The White House (Andrew Harnik/AP

So many of the changes being proposed today, regardless of where they come from, share a feature in common: the people proposing them see their reforms as silver bullets, and seem like they won’t be satisfied until their ideas are adopted by everyone.

That’s part of the post below about the problems of top-down education reform, written by Dave Powell, an associate professor of education at Gettysburg College who is also Education Week’s “K-12 Contrarian.” He was a high school social studies for six years in suburban Atlanta, where he earned a certificate from the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards in 2004. He lives in Gettysburg with, his biography says, “a strong woman and four above average children—just don’t ask for the test scores to prove it.” Last summer, he was project director of “On Hallowed Ground: Gettysburg in History & Memory,” part of the National Endowment for the Humanities’ Landmarks of American History & Culture program, and he has mentored several students who have created self-designed majors in American Studies.


By Dave Powell

We have thrown an awful lot of solutions at our educational problems in the past 40 years, some of which have had a positive impact on the school experiences of kids, and some of which haven’t.

Choice? Check. Accountability? Check. Changes to the curriculum? Check. Changes to the way we assess it? Check. Should we hire more teachers? Of course we should. Are there some teachers that ought to be fired? Yes, unfortunately, there are.

And there’s a lot to like about some of the things we’ve done. It’s definitely true that some charter schools have opened doors for kids who might otherwise have been stuck in under-performing schools, and certainly true that the innovative curricula and expanded extracurricular opportunities offered at some schools have enriched the lives of many students and teachers all across the country.

Schools that have held the line on class sizes and prioritized the hiring of teachers — few and far between though they may seem to be — have done themselves, and the students they serve, a huge favor. It is also undeniably true that there are some teachers out there who ought to find work in some other field, either because their commitment to teaching has passed its expiration date or because they were never well-suited to the work to begin with.

Still, for all the terrible ideas floating around out there, there are an awful lot of good ones too. One of the things that makes our public school system so great is our willingness to try new things to make it better. Adlai Stevenson once said that the most American thing about America is the free common school system. Our inclination to experiment with it is quintessentially American too, and something we should be proud of.

That’s easy to forget in this age of top-down education reform. So many of the changes being proposed today, regardless of where they come from, share a feature in common: the people proposing them see their reforms as silver bullets, and seem like they won’t be satisfied until their ideas are adopted by everyone. You’ve heard the overblown claims about how Common Core is a “government takeover” of your child’s education; that’s not true, but the desire to engineer the learning experiences of every child in public schools is certainly part of the effort.

The desire to hold everyone to the same accountability standard through uniform testing mandates illustrates the same principle. And you don’t have to work too hard to get anyone worked up over programs like No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Government takeover? No. Government overreach? Sure looks like it.

Proponents of charter schools as a solution to our education problems owe much more to the previous generation’s supporters of vouchers than they usually admit—and though both groups employ the rhetoric of individual empowerment to make the case for their policy preference, it’s hard to overlook the way that large (sometimes for-profit) players have cornered the market on educational choice in some places, even turning entire districts into districts of “choice.” This, of course, begs the question: if everyone is forced to accept a choice, is it still a choice? It seems it’s not enough to provide people with a choice. Many reformers clearly feel the need to impose their idea of choice on others.

I could go on. In every case, the story is the same: there are real problems to be solved in education, but one-size-fits-all modeling, accompanied by the seemingly limitless urge to repackage and sell old ideas as new ones — often by attaching acronyms to them (UDL, RTI, UBD, DIBELS, PBIS, DRA anyone?) — are both symptoms of the problem and clues to what causes it. The use of shorthand is designed to spread a message far and wide (to “scale it up,” in the parlance of the times), usually without the explanation necessary to ensure that the message is received correctly.

Meanwhile, cities contract with private companies to run entire school district, states adopt untested teacher evaluation frameworks whole-hog, and the federal government attaches new strings to desperately needed federal funding without investigating the effectiveness of its preferred approaches first. In each case, the solution comes before the problem is properly defined, and it comes with a dictum that cannot be ignored. This is the solution, we’re told. Now go implement it.

But what if our system’s greatest strength is the thing that is most often cited as its fatal weakness? Proponents of top-down reforms prey on the alleged weakness of our decentralized school governance system, but what if this idea could be turned on its head? Maybe it’s the “radically decentralized” nature of public education, to borrow a term from the historian David Labaree, that holds the key to understanding how to improve our schools in the twenty-first century. Maybe, in other words, we’re going about this all wrong. Instead of having experts huddle together to generate solutions to educational problems, then use whatever leverage they have (funding, regulation, the insecurity of teachers) to impose them on schools, we should entrust the professionals who work in schools, and the people in the communities they serve, to come up with solutions to the educational problems they face.

To be sure, we would need to talk about how to do this in ways that don’t compromise equity—we can’t just rely on the cliché of “local control” and expect things to be fair for everyone—and that won’t be an easy task. At the very least we’ll need to look at ways to provide less uneven funding to schools and school districts so students’ educational chances are less dependent on the circumstances of their birth and more dependent on the choices they actually make in school.

We’ll also have to think more carefully about how we prepare professional teachers. The movement to de-skill and de-professionalize teaching by letting pretty much anyone do it won’t do. And we can’t allow our commitment to public education to become fragmented; privatized schools are not public schools, and the commitment to public schooling has to be the lodestar guiding educational change. We’ll have to demand a lot more from the elected leaders who control our public resources if we want to do that.

Still, there’s no reason to believe that we can’t accomplish these goals and help our schools evolve at the same time. We can introduce more choice into our system and still keep it genuinely public, and we can also protect equity and opportunity while simultaneously holding school professionals accountable for student learning. We can even provide a more stable source of funding for schools if we want to. We just haven’t figured out how to do it yet. I, for one, believe that careful planning in the communities where schools actually exist will help us get there.

One thing’s for sure: top-down education policy-making is a losing proposition in an education system as diverse and vibrant as ours is. Maybe it’s time to turn the page on this failed experiment so we can move on to more fruitful ones. To borrow a trope from the world of the classroom, let me propose a recipe for improving our mindset when it comes to education policy and education reform: take one part experimentation, combine it with two parts humility, add a dash of cooperation and just a pinch of communication—and voila. That sounds better than just throwing everything in the pot and then forcing everybody to eat it, doesn’t it?