"The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results."
By Frederick M. Hess | Ed Week Commentary
November 10, 2010
Apocryphal or not, this quote stands as a damning indictment of decades’ worth of school reform efforts.
Earlier this year, my dear friend Diane Ravitch raised a furor when she charged in The Death and Life of the Great American School System that advocates of test-based accountability, mayoral control, and charter schooling had overpromised and naively imagined that these structural measures could “fix” our education woes. This ferocious blast was well-timed and well-aimed, and resonated mightily.
However, Ravitch also went much further, labeling such measures a sinister assault on public education. It was here that her useful blast at faddism got ensnared in a familiar trap. Ravitch allowed the shape of today’s public schools and school districts to define the mission of public schooling. Thus, attempts to rethink governance, teacher evaluation, or incentives become “attacks” on public schooling.
This leaves us wedded to arrangements that may have made sense a century ago, but that are poorly suited to today’s goals or to making the best use of 21st-century tools and resources. If our goals and tools have changed, and they have, it’s only sensible to ask whether yesterday’s compromises and chance decisions ought to steer our course. The proper measure of whether proposals are consistent with public schooling ought not be whether power, politics, or finances shift, but whether we’re doing a better job of educating all children in ways that ensure they master essential knowledge and skills, develop their gifts, and are prepared for the duties of citizenship.
Would-be reformers like U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are as myopic as their opponents, casually swallowing intact the familiar assumptions of districts, schools, age-graded classrooms, Carnegie units, and teacher job descriptions—and then imagining that the addition of merit pay, value-added metrics, and fanciful turnaround plans will be enough to set matters right.