- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 16, 2011

THE SAME THING OVER AND OVER: HOW SCHOOL REFORMERS GET STUCK IN YESTERDAY’S IDEAS
By Frederick M. Hess
Harvard University Press, $27.95 304 pages

Move over “reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic.” The three R’s are old hat. These days education needs to be about the three D’s: decentralization, diversity and dynamism. So argues Frederick M. Hess in his new book about school reform, “The Same Thing Over and Over.” School reformers are in danger of forgetting the three D’s of education, Mr. Hess says. We would be wise to let these traditional principles of American education guide our 21st-century system of schooling.

Most education books focus on a single aspect of education - pedagogy or school funding - or build an argument around a central theme, such as vouchers or No Child Left Behind. Mr. Hess cuts a broader swath, taking a sweeping historical look at the big issues that have shaped education. This is no beach read. Instead, Mr. Hess, an education policy scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, offers an extensive policy primer on the great achievement of American education - and the challenges its success has created.

The great success of American schooling is our dedication to universalizing education. The avenues of education have been opened over the years to ever more Americans: rich and poor, black and white, studious and not. Universalizing education, Mr. Hess writes, “has meant that every district and school is asked to take on more and more responsibilities for more and more students.” Schools are encouraged to be “everything for everybody.”

Unfortunately, schools that try to do everything usually are not excellent at anything. Instead, our schools reflect a “process-based, watery standardization which makes it difficult to establish strong values or disciplinary norms.” This gives rise to “differentiated instruction,” - the practice of tailoring a standardized lesson plan to meet widely varying student needs within a single classroom. Today’s education reformers accept the goal of universal education because they keep the faith that “most students have the ability to succeed at high levels.”

Education reformers also emphasize the importance of statistical data to measure student achievement. To be sure, measuring educational outcomes is an important and powerful tool that has been long neglected by the education establishment. But Mr. Hess counsels that it is no substitute for good judgment.

Universalizing education may be to the good, but that doesn’t mean education should be standardized across schools and for all students, Mr. Hess writes. Too often, education reformers have created a “cult of efficiency.” “Time and again,” he writes, “attempts to scientifically identify the ‘right’ teacher or pedagogy can stifle problem solving and yield troubling consequences.”

More humility is in order for those “eager to establish scientifically based practices and routines.” And the belief that all students should attain a high standard of “proficiency” in all areas should be abandoned. Mr. Hess cautiously advises: “With sufficient thought and care, students can be sorted in productive ways without reinforcing social hierarchies.”

Education reformers typically debate school choice in terms of charter schools and voucher programs, online education and home schooling. These debates are intense and extensive and driven by statistical data. But Mr. Hess is at his most thought-provoking when he notes that most parents already exercise school choice.

“The vast majority of families already exercise school choice,” he writes, “with more than 50 percent doing so by choosing their residence partly in order to choose a school.” “Suburban families and the affluent” have already chosen their schools, and they are reasonably satisfied with them. This helps explain why they don’t “clamor” for alternative school choice policies - you don’t see charter schools in the suburbs.

Mr. Hess notes that when the middle and upper classes cluster together in choosing their residence, schools and school districts are created that are rife with inequity, as “Milton Friedman surmised a half century ago.” Friedman, who wrote the article that launched the modern school-choice movement, understood that “when school assignment and quality is bundled in with one’s housing purchase, we create strong incentives for the affluent to self-segregate while fostering stratification and isolating the disadvantaged.”

Because beneficial school-choice policies such as charter schools and voucher programs “allow families to select schools without regard to residential location,” they will reduce the incentive for class-based clustering. That should help to equalize housing prices, resulting “in a decline in class-based residential stratification, which can in turn lead to more socioeconomically diverse schools.”

Mr. Hess does a first-rate job of disentangling the connections between school and residence. Still, the conundrum remains, and it is one to which Mr. Hess pays only glancing attention. Middle-class suburban families not only don’t clamor for school choice, they often are distinctly uneasy with the idea.

They moved to the suburbs not because the school buildings are new, but to enable their children to go to school with other kids from families like theirs. They know schools are shaped by the children in them, and they are leery that school-choice policies could introduce the urban dysfunctional poor into their neighborhood schools, reducing their control over their child’s schoolmates. The school choice favored by education reformers is at odds with the kind of school choice that has been produced by millions of parental decisions.

It’s clear where Mr. Hess‘ sympathies lie. He wants to give families more control over public education dollars and reduce the incentives that tie those dollars to their choice of residence. In the end, “there are many legitimate ways to provide public education.” If a new system of schooling is to emerge, it will need Mr. Hess‘ D’s: more decentralization, more diversity and more dynamism.

Story Continues →