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.

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. 

Asking people with diverse views to
coalesce around one educational model is a little bit like asking all
citizens to choose a single religion.


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.

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.

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

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.

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.

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.

With taxpayers footing the bill, don’t they have a right to ask kids to learn certain essential somethings?


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?

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.'


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?

Michael J. Petrilli
Michael J. Petrilli is the President of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.