Saturday, March 12, 2011

Education is Hard

Interesting review of a book by Frederick Hess, education expert at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. Hess has come to the conclusion that the way we do "education reform" is a big part of the troubled institution we need to reform. Hess thinks communities, parents, teachers, and students are too diverse for one educational method or system to work everywhere. He also thinks we should be thinking much more broadly about ways to change education. He wonders why students have the summer off, why we group students by age, why we insist on teaching all students by the same method, why we let the majority of the voters in a state or school district decide the policies for all of the students. Each wave of reform incorporates good ideas, but those ideas get written into new sets of regulations, administered by new levels of bureaucracy, until the overall burden is crushing. Each set of reform ideas is also forced onto students for whom it is not appropriate, and meanwhile fundamental matters like short school days and age grouping are left unchanged.

As a result, advocates for better education have repeatedly latched on to a depressing litany of fads as the panacea for what ails American education. Believing that they have only a short window of opportunity for change, these reformers push for their ideas to be applied uniformly across the board. “New math,” standardized testing, centralization, merit pay, small schools, community control, mayoral control, and dozens of other ideas have ripped through schools, often with disappointment and disillusion not far behind.

Many of these ideas actually did have some merit, says Hess, in the sense that they could help some specific students in some specific circumstances. For example, a rigorous focus on a narrow set of tested subjects may be reasonable for schools in chaotic, urban contexts where simply focusing on anything counts as success. But that treatment, like chemotherapy, has powerful side effects that should not be risked on the (relatively) healthy “patients” in more advantaged school districts. . . .

“The frustrating truth,” Hess tells us, “is that there are no permanent solutions in schooling, only solutions that make sense in a given time and place.”

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