Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"A Pox on Both Their Houses"--A Worthless Debate About Education Reform

Ten days ago, I wrote a post in reaction to a piece appearing in City Journal by Sol Stern in which he argues that current models of school choice (an "incentivist" approach to education reform) have hit a wall and that we as a nation should look to improving the curriculum (an "instructivist" model of reform) as a better alternative. Well, the Stern article has created quite a storm of debate among people allegedly smarter than I. But this particular debate about school reform has given me pause about the future improvement of our schools.

In my reaction to Stern, I made a connection to the lack of innovation in the management of schools and the labor market (teachers) for schools. Largely this lack of change is a result of the a failure of imagination when it comes to thinking of new ways to educate our kids. So we have a disconnect between other markets in American life and the manner in which we teach our kids (which is not based on market forces). I still believe that the more we make our education system for K-12 like our market based-educational system for college and beyond, the sooner we will see real change in the manner in which our children are taught and learn.

Creativity and innovation is what will change our schools, and nothing less. What troubles me most, though, about the debate on City Journal is the absolute lack of creativity among the participants. In light of Stern's article, which I admit seems to abandon the idea of market based, incentivist approaches to education reform, it seems as though there are two sides taking shape here, incentivist versus instructivist reform. Neither side seems willing to give on the notion that their way is the right way.

One writer, Andrew Coulson, cites Romeo & Juliet, in his "contribution" to the debate. Let me do the same and say "A pox on both their houses." This kind of debate, while it might make for entertaining rhetoric is shamefully devoid of any ideas. We have all kinds of statistics and dueling theories offered, but absolutely no ideas for moving education reform forward.

While I have my belief that an incentivist approach will work in the long term, I see absolutely no reason to foreclose the idea that an instructivist approach will not work as well. Why cannot these supposedly smart people see that both tracks can be pursued and it may be possible for them to overlap? Indeed, they may already be overlapping and we just don't know about it.

Somewhere, right now, there is a school reformer, be it a teacher, a principal or simply a principled idealist, who has in their head a charter school (incentivist) with a radically different idea of what and how to teach (instructivist) and that school could revolutionize how we teach kids. But if we close our minds to the fact that only one approach to education reform will work, then how are education reformers any different from the defenders of the educational status quo-those who don't want to see any change?

Simply put, we don't have the answers and we must continue to search for them. But if the leading educational thinkers and "reformers" do nothing but attack each other's position, why then should we take their word for anything? The secret to education reform success certainly does not seem to lie with these people.

So if you are looking for these so called "educational leaders" to present us with ideas, the debate at the City Journal is not the place to go.

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