One Size Fits Most

If you step back from day to day vitriol that characterizes the current education-policy “debate,” and glimpse the larger picture, two worldviews on education reform emerge. One, articulated by the likes of Linda Darling-Hammond, Marc Tucker, David Cohen, and others, obsesses about curricular “coherence,” and the lack thereof in our nation’s schools. The other, envisioned by Rick Hess, Tom Vander Ark, Paul Hill, and many more, seeks to unleash America’s trademark dynamism inside our K-12 education system. Though these ideas appear to pull in opposite directions, they might best work in concert.

Let’s start with the Coherence Camp. Its argument, most recently made in David Cohen’s Teaching and Its Predicaments, is that America’s teachers are being set up to fail by a system that is fragmented, divided, and confused about its mission. Teachers are given little clear guidance about what’s expected of them. Even when goals are clear, these teachers lack the tools to succeed: Pre-service training is completely disconnected from classroom expectations, and never ending “reform” pulls up the roots of promising efforts before they are given time to flower.

The Coherence Camp looks longingly at Europe and Asia, where many (national) systems offer teachers the opportunity to work as professionals in environments of trust, clarity, and common purpose. (Japan envy yesterday, Finland envy today?) The members of this camp praise national standards, a national (or at least statewide) curriculum that gathers the best thinking about how to reach these standards and shares this thinking with the teaching corps, authentic assessments that provide diagnostic information, and professional development (pre-service and in-service) that is seamlessly woven into all of the rest.

These countries can (and do) pore over their latest PISA results, identify areas for improvement, and get their educators to row in unison toward stronger performance. And their scores go up and up and up.

As bright as that vision may be, however, it carries with it many dark clouds. First is the temptation to lead by decree, in a very top-down, highly-bureaucratized manner that squelches the initiative of frontline educators. The best systems in the world, according to McKinsey, find a way to combine common standards with lots of local autonomy, but striking that balance is no easy feat.

A more fundamental concern is that it assumes getting all of a nation’s teachers—and parents—to buy into one notion of what it means to be well-educated. Asking people with diverse views to coalesce around one educational model is a little bit like asking all citizens to choose a single religion. One’s views on schools are closely related to larger values—what it means to live the “good life,” the degree to which children should be raised to pursue their own individual aspirations versus contribute to a larger community, whether learning “right from wrong” takes precedence over learning to “value diversity,” and on and on.

To restate the cliché, “one size fits all” is a recipe for frustration, if not social and political warfare, at least in a heterogeneous country like ours.

Dynamism Devotees, on the other hand, look at America’s private sector (and especially Silicon Valley) with envy. They envision an education marketplace full of can-do problem-solvers, myriad options for parents, and lots of customization for kids. They don’t even want a “system,” per se, but a raucous “sector” that welcomes new entrepreneurs and washes away legacy operators if they don’t keep up with the times. To them, the American higher-education sector looks like a much stronger alternative to our K-12 system, what with its rise of new competitors (many of them online), flexible, student-centered funding, and responsiveness to consumer demand.

So you hear Dynamism Devotees chanting the “every school a charter school” mantra and preaching the exciting potential of customized digital learning, the rise of upstart providers of teacher training, and the imperative of “backpack” funding for schools.

But for all of the excitement, this vision has major holes, too. For one, with our system already fragmented into 14,000 districts, won’t the “every school a charter school” idea just lead to even less coordination and fewer benefits of scale? Yes, charter “networks” might rise up to connect schools with one another and provide essential services, but will they spread to every nook and cranny of our country? If NCLB’s free tutoring initiative was any lesson, we can expect the vast majority of communities to remain unserved. Would we get a “dynamic marketplace” in the exurbs, small towns, and rural locales, or even less support for those schools than they get now?

Furthermore, why should we have any confidence that the result of all of this “creative destruction” will be a citizenry with essential democratic skills, knowledge, and habits? The marketplace model in higher education has, along with its benefits, also led lots of people to get narrow, skill-focused degrees rather than seek a broad liberal education. Can we afford a K-12 system that does the same? With taxpayers footing the bill, don’t they have a right to ask kids to learn certain essential somethings?

So what to do? The Coherence Camp can plausibly argue that its path is the surer route to higher student achievement and more consistent classroom practice—but it risks alienating thousands of teachers who feel hamstrung by a curriculum they don’t like and millions of parents who want something different for their kids. It also feeds a stultifying monopoly and tends to empower those interest groups that know how to bend the monopoly to their will. Dynamism Devotees are better suited to meet parental demands and to empower autonomy-seeking educators—but they can’t promise that their “unbundling” of the system won’t lead to lots of poorly served schools (and kids).

Thankfully, the two visions can be combined; the resulting approach might be labeled One Size Fits Most. For the majority of American schools, we follow the Coherence Camp’s cues. We build national standards (à la Common Core), we develop a handful of national curricula, we connect pre-service and in-service training to the standards, and we tie accountability for schools, teachers, and students to them, too. We continue to minimize the role of the 14,000 school boards (if not eliminate them outright) by empowering states to take an ever-larger role in all aspects of educational improvement. And through these mechanisms, we make the “default” option in American public education—the “typical” public school—much better than it is today.

At the same time, we make it easy for educators and parents to opt out of this One Best System. We grow the charter and digital sectors aggressively and remove the barriers that are keeping them from achieving their full, dynamic potential. And we even consider going back to the original charter concept—allowing schools to negotiate their own unique performance expectations with their authorizers, rather than being held accountable to the One Best System’s standards. More specifically, we allow charters and digital providers (or at least some subset) to opt out of the Common Core framework entirely, and to proffer their own evidence of educational achievement.

This is a classic call for “both, and” rather than “either, or.” Done right, it could accelerate the benefits of both the Coherence and Dynamism approaches—while mitigating their weaknesses. And it could allow an escape valve for some of the overheated debates in which we’re stuck. Don’t like the Common Core? Opt out. Don’t think our schools should be driven by market forces? Opt in. How about we give this option a try?

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