New Education Book: The Same Thing Over and Over
How School Reformers Are Getting Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas


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's important to transform our schools accordingly. Indeed, assumptions that change will be enthusiastically supported have yielded a situation where meaningful reform is never achieved. In The Same Thing Over and Over (Harvard University Press, November 15, 2010), AEI director of education policy studies Frederick M. Hess explains why dramatic transformation is both essential and consistent with the fundamental principles of democratic schooling, and what it might mean to rethink our ways of teaching and schooling.

Today's debates on school reform often reflect two competing philosophies, neither of which offers much hope for improving our schools. The first approach, identified by Hess as the "Status Quo Defenders," has been recently voiced most clearly by prominent education historian Diane Ravitch and long advocated by the nation's teachers unions. It equates the legacy of democratic public schooling with the rusting, aging bureaucratic machinery and orthodoxies developed to deliver it. The second approach, identified by Hess as the "New Progressives," is visible in President Obama and Secretary Arne Duncan's devotion to initiatives like merit pay and school turnarounds. Supporters of this method insist on doing whatever new solution of the moment has been proved to "work." They are too caught up in promoting modest policy changes to honestly confront the need to rethink how the entire underlying system uses talent and technology in addressing the challenges of teaching and learning. 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, new evaluation systems, and different management arrangements on top of existing flawed structures.

The result is an unsavory choice: siding with the backwards-looking Status Quo Defenders or with the ineffective but well-intentioned New Progressives. The struggle between these competing camps has dominated today's education reform debate, enmeshing us ever more deeply into unending disagreements that allow anachronisms and outdated norms to demarcate what is acceptable or feasible. Pushed aside is the question of why our system of schooling is profoundly ill-suited to our goals and what we can do about it.

Richard Barth, CEO and president of the KIPP Foundation, had this to say about the book: "Rick Hess is one of the most provocative people now writing about public education. Sooner or later he challenges everyone's assumptions. You probably won't agree with everything he has to say, but this book will surprise you into thinking in completely new ways about what schools could be."

"Half the time I'm agreeing with every word Rick Hess says, and wishing I had said it myself. The other half the time I'm provoked, stimulated, and arguing with him. He's got it both all right and all wrong. Read him, argue with him, take him very seriously," adds Deborah Meier, author of In Schools We Trust.

Frederick M. Hess, the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, is a former high school social studies teacher who teaches education policy at Georgetown University, Rice University, and the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of Education Unbound and Common Sense School Reform, and regularly pens the Education Week blog Rick Hess Straight Up. He is available for interview and can be contacted through Jenna Schuette at [email protected] (202.862.5809). For additional media inquiries, or to book AEI's in-house ReadyCam TV studio and AEI's radio booth/ISDN lines, please contact Sara Huneke at [email protected] (202.862.4870).

For a lively conversation with Hess and three of today's school reform leaders, join us on November 30th for an event at AEI.


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