Where Do We Go Now?

As ever, Richard Rothstein is eloquent. He is so compelling that I will not challenge the three premises on which he erects his essay. Rather, I will stipulate the reasonableness of his argument that K-8 performance was not declining in the years preceding 1983 (although I would argue that the level of performance was less satisfactory than his essay seems to imply), agree that A Nation at Risk implicated schools in national problems for which they bear little responsibility (at least in the short- or medium-term), and think it self-evident that the report devoted little attention to the role of institutions other than schools (although I find this point far less troublesome than does he). Our disagreement is where one goes from there. Now, schooling and human capital assuredly have a long-term impact on economic performance, as the Hoover Institution’s Eric Hanushek and several colleagues have recently shown; but such a commonsense observation is a far cry from the fevered language casually tossed about in these debates.

My point of departure is Rothstein’s sensible admission that “I do not suggest that American schools are adequate, that American students’ level of achievement in math and reading is where it should be, [or] that American schools have been improving as rapidly as they should.” He is to be commended for explicitly making this point, as many who favorably cite his work have used it to suggest just those things.

While the bulk of Mr. Rothstein’s essay focuses, not on schooling, but on labor markets, unions, and skewering overheated claims about the restorative powers of education, I am inclined, by experience and expertise, to speak more directly to the question of schooling on this anniversary. To my mind, the key lesson and great shortcoming of A Nation at Risk was the understandable but unfortunate ease with which the commission accepted as a given the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.

Rather than ask why teacher colleges should hold a monopoly on teacher preparation, why technological advances were not yielding labor-saving practices or new efficiencies, or why schools and classrooms serving very different student populations should be expected to operate in similar ways and in accord with similar rules, the commission focused on recommending more academic courses, more instructional time, and higher standards for teachers.

A consequence was that its calls for improved teacher quality, standards, and assessment were defined in accord with familiar nostrums. While not unreasonable, given the commission’s charge, a document less committed to rallying political support would have been freer to ask why we originally embraced the designs that we regard as familiar, whether those arrangements had grown balky with time, and if they continued to serve the purposes for which they were established. It is those questions that even hard-nosed reformers have too frequently skirted in the past quarter-century.

While calling for a better pool of teachers, A Nation at Risk did not push policymakers to revisit the assumptions of our system for attracting and preparing educators. That was unfortunate because, then as now, the existing teacher pipeline is the result of more than a century of compromises and incremental adjustments responding to the exigencies of another era. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the teaching profession relied on a captive pool of female labor, treated workers as largely interchangeable, and counted on male principals and superintendents to micromanage the teaching workforce. Later, collective bargaining agreements, more expansive licensure systems, and local and state statutes and regulations were layered atop these arrangements. Even today, would-be reformers too rarely recognize that mere tweaks are unlikely to deliver satisfying results — and that proposals to promote alternative certification or test-based merit pay are baby steps rather than coherent reform strategies.

Preparation programs continue to presume that most aspiring teachers will decide upon a lifelong teaching career while enrolled in college. This made sense forty years ago, when the typical college graduate would hold five jobs in their career and most teachers were college-educated women with few career choices. Today, however, the average college graduate holds four jobs by the age of thirty — making it hard to be confident that new hires can be retained for an extended period, much less for two decades. Meanwhile, the job of “teacher” has remained remarkably undifferentiated, with the vast majority of teachers within a given subject area or grade level treated as largely interchangeable. All fourth-grade teachers in a district generally cover the same subjects, instruct the same number of students, and take on similar ancillary duties. While this may have made sense when little data was available with which to pinpoint teacher strengths or student needs, today it results in a wasteful utilization of talented educators.

Many of today’s “cutting-edge” efforts to reform teacher recruitment and preparation represent nothing more than repackaging outmoded assumptions. For instance, in perhaps the most widely discussed contemporary critique of teacher preparation, Art Levine’s 2006 Educating School Teachers simply accepted that the default model of teacher recruitment ought to entail driving talented undergraduates into extended preparation as part of a five-year degree. Missing was any recognition that students ready to commit to a career in teaching at age 22 might not be the best suited population for the job, that there is no compelling evidence that modal teacher preparation makes a consistent difference in classrooms, or that this approach may dissuade potentially effective entrants while failing to account for the vast pool of talented working adults that may be interested in pursuing a teaching career.

Similarly, the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements has been particularly evident in the realm of choice-based reform. For two decades, choice-based reform has been unwisely and deceptively offered by its proponents as something akin to a miracle cure that will boost student achievement, unleash competition, and advance core democratic values.

Along the way, little attention has been paid to the design of these efforts to deregulate a $500 billion a year industry, fostering a vibrant supply of effective providers, nurturing effective mechanisms for quality control, or understanding the multiplicity of arrangements and practices that stifle even nontraditional schools and service providers. For instance, the choice community has had next to nothing to say about the need for venture capital in education, about the ways in which personnel policies and benefit systems stifle new ventures, or about how consumer choices should impact the compensation and job security of educators and school leaders.

One result is that some who were once enthusiastic proponents of “choice” have reversed course and expressed doubts about the viability of educational markets — without ever having stopped to consider all the ways in which simply promoting one-off choice programs falls desperately short of any serious effort to thoughtfully deregulate schooling or promote a coherent K-12 marketplace. Indeed, some have abandoned the choice bandwagon with the same ill-considered haste that marked their initial enthusiasm.

For decades, we have poured money into schooling while seeing few obvious benefits. Current per-pupil spending in constant dollars more than tripled between 1961-62 and 2003-04, from $2,603 to $8,886. Pupil-to-teacher ratios plunged, from 25.1 students per teacher in 1965 to 15.3 per teacher in 2007. Meanwhile, educational progress has been disappointing, at best, over the past quarter-century. This is the epitome of pushing on a string. In an economy marked by new technologies, labor-saving devices, steady growth in productivity, and an evolving labor pool, we are hiring and deploying educators just the way we did a half-century ago. The result is that new investments have not delivered the hoped-for results.

Ultimately, no one should be surprised that arrangements which have haphazardly taken shape over two centuries are ill-equipped to address the challenges or fully exploit the opportunities of the 21st century.

Mr. Rothstein is right to point out that there are limits to what any institution can accomplish and that it is unhelpful to make grandiose claims on behalf of schooling. At the same time, it is too easy for such cautions to become excuses for anachronistic and inefficient operations. The lesson I take from A Nation at Risk, then, is that we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.

Frederick M. Hess is director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute and author of Common Sense School Reform.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern detects “two Richard Rothsteins.” The first praises the public schools for improving student performance and for narrowing inequalities in student achievement. The second argues that nothing further can be done by the schools; for added progress we need other forms of social and political reform. “Either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits,” Stern writes. “But [Rothstein] perversely insists on having it both ways.” In stark contrast, Stern argues that test scores have become worse, that schools bear the responsibility, but that they can improve through a regime of standards.

  • Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”