We do a lot of discussion in my education administration classes. The discussions are often animated and cover the widest possible range of topics related to improving schools. We usually work over the problems pretty thoroughly, but often come up short in identifying good solutions. Inevitably, students like to know what I think the "answer" is.
As you know if you've been in my classes, I usually have a whole host of ideas, and while I am pretty confident about a handful of strategies that I think are must-do's for schools, in general I'm fairly skeptical of most mega-policy approaches to solving big educational problems. Which isn't to say there aren't some great ideas out there. I just don't think you can simply graft new initiatives onto what schools are currently doing and duplicate someone else's good results. I especially think this is true when the federal government - and to a lesser extent, state governments - try to foist good strategies onto classroom level instructional practice by policy mandate.
In a recent piece for the Atlantic, Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute provides an excellent explanation why this is so. Hess challenges the notion that America has so much to learn from schools in Finland and other high performing countries, not because America is doing just fine or because those countries aren't actually doing well, but because whatever good is happening there couldn't be universally and effectively implemented for a nation of 300 million people:
America is a really big country. By population, it's the third largest in the world, and it boasts the most racially and culturally diverse society in history. This is a huge impediment for those who dream of mimicking national policies suited to tiny islands of homogeneity, like Finland. However, this makes the U.S. capable of embracing and supporting many models of teaching and schooling, with each still able to reach critical mass.
In fact, Hess sees in the American system of federalism and the vibrant entreprenuerial sector countless opportunities to innovate and learn new strategies of education, but only if we celebrate and embrace the fact that 50 different states can do their own thing and that educational choices bring a host of exciting new ideas. In these respects, Hess argues, America enjoys a "unique competitive advantage:"
American K-12 schooling is a hotbed of dynamic problem-solving on this front. Non-profits like Teach For America, Florida Virtual School, The New Teacher Project, Carpe Diem, and Citizen Schools are showing new ways to recruit and utilize educators. For-profits like Wireless Generation, Tutor.com, Pearson, Discovery, and Rosetta Stone are offering up a range of ways to harness new tools and technology to support teaching and learning. Figuring out how to leverage these new problem-solvers is a place where our state systems, districts, and schools have fumbled badly. This is an area where would-be reformers have devoted far too little attention. Meanwhile, not only have the "best" performing nations not done any better on this count, but the schemes promoted by those covetously eyeing Finland inevitably entail oodles of regulations and rule-writing calculated to stifle such providers.
I don't want to suggest that I don't believe there are absolute best bets when it comes to teaching and instructional leadership. But I've witnessed firsthand the fruitlessness of simply mandating such practices from the top down. This is enough to convince me that Hess is largely right about educational policy. We need to promote more innovation in education, and innovation is only born in environments of maximum choice and freedom. And that's an environment that America knows well - or should.