Inside and Outside: School Choice from Two Perspectives

Published May 1, 2004

As a former teacher and now resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, Frederick Hess has spent time both inside and outside the public education machine–teaching students in the classroom, and developing education policy in a think tank.

In his new book, Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan, April 2004) Hess uses his dual perspective to argue that educators and reformers must be willing to trade ideal designs for pragmatism for the benefit of the children. Frequently, institutional solutions prescribed by analyst-reformers are dismissed by educators as not workable in their present circumstances. As the adults arm-wrestle over reforms, the children slip through the cracks of the existing system.

Common Sense begins by dividing those involved in education into two camps: commonsense reformers and status quo reformers. The former group “does not claim that competition is costless, only that–when sensibly monitored and paired with tough-minded accountability–its benefits will significantly outweigh its costs.” Of the latter, he says they “are all for reform so long as it changes nothing of consequence.” It is these status quo reformers who pose a threat to students.

“The commonsense challenge,” writes Hess, “is to drive systemwide improvement.”

After establishing who the players are, Hess elaborates on what is needed to change the system: accountability, competition, and quality teachers. Teachers must be held accountable for student performance, principals for teacher success, and schools for both. The weakest links in the chain of responsibility must be identified and replaced–even if that means closing down persistently under-performing schools.

From accountability, Hess moves to competition, arguing in favor of choice-based reforms without apologizing for them. He sees reform through the eyes of a former teacher, and he asserts choice will succeed only if correctly designed–acknowledging the costs of change but not retreating from hard-nosed reform.

“To be blunt, competition works when it hurts,” he writes.

It is not enough simply to add a charter school law, Hess contends. Public schools must feel the financial pinch when students leave. Teachers, principals, administrators, and school boards must face the consequences–positive or negative–for the performance of their school, and the consequences must motivate them to look closely at what they do and doggedly work at doing it better.

Of course, there will be resistance.

“In any line of work, most employees will resist changes that hold them newly accountable, force them to change routines, or threaten their jobs or wages,” writes Hess. “The way we overcome this resistance is not by pleasing but by making action less painful than inaction.”

Since teachers are “the most important factor in determining school quality,” Hess argues teacher pay, performance reviews, and promotions should be based on student achievement. He strongly supports merit pay arrangements similar to “broad ‘pay bands’ of the kind long utilized in the private sector and favored in civil service reform.”

“Moving to a more flexible system of hiring, firing, and paying teachers is part and parcel of moving to an emphasis on accountability and competition,” he writes.

Common Sense School Reform is unique in school reform literature in that it not only outlines the need for choice-based reform but also acknowledges the stresses such reforms place on educators. However, Hess does not let the prospect of administrative headaches excuse educators from school choice’s consequences.

Chapter by chapter, Hess keeps returning from his ideas of systemwide reform to the fundamental purpose of schooling: educating children. While describing the validity of school leaders’ objections to competition–almost to the point of sympathizing with them–Hess skillfully points out inconsistencies and inefficient mechanisms that are inexcusable within the present system of public schooling.

Hess’s tone in this book is so reasonable and his arguments so tactful that even staunch opponents of school choice could find themselves reevaluating their position.

Jonathan Butcher is a research assistant in domestic policy at The Heritage Foundation. His email address is [email protected].