Blogging from The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday’s Ideas

with Rick Hess, Director of Education Policy Studies, American Enterprise Institute
March 30, 2011

On Today’s agenda: attend the talk with author, education-thinker Rick Hess. I’d read article after article of his during my Fall Introduction to Education Policy class at Harvard University Graduate School of Education. I own his “Common Sense Reform” book, so I was eager to hear what he had to say.

Apparently, the session was a book talk. He was self-depreciating at the beginning but also declaring that all the good ideas, he would take credit for. He’s sociable—but I wanted to withhold my opinion. He opened with a reference to a different context—a past article he’d written on teacher certification. What he found most useful about the past discussion was that the habit of discussing teacher licensure opened doors of attack or defense of the education system. He wanted people to engage in the debates of education—not just the notions of whether something is a solution to schooling or an attack on schooling (of course, I’m paraphrasing).  He’d like to discuss using new tools to solve new problems, instead of whether certain principles are sacrosanct. Sounds good, right? Cut to the substance…

Open the Sisyphus metaphor. Hess asserts that rather than worry about the new jargon related to turnaround and pedagogical techniques (which amounts to yelling advice to Sisyphus about his techniques or which shoes that he is wearing), we should instead be looking at the big problem (or the huge mountain ahead of Sisyphus).  Shrinking high schools to small communities doesn’t tinker with the difficulties that high school may not be updated to today’s needs. Technology isn’t the promising solution (though it can really facilitate learning). There should not be the assumption that these things are going to make a huge difference. The solution is figuring out how education and schooling is going to deal with the changes in our environment.

Next on the block? GM. Hess suggests that the reason GM had problems was because it didn’t change to the time of today.  GM’s model was terrific for their market in the 50s, but 50 years later, what were assets changes to real liabilities. It wasn’t GM’s fault. They just baked into their DNA the way they did business and it was difficult to turn these things around once the environments changed. Hess suggests that ¾ of the 25 biggest firms today did not exist 50 years ago.  These firms figured out how to leverage the existing resources of the internet, social networks, tools and talents. An established entity has difficulty doing this without purposeful effort. And the intro to schools: Schools systems are an accumulation of policies, personnel, cultures, regulations, rules, and contracts that have existed for years. These are extremely difficult to change.

What has changed according to Hess?
1.       Importance we accord to schooling
2.       What we want graduates to know
3.       Values we want schools to promote
4.       The prospectus for graduates
5.       Pool of available teachers
6.       Tools at our disposal

If our mandates have changed, then the process of schooling school also changed. Hess suggests that since we value diversity now, it might make sense to allow diverse people to operate different kinds of schools to produce diverse learners rather than state schools for state employees to only teach state curriculum. (Of course, “state” being the government generally here). The approaches to staffing will need to be rethought—offering that the system depends on about 10% of the available adults that have a college degree in the U.S.

Enter the thoughts within the schools of education.  Quotes Horace Mann and Benjamin Rush of the 18th Century.  References de Tocqueville versus a republican machinery view. Illustrates that current systems are based on countable units (like age-graded classrooms, seat-counting, the Carnegie unit of set #s of days with set #s of instructional units as a determinant for knowing students will learn).

And then the history lesson that summers off of school were not just for agrarian purposes, but because pre-air conditioning, having children gathered together in the summer was potentially dangerous from a public health perspective of spreading disease. (Perhaps the most interesting nugget I would walk away from the talk with.) Next, the history of 19th and 20th century teaching with normal schools, tenure, unions. Today, there is a need for customization not the production and transportation needs of the past. Additionally, the holy wars of what kind of teaching is best (ex: core v. constructivists, etc.) should stop because no proven research that one is better for students than the other. Hess’s bottom line, quite simply, is that we need to rethink what it means to be a public school.

 He acknowledges there are challenges to do this including barriers, talent more available and accessible, technology easier to use, financing, and coordination. Hess is a fan of School of One, High Tech High Ed Schools, Citizen Schools, and (I will be personally looking at these myself and encourage others to do the same. I’m familiar with the first two and not the second.)  Hess admits that these are whole school solutions and not necessarily system solutions. It seems that Hess has abandoned systems and likes the system of schools idea rather than the school system. Hess mentions other concepts from his past writings on philanthropy and talent. He thinks that we have to use resources better and ask whether schools are serving kids well considering the resources they are consuming.

(As a side note, Hess made a pretty funny “funny” when he suggested that students are not learning from computers any more than people using their cell phones are talking to the phone.)

So here’s the bottom line as I see it from this session… Here’s where I agree with Hess: The notion of what works is known because it happened in one place with one groups. This is the wrong approach. Here’s where I am skeptical of what Hess thinks: How do we solve problems in ways that are sustainable and scalable? (This is because I’m sooo over the “scalable” terminology in this education reform arena, and I promise that I will update my posts to finish my critique of “scalability.”) We then opened to Q & A. I welcome yours.

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