Can reformers control their reforms?

Can reformers control their own reforms? In a review of Paul Peterson’s Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, Dan Willingham sees reasons for concern about the reforms du jour.

Peterson writes about Horace Mann, John Dewey, Martin Luther King Jr., Al Shanker, William Bennett, James Coleman and  Julie Young of Florida Virtual School. “Centralization became the almost inevitable byproduct of school reform, simply because reformers sought maximum power to carry their desires into effect,” Peterson writes.

Peterson’s core argument–that reformers seek greater centralization of control, then lose control of the intended reform–seems especially pertinent to thinking about the impact of the Common Core standards.

Jay P. Greene has emphasized this point. He argues that however much one might like the standards now, “the good guys” will inevitably lose control of them. From Peterson’s read of history, it would seem that Greene is dead on.

. . . Long before the Common Core standards became the latest Big Idea, I would chuckle when I heard policy observers avow (with a straight face) “Oh, I’m for national standards. [pause] As long as they are good.”

Peterson’s book won’t have the impact it deserves because of his “conservative” reputation, Willingham predicts.

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  1. Is there any other area in life where reformers control their reforms? Have revolutionaries ever been able to control their revolutions? Have social engineers ever been able to control their social engineering? In fact, have engineers been able to control their engineering?

    Especially in the people business of education, why not acknowledge the limits and celebrate the glories of featherless bipeds?

    It tells a lot about the hubris of “reformers” who seem oblivious to history and to the way people interact, that they even think they can control their reforms. Especially in schools, incremental improvements is all we can seek. We may be able to improve schools a little more that the rest of the seamless web of society, but only a little.We should be lighting a lot more candles, instead of cursing schools for resisting change. What did the “reformers” expect of “the status quo?”

  2. In a historic death spiral, many “experts” sought greater central power at the same time that many parents were attempting to cede any vestiges of personal responsibility. It became the expectation for many that learning would be the exclusive purview of the school. God forbid that parents should be expected to teach (or, in some cases, even feed) anything to their children themselves. Those who wanted to rule found willing subjects.

    Is it any wonder that so many parents respond to this fascist tendency by homeschooling?

  3. Economists described the phenomenon in abstract years ago. It’s called “regulatory capture”.

    Chubb and Moe made a similar argument in __Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools__, that reformers implement their reforms through bureaucratic rules, and that the inevitable bureaucracy intrudes upon school autonomy. For this reason, they argue that school vouchers present the most promising path toward improved overall system improvement.

    With vouchers, schools can escape bureaucratic control. Major changes in policy are possible. Sweden provides an example. If you have children of school age and if you suppose that insiders will bar effective reform in the US, homeschool. nothing in Hawaii law requires that instruction occur between mid-morning and mid-afternoon.

    In 1995, Myron Lieberman predicted that budget shortfalls would compel State legislators to implement education reforms. He did not recon on a reckless President’s enthusiasm for a strategy of disguised inflationary default.


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