Unbundling the schoolhouse

It’s time to “unbundle” the schoolhouse, writes Rick Hess in Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform, edited by Hess and Bruno Manno. Without necessarily “reforming” the whole school, it should be possible to provide high-quality services, such as algebra instruction, virtual tutoring or parent engagement, Hess and Manno argue.

The “whole-school” assumption that every school must find ways to serve every academic need of every individual student has overburdened educators and institutions. As a result, they have trouble doing anything especially well.

Specialized providers of tutoring, language instruction, art and music classes, etc. shouldn’t be limited to serving only affluent parents — or starting their own charter school — Hess and Manno writes.

Also in the book: Chris Whittle on the emergence of transnational school providers; Checker Finn and Eric Osberg on “educational savings accounts” which permit parents to customize services; Joe Williams on empowering parents to make smart choices; Doug Lynch and Michael Gottfried on informing parents about the quality of specialized education services; Jon Fullerton on data systems that support choice andBurck Smith on introducing cost sensitivity into K-12 schooling. Ted Kolderie and Curtis Johnson discuss the policy implications.

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Comments

  1. I wish schools were converted to a la carte education centers where families could enroll their students in as many or as few classes as they desire. Full-time students seeking a diploma could have priority registration in classes the way community colleges do it. But if I want to homeschool for core courses and just send my kids to the school for lab science, PE, art, music, and foreign language there should be a way for me to do that. After all, my family pays a very large amount of taxes towards funding the schools.

  2. Genevieve says:

    In our district (and I believe the whole state), families can enroll in only certain classes. They are considered dual-enrollments. This works especially well in high school, but some families do it for middle school (and perhaps elementary school).
    I had several friends that only attended the specialized academic half-day high school and were homeschooled the rest of the day. It is something we are considering when our daughter reaches middle school.
    I don’t believe that there was a priority for full time district students. Home schooled students were in popular classes such as TV/Radio broadcast.

  3. I read the blog post by Hess and cannot make heads nor tails of it.

    What, exactly, is bundled in schools these days? I visited over 15 elementary schools in the past few months–public, private, parochial, you name it–and all but 2 basically the primary grades spent all day, every day on reading and arithmetic. They’ve already “unbundled”–they don’t spend any time on science, history, geography, let alone languages, music, art, or even recess. This was the norm. The whole school is gone already. And guess what? They still don’t teach reading or arithmetic very well, so this unbundling hasn’t yet led to success.

    The next bizarre argument was that only the affluent have access to supplementary art, music, language classes. While I agree that Kumon or similar tutoring is expensive, who are these people who have no access to these other classes? In city after city, pre and aftercare classes provide community ed art, language, and music-the daycare that fills out the day for the standard elementary kids. These are either free or covered by waiver for people of low income. City parks and rec programs offer free or nearly free phys ed programs, dance classes, art classes.

    The blog post needs clarity to distinguish if the author’s problem is that ala carte classes parents pay for are a problem simply because he wishes them subsidized by the state or not. In many cases, such subsidies would duplicate services communities already offer.

  4. “What, exactly, is bundled in schools these days?”

    Umm, the whole thing? Either the student is enrolled full-time, 6-7 hours per day, 5 days per week or he/she doesn’t attend at all. Where’s the option for enrolling in just a few courses?

    “City parks and rec programs offer free or nearly free phys ed programs, dance classes, art classes.”

    Free or nearly free- ha! Try $150-$300+ per class per 10 week session. That’s not affordable to many middle-class families in this economy.

    My family is paying 5 figures’ worth of property and state income taxes annually, much of which goes to the schools. My children should be allowed access to them on a part-time basis in exchange.

    The public library doesn’t restrict its lending to only patrons who agree to borrow a certain number of items per month. I am entitled to use it as much or as little as I deem appropriate. Why, then, do the schools force me into an all-or-nothing decision?

  5. Cranberry says:

    The “whole-school” assumption that every school must find ways to serve every academic need of every individual student has overburdened educators and institutions. As a result, they have trouble doing anything especially well.

    I agree with this presumption. Wouldn’t it make more sense to encourage schools to specialize in different types of instruction? European countries offer high schools which emphasize classical languages, music, vocational training or math & science. It’s more economical to teach groups of students. If school systems could get past the illusion that all students are the same in abilities and aspirations, they could improve instruction.

    Bruno and I argue that creating opportunities to rethink teaching and learning requires “unbundling” the schoolhouse into its component parts, so that it becomes possible to provide a high-quality service (whether that’s promoting parental engagement, supporting algebra instruction, or delivering virtual tutoring) without necessarily “reforming” the entire school.

    The trouble with this proposal is that affluent parents are the most informed market for educational services. Articles and blog posts abound with tales of school districts which offer free tutoring, but find no takers. Simply offering access to a service doesn’t increase the number of parents sophisticated enough to take advantage of the offer.

  6. CarolineSF says:

    Ooh, Chris Whittle! He was such a huge success with Edison Schools, showing us all how private-sector efficiencies can raise achievement for low-income minorities while also allowing investors to make a profit. No wonder we continue to listen to him.

  7. –Umm, the whole thing? Either the student is enrolled full-time, 6-7 hours per day, 5 days per week or he/she doesn’t attend at all. Where’s the option for enrolling in just a few courses?

    But elementary schools are only teaching a few courses. That it takes them 6-7 hours a day to do reading and math isn’t solved by unbundling. And unbundling isn’t going to suddenly bring expertise. He argues that somehow schools should magically gain this ala carte expertise they don’t have now without reorganizing as privates or charters. But how, exactly, would they do that? If they had the skills to teach those courses well, they would be, right?

    Just because you live in expensive Palo Alto doesn’t mean the rest of us do. Most cities offer very inexpensive courses in all of those elective subjects. Here’s a smattering: in scottsdale, the drop in after care programs are free:
    http://recreation.scottsdaleaz.gov/Activities/Activities.asp?SCheck=993810372&SDT=40623.9344344097&sectionId=13

    Atlanta’s programs are full time, $65 a week or less, covered by GA subsidy for low income families:
    http://www.atlantaga.gov/government/parks/recreation_afterschool_031805.aspx

    Eugene, OR has $30 programs (for 8-10 weeks) of ballet, 8 weeks of clay throwing for $65, 8 hours of individual piano lessons for $90.

    I can continue at length, but again: unbundling may be valuable, but it doesn’t solve the coordination problem. If Hess’ problem is coordination, he should say so. If his problem is the lack of subsidy he feels parents should receive, he should say so. But in many communities, parents have already turned to these other sources to augment their childrens’ ed and rec experiences, and find it far more palatable to pay fee for service and get a good return on that money.