The title of this post seems like the traditional zen koan asking “What is the sound of one hand clapping?” How are we supposed to fix schools without fixing schools? The answer to this question may not require Buddhist reflection. We can fix schools — that is, traditional public schools — by going around them. We can expand access to other educational options, including charter schools, voucher schools, tax-credit schools. ESAs, digital schooling, home-schooling, and hybrid schools. We can also expand access to enriching non-school activities, like museums, theaters, historical sites, summer camps, and after-school programs. Reformers should concentrate their energy on all of these non-traditional-school efforts and stop trying so hard to fix traditional public schools.
The main reason we should stop focusing on fixing traditional public schools is that, for the most part, they don’t want to be fixed. The people who make their living off of those schools have reasons for wanting schools to be as they are and have enormous political resources to fend off efforts to fundamentally change things. Trying to impose reforms like merit pay, centralized systems of teacher evaluation, new standards, new curriculum, new pedagogy, etc… on unwilling schools is largely a futile exercise. They have the political resources to block, dilute, or co-opt these efforts in most instances.
Trying to impose these reforms despite fierce resistance from traditional public schools usually does not improve outcomes for students but it does produce a series of negative side-effects. First, attempting to impose reforms on a politically powerful and unwilling school system generates an enormous amount of strife and hostility. Teachers and their friends hate it. Reformers waste energy and resources. Little is changed but everyone walks away hurt, drained, and distracted from more productive activities.
Second, attempting to impose reforms on traditional public schools requires a significant increase in centralized political control. Reformers can’t possibly fight their battles in thousands of individual school districts, so they favor centralizing power in the hands of big city mayors, state departments of education, and the federal government. They see it as one-stop-shopping. If they can cram their preferred reforms through those centralized authorities, then they think they will have won the battle in each district and school controlled by that centralized authority. But they are likely to lose even when they can concentrate their fire on the centralized authority. And even if they prevail at the centralized level, traditional public schools are usually able to subvert and render inert most reforms through poor implementation. The reforms usually fail but the centralization remains, which is harmful in a variety of ways, such as generally undermining our long-standing and effective system of federalism and reducing access to educational alternatives through Tiebout choice.
Third, even in the rare cases where centralized reforms are adopted and implemented, the very nature of reforms that can jump those hurdles usually makes them ineffective or counter-productive. Centralized reforms that can be adopted and implemented have to be watered-down enough to gain broad support for passage and implementation, rendering them mostly impotent. And to the extent that they have some bite, they have to impose that bite uniformly on a large set of schools and circumstances, producing policies that are one size fits none. Such reforms have to be crude things lacking in subtlety or nuance that could make them appropriate and effective in highly varied contexts.
Fourth, even if by some miracle an effective and appropriate centralized reform with bite is adopted and properly implemented, there is no natural political constituency to preserve the integrity of that reform over time. These reforms may be adopted with support from business or taxpayer groups, but those political interests cannot sustain their focus on maintaining reforms over time. They have to get back to their businesses and regular lives. Meanwhile the angry teachers who had a reform crammed down their throats are still working in those schools and remain well-organized, ready to eviscerate reforms as soon as the temporarily-focused winning coalition moves on to other matters. Centralized reforms to fix public schools do not create a constituency to protect them over time. The coalition supporting centralized reforms is strongest at the moment of passage and steadily weakens over time, while opposing forces in traditional schools can bide their time and repeal or weaken reforms later.
The beauty of fixing schools by not fixing schools is that it generally avoids or reduces all of these problems. Yes, traditional public schools resist the creation of alternatives, but they do not do so with the same ferocity that they oppose reforms that directly effect their daily working life. Focusing on alternatives to traditional public schools also does not require any political centralization. In fact, it generally encourages decentralized control over education. Alternatives to traditional public schools do not impose one size fits none type solutions. They let a thousand flowers bloom. And alternatives to traditional schooling create their own political support that grows over time as more people benefit from those choice and non-school educational offerings.
I understand that urging reformers to focus on fixing traditional schools by not fixing traditional schools sounds like abandoning the millions of children who remain in those schools, but that is simply not the case. The best hope for improving the situation of those children in traditional public schools is by expanding access to alternatives and enriching out-of-school experiences. If we succeed in expanding access to quality alternatives, more and more of those children will benefit by being able to take advantage of those alternatives. In addition, traditional public schools may be more willing and able to adopt reforms that are appropriate for their circumstances as they learn about what alternative providers are doing and feel some pressure to take steps to attract and retain their students.
Of course, expanding access to alternatives and improvements in the traditional system will likely be very gradual. Some reformers are impatient and demand solutions now. But there are no effective quick-fix reforms available. It’s better to make gradual progress than inflict considerable damage in a rush to fix everything now. And remember that just as starving children in Africa are not helped by our finishing all of the food on our plates, our futile efforts to impose centralized quick-fixes do not actually help those millions in traditional public schools. The measure of a desirable reform should not be the extent to which it makes us feel like at least we are trying, even if those efforts are counter-productive. We need to achieve the Buddhist serenity of fixing schools by not fixing schools. Then we will understand what the sound of one hand clapping really is.