Doing the Same Thing Over and Over

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No. 11, November 2010

If given the opportunity, what would you do to transform America's schools into a world-class, twenty-first-century education system? An intriguing challenge, right? Now imagine that there is one condition: you must retain existing job descriptions, governance arrangements, management, compensation structures, licensure requirements, and calendars. Unfortunately, that recipe for failure is a pretty fair depiction of the last few decades of school reform. Would-be reformers take it on faith that parents, policymakers, and voters understand that the world has changed and that it is important to transform our schools accordingly. Indeed, assumptions that change will be enthusiastically supported have yielded a situation where meaningful reform is never achieved. This Outlook, based on Frederick M. Hess's latest book, The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas, explains why we need to rethink our ways of teaching and schooling and what real reform might look like.

Key points in this Outlook:

  • Both sides of the reform debate are getting it wrong: defenders of the status quo want to return to traditional schooling designed for the nineteenth century, while progressives patch together piecemeal reforms on top of a crumbling structure.
  • We need to reexamine our entire school system with today's needs in mind.

Albert Einstein reportedly once said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results." As I note in my new book, The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas, apocryphal or not, this line is a devastating assessment of a half century's worth of school reform. To avoid educational insanity, we need to recognize how circumstances have changed and embrace a diverse array of reform efforts suited to the twenty-first century.

A year ago, my friend Diane Ravitch raised a furor when she charged in The Death and Life of the Great American School System that advocates of test-based accountability, mayoral control, and charter schooling had overpromised and naively imagined that these structural measures could "fix" schooling. This ferocious blast was well timed and well aimed, and resonated mightily. Ravitch went much further, however, labeling such measures a sinister assault on public education. Her useful blast at faddism got ensnared in a familiar trap. By deferring to tradition in schooling, Ravitch's stance allows the compromises and accidents that shaped today's public schools and districts to define the mission and scope of future public schooling. Thus, attempts to rethink governance, teacher evaluation, or incentives become "attacks" on public schooling.

Such critiques are hardly new. While skeptics of technology today fret about the "perils" of virtual learning and online instruction, it was once books and the printing press that were feared by educators who worried that students would learn the wrong things if left to read on their own. It was Sir Roger L'Estrange who wondered in the seventeenth century "whether more mischief than advantage were not occasion'd to the Christian world by the invention of typography."[1]

The temptation to define the purpose of schooling based on familiar schools leaves us wedded to arrangements that may have made sense a century ago, but that are poorly suited to today's goals, tools, and resources. If our goals and tools have changed--and they have--it is only sensible to question whether yesterday's compromises and chance decisions ought to steer our course. The proper measure of whether proposals are consistent with public schooling ought not be whether power, politics, or finances shift, but whether we are doing a better job of educating all children so they master essential knowledge and skills, develop their gifts, and are prepared for the duties of citizenship.

Brash Calls for Change . . . but Bashful Remedies

Concerns over our education system are nothing new. More than a quarter century ago, in the influential Reagan-era report A Nation at Risk, a blue-ribbon panel of leading thinkers declared, "If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war."[2] Decades later, the rhetoric is equally emphatic. In a 2005 speech to the country's governors, Microsoft chairman Bill Gates declared, "America's high schools are obsolete."[3] In 2009, President Barack Obama asserted, "The relative decline of American education is untenable for our economy, it's unsustainable for our democracy, it's unacceptable for our children. . . . What's at stake is nothing less than the American dream."[4]

Despite these thunderous critiques, the proposed remedies are notable for their timidity. The Nation at Risk authors called for raising high school graduation requirements, improving textbooks, and testing teacher skills. Gates encouraged districts to make high schools smaller and more relevant. Obama praised Race to the Top's call for new data systems, school "turnarounds," and better teacher evaluation. All of these "radical" calls tend to color safely within the lines--largely, it often seems, because those lines are so taken for granted that would-be reformers do not realize there is an alternative. Seen from an arm's length, the diagnoses generally amount to a concession that everyone can more or less go about their business, so long as we demand more, do more, and spend more.

Today's education reform debates are often marked by tortured exchanges between two problematic philosophies. On the one hand are those who fail to distinguish between the principles of democratic schooling and the aged bureaucracies erected to deliver it. Rather than upholding the legacy of democratic public schooling, they end up defending aged orthodoxies and familiar but creaky machinery. On the other hand are those would-be reformers who insist upon doing what "works." Rather than ask whether school districts are still a sensible way to organize schooling, how to rethink the job of teaching, or how to foster a diverse array of excellent schools, they take the familiar machinery of schooling for granted and try to cobble together new data systems, evaluation systems, and management arrangements on top.

What Has Changed

What we ask of educators, the tools at their disposal, and the talent available to staff schools have all changed profoundly over time. There are at least six significant changes worth noting: what we hope to achieve overall, what we want graduates to know, what values we want schools to teach, the job market for graduates, our ability to recruit teachers, and the tools for delivering schooling.

What We Hope to Achieve. A century ago, barely one American in ten finished high school. Reformers spent the first half of the twentieth century battling to make high school completion a norm, and by the 1960s they had succeeded. Now, the new goal is not high school completion but ensuring that every student be academically proficient and prepared for a career or postsecondary education. This is something new under the sun. It can be difficult to appreciate just how unprecedented such sentiments are and how little cause we have to believe that our current system of schooling is equipped for such a charge. After all, it was Thomas Jefferson, champion of public schooling and firebrand egalitarian, who once explained that the purpose of schooling was not so that we could educate all our children but so the "best geniuses [could be] raked from the rubbish annually."[5]

What We Want Graduates to Know. For most of Western history, basic literacy and numeracy were thought to be more than sufficient for the needs of most students. In 1918, the Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education suggested that high school curricula emphasize seven not-so-academic aims: "Health; command of fundamental processes; worthy of home-membership; vocation; citizenship; worthy use of leadership; [and] ethical character."[6] Our aspirations have since soared. Today, reform organizations of all stripes sketch broad, ambitious visions of the skills and knowledge all students must possess. We insist that all students master academic material to an unprecedented degree and that new skills such as "media literacy" and "information literacy" be learned as well. We now aim to educate not merely some but all students. But it is possible that schools built to foster health and "home-membership" are not well suited to deliver the rigorous instruction we now champion.

The Values We Want Schools to Promote. From the time of the Greeks through the early twentieth century, schools were expected to teach obeisance to state or faith. Religious schools were to train youth to be faithful to the church, and state-run schools were to teach children to be loyal citizens. Indeed, Founder Benjamin Rush celebrated the potential of public schools to turn youth into "republican machines."

Today, though, conventional notions of patriotism centered on fealty to country and flag--those once deemed the central mission of schooling--are controversial. Whereas the Common School movement of Horace Mann's era sought to teach immigrant children to forego their native culture for American ways and urged Catholic youth to reject their "un-American" faith, any such thinking would be regarded today as profoundly misguided--and constitutionally suspect. The teacher's role is now more contested, less clear-cut, and certainly far less focused on promoting a belief in the rightness of American life and the established order. If the purpose of schools is not to teach particular values or fidelity to the state but to accept and nurture diversity and teach academic skills, then schools erected to build "republican machines" and promote state-approved values may be ill configured for their new duties. And it may be far less essential that the state be charged with managing or staffing these enterprises.

The Prospects for Graduates. The labor market that high school graduates enter today is profoundly unlike that of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, when Carnegie Units, school calendars, and school governance practices took on their modern shape. At that time, a high school diploma--or formal education at all--was a luxury of limited practical relevance. Indeed, universal schooling was first viewed as an important tool for getting children out of the labor force and off the streets. A century ago, a high school diploma distinguished a graduate and served as a valued credential; today, it is regarded as a stepping stone of little inherent value. The demands of the information economy, the emergence of new sectors like biotechnology and aerospace, and the disappearance of first agricultural and then manufacturing jobs have made a quality education--and, increasingly, a college degree--the key to professional opportunity. That means the practical aspects of schooling have taken on an outsized role as the importance accorded to promoting state-sanctioned attitudes has declined.

The Pool of Available Teachers. A century ago, schools could be careless about hiring talent because educated women had nowhere else to turn. Most women did not work, and those who did disproportionately entered teaching. Today, the labor market has changed. Post-World War II America's comfortable norm of lifetime employment with a single employer has yielded to a world where college graduates expect to change jobs more frequently, be courted by prospective employers, and be rewarded for excellence. It should be no surprise that arrangements that delivered the teachers we needed in the 1950s, when the nation employed 1 million public school teachers, are working less well to fill 3.4 million teaching jobs today. Whereas more than half of college-educated women became teachers a half century ago, today that figure is closer to 15 percent due to the proliferation of options for working women. Those realities, along with new opportunities for educators to leverage modern data systems and technological tools, call for a rethinking of how we attract, deploy, retain, and reward teaching talent.

The Tools at Our Disposal. Our assumptions about the organization of school systems, schools, classrooms, and teaching are inherited from an era when communications, computing, travel, and data management looked very different. It is easy to forget, in a world of smartphones, videoconferencing, and the Internet, how profoundly different the world was in 1900, when less than 10 percent of American homes had electricity and American life did not feature yet-to-be-invented advances such as the refrigerator and dishwasher--much less the photocopier, calculator, or airplane. Dramatic advances in technology, transportation, and data storage have created new possibilities for autonomy, decentralization, and customization. The challenge is not to romanticize any given technological advance but to ask how it might be used to solve problems in smarter ways. The question is not "Does this technology make schools obsolete?" but "Can it be used to improve the delivery of instruction, recruiting, professional development, assessments, or the organization of school systems?" And the answer, whether we are dealing with the delivery of instruction, customization of curriculum and tutoring, or management of far-flung systems, is typically an emphatic "yes."

The Tyranny of Sequential Orthodoxies

When a fresh idea that addresses the new contours of K-12 schooling does come along, the reluctance to rethink education and the tendency to approach schooling as a moral crusade mean it is all too often oversold as a miracle cure. Advocates demand that favored measures be adopted everywhere, as rapidly as possible and without either patience or attention to context--until sensible ideas are turned into ill-conceived fads that eventually lose favor. One conventional wisdom holds sway until it is displaced by a new conventional wisdom. The result is the tyranny of sequential orthodoxies: a succession of ill-designed or oversold schemes that take good ideas and then try to supersize them into new orthodoxies that can be latched on to the status quo.

Take, for example, the flurry of excitement around site-based management (SBM) in the 1990s. The sensible notion that school leaders should be granted more autonomy to select faculty and allocate resources, should do a better job engaging the community, and should be monitored on the basis of performance rather than process morphed into an SBM regimen of dysfunctional school councils with little power in systems that pretty much managed and monitored schools the way they always had. The experience neither proved nor disproved the case for decentralized management; it mostly showed that labeling half-baked notions with new jargon is a bad idea. In the 1980s, education reform was a matter of prescriptive state policies on teacher ladders and additional course requirements. In the 2000s, it was a matter of accountability systems and mandated interventions in low-performing schools.

Today, we are seeing these familiar pathologies arise in areas such as mayoral control and merit pay. Indeed, the recent infatuation with mayoral control provides a terrific illustration of how the enthusiasm for surefire new solutions can turn sensible ideas into manias. To be sure, mayoral control is likely a sensible reform in locales like urban districts, and it is an idea that I have supported.[7] Equally problematic--and left unaddressed by enthusiastic proponents of mayoral control, however--is the legacy of rigidity and uniformity that infuses management, staffing, compensation, and the broader educational enterprise. If pursued with an eye to these constraints and questions, mayoral control can be a sensible step; pursued as an alternative to addressing them, it becomes a distraction.

Or consider merit pay. Obama sounded powerful chords on this score while running for president in 2008, signaling his belief that teachers who are effective, have critical skills, or serve in tougher environments ought to be paid accordingly. But linking teacher pay to student outcomes is useful and appropriate only if it constitutes one part of a broader effort to pay employees based on their different responsibilities, expertise, and abilities. Transformative pay reform cannot and ought not simply be superimposed on current work arrangements in which millions of teachers labor under roughly identical job descriptions. Reform should be an opportunity to rethink the work of teaching and how to attract, retain, and leverage all kinds of teaching talent.

Sensible notions like mayoral control and merit pay are often pursued and then implemented haphazardly and ineffectually. The lesson is not that these notions are bad ideas. It is that discretion and judgment are the watchwords of smart reinvention. After all, existing arrangements that are problematic on the whole may work perfectly well in certain locales or for certain purposes. Perhaps it is time for educational leaders and policymakers to be less intent on discovering, developing, or mimicking new universal "best practices" and more attuned to simply solving the challenges at hand.

Can't Science Save Us from All This Bother?

Much of the pursuit of "best practice" solutions rests on the hope that science can tell us "what works." Can science tell us what to do, how schooling should be arranged, who should teach, or how teachers should be paid? Well-designed and carefully interpreted research is a valuable tool. It is too much to hope, however, that even terrific research will settle the crucial philosophical debates over priorities, practices, and pedagogies that have been brewing since the dawn of Western civilization.

Unfortunately, would-be reformers seem to have developed blind spots through their compulsion to apply the methods of medical research to schooling. The medical model, with its reliance on trials in which therapies are administered to individual patients under explicit protocols, is enormously powerful and prescriptive when recommending interventions for discrete conditions. Such a model can be equally useful for assessing specific educational interventions that seek to increase measurable knowledge and skills by applying discrete techniques to individual students under controlled conditions. However, just as few observers imagine that medical trials can authoritatively gauge the merits of universal health coverage, how to pay doctors, or how best to hold hospitals accountable, so, too, is such research limited when it comes to educational reforms that concern structural matters such as governance, accountability, staffing, and compensation. Scientific research is a powerful tool, but we should have no illusions that researchers will settle value-laden debates or identify the "correct" way to arrange, govern, staff, or provide schooling.

The Case for Heterogeneity

Pluralism provides an institutional mechanism for permitting competing notions of the good to flourish. This is less a Darwinian concern with allowing the "fittest" school or educational approach to win and more a conviction that there is value in nurturing diverse intellectual traditions, models of thought, bodies of knowledge, and modes of learning. It is prudent to embrace a system of schooling that nurtures a diverse set of skills, knowledge, and habits of mind. This allows us to foster intellectual diversity that enriches civil society and can free up energy that is otherwise siphoned into bitter wars for control of the curriculum. It allows individual schools, educators, and providers to excel at something, rather than asking every school to excel at everything.

Part of the reason for cultivating multiple kinds of excellence is that we cannot know the future. After all, as we like to remind ourselves, education is an investment--and the bedrock principle of sound investing is diversification because the vagaries of life are such that it is never clear which investments will pay off.

For instance, of American high school students studying a foreign language today, three-quarters are studying Spanish or French--and less than 1 percent are studying Farsi, Japanese, Korean, Russian, or Urdu.[8] These enrollments are in part a legacy of the National Defense Education Act of 1958, which invested tens of millions of dollars to expand modern language teaching at a time when the most popular (and most important) languages included Spanish, French, German, Russian, and Italian.[9] Of those languages, only Russian is found on the federal government's current list of most critical languages; other new entrants include Arabic, Chinese, Dari, Hindi, Farsi, Pashto, Persian, Punjabi, and Turkish.[10] Just as needs have shifted again and again since 1958, so will they shift in the years ahead. Rather than pushing fourteen thousand districts or ninety-five thousand schools to guess the "right" languages for 2025 or beyond, better to leverage our nation's innate diversity to offer many languages, cultivate a rich array of language skills, and permit many providers to flourish.

In a nation where public and private ventures commingle as they do nowhere else on earth, and where individual initiative and entrepreneurial activity are hallmarks of our national character, why should state-run bureaucracies have a monopoly on running our schools? Rather than seek consensus and uniformity, let us revel in a world of schooling that embraces competing pedagogies, missions, and approaches. Instead of worrying that such diversity is a problem, let us recognize it as a strength, as an opportunity for a rich mix of educators to teach children with an enormous array of needs and skills.


Our vast edifice of schooling has an enormous appetite for resources: dollars, people, and energy that are poured into programs, curricula, and professional development. Systems and schools claim their $600 billion a year, and then we seek to fuel reinvention with a handful of philanthropic and targeted dollars sprinkled around the edges. This is a recipe for more of the same.

Retooling teaching and schooling for the rigors and opportunities of the twenty-first century cannot be approached as a part-time hobby we tinker with on evenings and weekends. It must be at the heart of schooling. It requires freeing up the dollars and talent and energy that local, state, and federal governments pump into K-12 schooling day in and day out. If we fail to do this, today's frenzied reform efforts will take their place alongside other fragmentary, oversold, short-lived efforts to reform education without actually doing anything differently.

If our goals for high school are that all children get an education, master core academic content and skills, and are prepared for college or work, then the range of experiences that might fit the bill is broad. If the goal is to provide personalized instruction and support to at-risk youth, the regimented school day with its rotating cast of teachers is probably a poor fit. One example of an alternative high school model that reimagines structure as well as pedagogy is the Starbucks School design dreamed up by Michael Goldstein, founder of the Boston-based MATCH charter school. For the same money that a city like Boston spends annually on a typical at-risk high school student, it could create a class of eight students, buy each a laptop and a bus pass, secure them a block of online tutoring time from an established provider, and pay a top-shelf teacher $110,000 plus benefits to meet them each day at a Starbucks or YMCA. The Starbucks model would give up on dragging these students into the local school and instead focus on matching the smallest possible group of students with a skilled, dynamic teacher in a comfortable environment.

Or consider the School of One experiment in New York City. The School of One, created by the New York City Department of Education in partnership with for-profit provider Wireless Generation, starts from the presumption that new technologies mean we no longer have to teach classes of twenty-five students the same thing at the same time. Rather, it should be possible to customize what a student learns each day based on what she has already mastered and needs to learn, to do so with an eye toward how that student learns best, and to do so in a way that maximizes the efficient use of school resources. The School of One manages this feat by collecting data on which learning objectives students have mastered and how they like to learn, and then assigning them to appropriate lessons each day. The result allows students to move at their own pace and learn in the manner they like best, teachers to concentrate on teaching to their strengths, and teacher aides to provide targeted support, making it harder for kids to get lost in the shuffle.

Deserving of attention here is not this or that particular model--which may or may not pay off and which can readily be compared to any number of faddish fascinations from yesteryear--but the efforts to rethink how we leverage tools, talent, and new opportunities to better answer today's challenges. The pressing question for policymakers and reformers is how to rethink the structural prison that inhibits such thinking and cripples its implementation so that governance, organization, funding, and staffing can make new options feasible and coherent at scale.

Because ascendant international competitors like India and China did not mirror our enormous investment in erecting school systems in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, they find themselves with a far less constraining educational infrastructure today. By clinging so fiercely to what we built to address the exigencies of another time, we risk allowing nations less wedded to aged designs to slingshot past us. Having never made the investments in schools and teachers that we did in earlier eras, China and India find themselves free to erect policies and institutions geared to the tools and challenges of this century. It would be a bitter irony indeed if our inability to leave behind anachronistic routines and stale habits of mind meant that the achievements of the Common Schoolers and Progressives that fueled American success in the twentieth century held us back in the twenty-first. We have the power to take another road, if we find the strength to free ourselves from the heavy hand of the past. The choice that lies before us is whether or not to do so.

Frederick M. Hess ([email protected]) is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at AEI. His new book, The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas, was published by Harvard University Press in November 2010.

Click here to view this Outlook as an Adobe Acrobat PDF.


1. Asa Briggs and Peter Burke, Social History of the Media: From Gutenberg to the Internet (Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2009), 15.

2. U.S. Department of Education, A Nation at Risk (Washington, DC: National Commission on Excellence in Education, 1983), available at (accessed November 10, 2010).

3. Bill Gates, "Prepared Remarks to National Governors Association" (speech, National Governors Association, Washington, DC, February 26, 2005), available at (accessed November 10, 2010).

4. Barack Obama, "Remarks to the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce" (speech, Washington, DC, March 10, 2009), available at (accessed November 10, 2010).

5. Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia (Richmond, VA: Chas H. Wynne, 1853), 157.

6. U.S. Department of the Interior, Cardinal Principles of Secondary Education: A Report of the Commission on the Reorganization of Secondary Education, Appointed by the National Education Association, Bulletin 35 (Washington, DC, 1918), 21.

7. Frederick M. Hess, "Assessing the Case for Mayoral Control of Urban Schools," AEI Education Outlook (August 2008), available at

8. Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, "Students Taking Spanish, French; Leaders Pushing Chinese, Arabic," Education Week, March 28, 2006, available at (accessed May 5, 2010).

9. Douglas M. Knight, ed., The Federal Government and Higher Education (Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1960), 41-46; and Julia Gibson Kant, Foreign-Language Offerings and Enrollments in Public and Nonpublic Secondary Schools, Fall 1968 (New York: Modern Language Association of America, 1970), 12.

10. Kathleen Kennedy Manzo, "Students Taking Spanish, French; Leaders Pushing Chinese, Arabic."

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