Why Customize Schooling

Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform
Edited by Frederick Hess and Bruno Manno
(Harvard Education Press, 256 pages, $29.95)

Even a casual glance at the book Customized Schooling suggests the importance of this effort to transform the nation’s approach to how education might be delivered.

As Messrs. Hess and Manno remind us in the introduction, little has changed about the model of schooling since the 19th century, when the “one size fits all” approach was an appropriate response to the socio-economic needs of a much simpler era, when assumptions about the purposes of schooling were generally agreed on, and when a manufacturing-based economy required so much less of its high school graduates than the potpourri of expectations presupposed by an increasingly diverse and specialized society.

At that time, the conventional mode of classroom instruction may have sufficed. American education was squarely in the hands of professional educators. Why should anybody ask the clients what was appropriate to the development of the individual child?

The authors of the subsequent chapters, in their rather different ways, make mincemeat of these assumptions. Among their conclusions:

1) In contrast to the present monolithic system, parents should be able to choose not only among schools, but between schools, in the manner of the infinite variety of choice that informs other sectors in the economy.

2) In a mutually interdependent world, students should have access to global virtual schools embodying best practices from around the world.

3)We can no longer afford to ignore the phenomenon of the off-track youth population. It is intolerable that nearly 50% of urban students fail to graduate under the existing system.

4) More precise market segmentation for low-income students is desperately needed. Family education coaches could be an effective way of bridging the gap between the relatively uninformed parent and the variety of alternatives properly inherent in a reformed system.

5) Traditionally, schools have embraced technology rather sparingly. But as profit-making institutions in higher education have demonstrated, on-line courses based on interactive technology are frequently a far more effective way of delivering instruction, in terms of cost and results, than the conventional mode of instruction. Such innovations should be encouraged rather than written off as inconveniences in the lives of professional administrators and teachers, many of whom hide behind the union as a means of perpetuating an unacceptable status quo.

While these suggestions are all to the good, I am tempted to quote from Clemenceau, who once observed that it was easier to move a graveyard than change a curriculum. True, the authors do cite concrete examples where innovations have occurred. But for the most part, the chasm between theory and practice is immense. And while the efforts of many current reforms like KIPP or Teach for America are laudable as far as they go, few of these efforts presuppose changing the traditional structure of schooling.  This is what makes this book so remarkable.

-A. Graham Down

You can find more book reviews by Graham Down here.

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