-three states and the District of Columbia), a greater use of standardized tests, and “value-added” metrics of teacher effectiveness and merit pay. These may be great ideas in particular places and with certain groups of students. But we cannot be presumptuous enough to assume that they will work in all the nation’s schools.

The key to effective reform, Hess concludes, is ridding ourselves of the pipe dream that dramatically improved schools are just one silver bullet away. Instead of doubling down on a particular set of supposedly research-driven “best practices,” we should hedge our bets by allowing radical new models of schooling and eccentric and unproven ideas to gain entry into the system—while resisting any force, be it public, private, or philanthropic, that would foist a new orthodoxy on a system which has already seen far too many of them.

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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.