How to fix schools that don’t want to be fixed

October 17, 2013

Jay P. Greene is one of America’s leading experts on education policy. In an article published on the website of Education Next, a journal published by the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, Dr. Greene explains how to fix traditional public schools. “We can fix schools,” he writes, “by going around them.”

We can expand access to other educational options, including charter schools, voucher schools, tax-credit schools, ESAs, digital schooling, home-schooling, and hybrid schools. We can also expand access to enriching non-school activities, like museums, theaters, historical sites, summer camps, and after-school programs. Reformers should concentrate their energy on all of these non-traditional-school efforts and stop trying so hard to fix traditional public schools.

The main reason we should stop focusing on fixing traditional public schools is that, for the most part, they don’t want to be fixed. The people who make their living off of those schools have reasons for wanting schools to be as they are and have enormous political resources to fend off efforts to fundamentally change things. Trying to impose reforms like merit pay, centralized systems of teacher evaluation, new standards, new curriculum, new pedagogy, etc. on unwilling schools is largely a futile exercise. They have the political resources to block, dilute, or co-opt these efforts in most instances.

Professor Greene, who earned his Ph.D. in political science at Harvard, says “trying to impose these reforms despite fierce resistance from traditional public schools usually does not improve outcomes for students but it does produce a series of negative side-effects.”

Greene acknowledges that his recommendation to fix schools by not fixing schools “sounds like abandoning the millions of children who remain in those schools” — but he says that is not the case. “Just as starving children in Africa are not helped by our finishing all of the food on our plates, our futile efforts to impose centralized quick-fixes do not actually help those millions in traditional public schools. The measure of a desirable reform should not be the extent to which it makes us feel like at least we are trying, even if those efforts are counter-productive.”