Why Is Education So Hard to Reform?

The above title is taken from an article by school reformer Chester Finn that’s almost a decade old. More on his fine article later. Another article that’s only a month old – written by Timothy Knowles – appeared in the Wall Street Journal with this title and subtitle:

The Trouble With Teacher Tenure:

We can’t make progress if bad teachers have jobs for life

Knowles’ title says it all – and for most clear-thinking people it’s not an arguable point. The only people who do argue are those who live in the strange world of public schools and state legislatures.

Mr. Knowles, the director of the University of Chicago Urban Education Institute, calls the status quo regarding tenure as “pathological.” He concludes his article by saying this:

“The time has come to eliminate tenure. We are facing monumental challenges in our quest to provide all students with an education that will prepare them to compete in a globalized economy.”

Back to Chester Finn’s piece – which you should read in full here. Below is an abbreviated version of it:

1. We know more about the quality of our dishwashers than the quality of our children’s schools.

Remedy: Make schools transparent institutions that pump out clear, reliable, prompt, comparable information about what they’re doing and how well they and their students are performing.

2. More emphasis is placed on what goes into education than what comes out.

Remedy: Schools should be strictly accountable for their results – whether their students are learning what they should – but not for complying with a thousand rules or running a hundred programs or spending their budgets in 50 prescribed ways.

3. Adult feet don’t get held to the accountability fire.

Remedy: A proper accountability system doesn’t just crack down on non-performing kids (and reward those who meet standards). It confers suitable rewards and sanctions on everyone involved, especially the adults who work in schools.

4. Consumers lack clout.

Remedy: Along with school competition on the “supply side” must come consumer choice on the “demand side.” That will shift power from those who run schools to those who decide which schools to attend.

5. Weak competition encourages weak performance.

Remedy: Encourage educators and policy makers to differentiate schools from one another, to cherish institutional diversity, to make schools compete for students (and resources) and to enable all sorts of well-educated people to enter the classroom without needless hurdles.

6. Too few of the best and brightest come work in schools.

Remedy: Reconstruct the personnel system around different rewards and incentives, different assumptions about compensation and tenure, different arrangements for making decisions. Educators should be paid – and retained – according to the scarcity of their skills, the value they add to their pupils and the difficulty of the challenges they face in school.

7. The education profession is awash in fads and bad ideas.

Remedy: Out with the snake oil. Only research-based practices should be tolerated in our classrooms – and only bona-fide scientific research should be tolerated by the leaders of this profession and those who run our schools.