The Same Thing Over and Over

RICK M. HESS, director of education policy, American Enterprise Institute


February 17-19, 2011
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We have witnessed decade after decade of hyped reforms found by decorated academics and bombastic advocates. Yet, while we have nearly tripled real per pupil spending since 1970, student achievement has barely budged and a superintendent who nodded off in 1950 would feel almost uncannily at home in most of today’s school districts. What’s the deal?


While we reform at a frenzied pace, we have rarely dug deeply enough into the underlying system of schools and teachers to start reshaping the educational landscape. As Albert Einstein so eloquently put it, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." Escaping that fate begins by understanding why all of our seemingly varied reform strategies add up to little more than doing the same thing over and over again. We do this by, for once, not focusing on the hot reforms of the moment, but by asking what we are trying to accomplish, whether today’s schools are equipped for that task, and how we might use 21st-century tools and talent to do better.

We need to emancipate ourselves from the institutions and habits of mind that make school reform a pointless, aimless charade. Doing this requires distinguishing the purpose of schooling from its established practice, so as to determine where today’s means do not serve our ends. This exercise is a task best accomplished by looking in the rearview mirror.

It would be a shame if our seeming advantages ultimately hindered us. Yet, that appears only too possible. For our vast edifice of schooling also has an enormous appetite for resources: dollars, people and energy that are poured into programs, curricula and professional development carried out within the confines of the status quo. We are allowing systems and schools to claim their $600 billion a year, and then fuel reinvention — whether it involves pay systems, training, school design or technology — with dollars sprinkled around the edges. Redesign requires freeing up the dollars and talent and energy that state, local and federal government pump into K–12 schooling day in and day out.

Because ascendant international competitors like India and China did not mirror our enormous investment in erecting school systems in the 19th and 20th centuries, they find themselves today with a far less developed educational infrastructure. By clinging so fiercely to what we’ve built, however, we risk allowing nations less wedded to aged designs to slingshot past us. Having never made the investments in schools and teachers that we did in the pre-industrial and industrial eras, they find themselves free to erect policies and institutions particularly geared to the tools and challenges of this century. It would be a bitter irony indeed if our inability to leave behind anachronistic routines and stale habits of mind meant that the achievements of the Common Schoolers and Progressives that fueled American success in the 20th century were to hold us back in the 21st. We have the power to take another road, if we find the strength to free ourselves from the heavy hand of the past. The choice that lies before us is whether or not to do so.

Updated November 22, 2010


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