The Danger of Grand “Fixes”

I found Mr. Rothstein’s discussion of the various critiques somewhat less convincing than his initial essay primarily on two counts. Allowances should be made in light of the fact that he was asked to address three discordant responses and, given that Mr. Strong and Mr. Stern have already weighed in, I will try to fashion my reply accordingly and then extend the discussion a bit.

In putting meat on his proposal for the kinds of social supports he deems necessary to support schools, Mr. Rothstein wound up importing the better part of a full-scale domestic policy agenda under the justification “it’s for the kids.” Mr. Rothstein’s policy recommendations regarding health care, expanded Section 8 housing, increased early childhood care, providing parents of low-income children with greater “economic security,” and so forth may or may not be worthwhile policy goals (to my mind, some are and some are not), but the sticking points are more often program design and ensuring efficacy. Moreover, for those of us skeptical of public bureaucracies, there are deeper concerns here about permanently expanding the reach of government and entrusting bureaucrats with fashioning and providing an array of new or expanded services. Simply asserting that these efforts are less radical than Nixon’s proposed domestic program and that they are essential if children are to succeed in school is an unconvincing response to one who regards Nixon’s domestic efforts as highly problematic and is dubious that the proposed programs would yield the intended results.

While Mr. Rothstein takes some pains in his response to acknowledge the necessity that schools must do better and that this requires qualitative improvements in teaching and learning, it is unfortunately true that many who latch onto his arguments or who make parallel arguments do not add that proviso. The concern is that framing proposals for social reforms as educationally necessary can amount to little more than a rhetorical device that seeks to sidestep thorny debates about fiscal constraints, tax burdens, unintended consequences, and competing priorities.

Indeed, arguing “it’s for the schools” or “it’s for the children” has too often become a convenient rallying cry for broader agendas that may or may not be primarily about schools and schooling. To take but one example, education icon Jean Anyon, a professor in the Department of Education at Rutgers University, argues in her widely cited Ghetto Schooling, “Educational change in the inner city, to be successful, has to be part and parcel of more fundamental social change.” Anyon calls for “an all-out attack on poverty and racial isolation” that requires new regulation of teachers, expanded social services, new federal and state spending on cities, a higher minimum wage, and “improved” teaching and learning. To fund all of this “school reform,” she advocates cutting defense spending and agricultural subsidies, and imposing new taxes on corporations, Social Security, capital gains, and executive pay.[1] Now, thoughtful readers may accept or reject these proposals, but it strikes me as ludicrous to suggest that they ought to be primarily weighed on the basis of their implications for school improvement.

If the Rothstein agenda reads something like a domestic policy agenda rather than a school improvement agenda, it may be because educational advocacy can readily become a politically useful way to package contested social agendas rather than tackle mundane questions like how to provide schools that promote quality teaching and learning. Either way, to my mind, we have now drifted far from any discussion of A Nation at Risk or the forum’s question of “Can America’s Schools Be Fixed?”

With that, let me turn to the second issue — Mr. Rothstein’s relatively relatively sweeping dismissal of “deregulation” as a handmaiden of improvement. He briefly tries his hand at consequentalist response — mentioning Jennifer Rice’s 2003 booklet on teacher quality while omitting mention of more current and compelling work on teacher licensure by scholars like University of Washington’s Dan Goldhaber, Stanford University’s Susanna Loeb, or Harvard University’s Tom Kane — before pointing out that sensible deregulation must be coupled with attention to quality control. This is a useful (if obvious) reminder, and reminds us that rethinking anachronistic models is not just a question of whether but of how. Indeed, the need to push more aggressively into these questions remains a critical one for education thinkers; a splendid recent example of this kind of thinking is provided by Checker Finn’s fall 2007 paper “Quality Control in a Dynamic Sector.”

Interestingly, Mr. Rothstein does not suggest the same degree of caution when it comes to gauging the merits of his various social welfare proposals; there, he relies upon assertion rather than evidence in charging that they are critical to educational improvement. When it comes to revisiting routines regarding teacher recruitment, school governance, or other educational questions, however, Mr. Rothstein seems to demand a different standard of proof to justify alternative arrangements. This twinned desire for grand remedies and for sure things, to my mind, reflects the challenge posed by the forum question and the difficulty that we have in grappling with it, and helps explain the desire to turn to other proposals (relating to unionization, health care, or the minimum wage) as promising solutions.

I’ll try to make my position painfully clear. I am highly skeptical that we can “fix” American schooling in any straightforward sense — especially through public policy or government activity. Indeed, adopting an approach that envisions “fixing” 90,000+ schools or 15,000 school districts lends itself to mechanistic solutions that routinely build upon existing institutions and arrangements. When we address educational shortcomings, we are not fixing any one thing — but are seeking to ensure that thousands of terrible schools, and tens of thousands of mediocre schools, are doing a far better job of educating students of variable skills, attitudes, and circumstances. These circumstances help explain why we have so many times been disappointed by shiny new solutions (included many of those proffered by A Nation at Risk) that have promised dramatic improvements if only we would implement them properly. The need is not for one answer fastidiously repeated, but for a variety of answers that can be adopted where and when appropriate and in accord with local needs and the tools at hand.

This is where deregulation becomes essential — not in the sense of promising a glittering new future if only the old rules no longer apply — but by allowing us to revisit arrangements governing who can teach, how we pay teachers, or who operates schools. At work is not a conviction that there is anything magical about deregulation or alternative arrangments — but the banal observation that it is hard to change public institutions and that our existing arrangements, whatever their merits given the labor markets, demands, and available tools of the mid-20th century, are not equal to the challenges of today. Making the necessary improvements, and doing so in a time frame that can be measured in years rather than generations, requires new practices in terms of instruction, management, and governance. Such an approach necessarily forswears the grandiose ambition of “fixing” America’s schools in any particular window and instead asks two questions: how we can promote improved teaching and learning, and what policymakers and reformers can do to help provide the teachers, arrangements, systems of schools, and culture that can encourage learning.

I see little evidence that conventional state or district school systems, even those with the most energetic and savvy leadership, are capable of pursuing the requisite changes through established arrangements, personnel, and routines. As I noted in my initial essay, this is where I think A Nation at Risk’s narrow focus on tweaking existing practices (such as teacher testing and high school student course-taking) constituted an unfortunate missed opportunity. I do agree with Mr. Stern that there is a clear role for research and research-based practice when it comes to teaching and learning, and that the pursuit of disciplined research and the application of that research (especially in the case of reading) can make a substantial difference.

On the other hand, I am skeptical of what I take to be Mr. Stern’s implication that most existing schools and school systems are capable of effectively implementing that research in the manner he suggests. Here I find compelling Mr. Strong’s dictum that we be open to new arrangements and new ways of operating schools. Ultimately, however, I find Mr. Strong’s focus on schools and school management somewhat constraining, and believe it is essential that we devote as much energy to thinking about how the status quo shapes the educational labor market, the delivery of professional development, the pursuit of research, and the employment of technology as to the issue of “deregulating” school management and governance through choice-based reforms. I think that examining teacher and administrative licensure, teacher preparation, charter school compensation, or the use of research and technology by private schools or charter schools schools, for instance, suggests choice-based reform is not a one-size-fits-all tool for allowing educators and reformers to explore better approaches to familiar frustrations.

[1] Jean Anyon, Ghetto Schooling: A Political Economy of Urban Educational Reform (New York: Teachers College Press, 1997), p. 13.

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.”