Feedback sought on Kentucky's proposed education accountability system
"School Inc." and the education paradigm shift

Why the education establishment feels so deeply threatened by school choice


Last night I had a dream. I was attending a very large meeting of regional and state education leaders. I recognized many of them as friends and colleagues I have known for years. In this meeting they were passionately discussing their fears about Kentucky's recent move toward charter schools, the implications of school choice, and their general sense of threat to public education. I rose to speak on the issue, to share my own perspectives as a longtime school choice advocate and a recently-appointed member of the state Board of Education. But after I talked for a bit I looked around to discover they'd all gotten up and walked out. Only about three people remained, listening out of what appeared to be politeness alone.

The dream was at once both comical and disturbing, a symbol of the constant tension I feel in my work these days when many people I admire and support view me with confusion at best, and suspicion or even hostility at worst, for the public positions I have taken on school choice. The battle for charter schools in Kentucky has been bruising, and will likely take new forms as the law is implemented and new choice policies come under consideration. A strong sense of fear characterizes the education establishment these days. The need for civil, informed dialogue and reflection is enormous, yet harder than ever to achieve.

In light of this situation - and in light of my dream, I want to strongly recommend a brand new paper by American Enterprise Institute education scholar (and Maryland Board of Education chair) Andy Smarick, called Analyzing an Educational Revolution. Smarick uses Thomas Kuhn's n0w-famous 1962 book, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, to explore the slow-rolling earthquake taking place in education policy. Advocates for charters and choice often downplay the paradigm-disrupting nature of their ideas, emphasizing how choice fits within the existing structures of educational delivery, but Smarick says this is not the case. The "differentiation and choice" paradigm does, in fact, represent an enormous break with a century-old way of thinking about schooling (what he calls the "territorial exclusive franchise model") that has completely dominated the educational landscape in the U.S. His paper, which is highly readable and only 26 pages long, helps illuminate the disrupting nature of the new paradigm and explains why members of the education establishment feel so threatened.

Thomas Kuhn explored how the greatest scientific breakthroughs have not come from the natural processes of doing science within conventional frameworks of thinking or practice. The discovery that neither the earth nor the sun was the center of the universe could not have emerged from existing scientific paradigms, Kuhn explains. Likewise, the emergence of relativity theory and quantum physics was not the result of conventional, Newtonian approaches to science. These new paradigms created full-blown crises in the scientific disciplines that took decades or even centuries to subside until the new paradigm was firmly accepted.

Andy Smarick adapts Kuhn's framework for how these paradigm shifts take place to analyze education policy in the U.S. Smarick describes the existing paradigm of educational delivery as the territorial exclusive franchise model, in which geographically-defined government actors (the local school district), governed by a majoritarian democracy (the locally-elected school board), assigns students to attend certain schools and oversees all aspects of a fairly standardized educational program.

Smarick contrasts the dominant paradigm with the differentiation and choice paradigm, which suggests that families should be able to select from a variety of publicly-financed educational options, many of which will vary considerably in terms of educational philosophy, instructional emphasis, curriculum, etc.

As Kuhn had explained in Structures, dominant paradigms emerge because they actually work to help explain things and solve problems at an unprecedented and effective level. Smarick explains how the territorial exclusive franchise model of education emerged during a time of great consolidation, commensurate with the apex of the Industrial Revolution and political Progressivism, in economic, political, and cultural structures (for another great look at this historical process, see Yuval Levin's book, The Fractured Republic, and my review here). As Ashley Berner Rogers notes in her excellent new book, Pluralism and American Public Education: No One Way to School, the new paradigm ended a much more pluralistic and community-based model of educational delivery, and sometimes reflected a dark spirit of prejudice toward Catholics, immigrants, and other minority groups. Smarick doesn't deny this, but emphasizes that the district model also brought standardization, efficiency, uniformity, and especially a much greater and necessary level of educational equity and access, all at a time when America was gearing up to be a singular world superpower.

But the nature of dominant paradigms is that over time they can become blind, or at least tone deaf, to the many problems their assumptions and structures cannot explain or solve. For all the great accomplishments of the territorial exclusive franchise model, problems abound. Monopolistic systems tend toward one-size-fits-all solutions, resist innovation, and require complex quality control structures. Above all, our rate of improvement in student learning, however real, is so agonizingly slow the system simply cannot be expected to meet the educational goals required by our rapidly deconsolidating economy and culture (see my extended discussion of these patterns, especially as they apply to Kentucky, here).

The differentiation and choice paradigm has emerged in response as an alternative way of conceptualizing educational delivery and accountability. But this model requires a huge shift in thinking about how education is funded, which principles of democracy should be operative in how schools are governed, and a willingness to accept new risks and emergent problems for which there are, as yet, no clear solutions. Smarick carefully examines each of these areas.

In terms of funding, the old paradigm assumes education dollars belong to districts to allocate for the operation of schools to which they have assigned students. The new paradigm assumes that education dollars will follow students to their families' choice of schools (much as Medicare dollars or food stamp dollars follow beneficiaries to the health care providers or grocery vendors of their choice), with a variety of possible mechanisms for authorizing which schools would be eligible for such publicly-funded students to attend.

In terms of school governance, the two paradigms offer competing assumptions about how best to ensure democratic accountability for education. The old paradigm is democratic in the sense that it empowers a governance structure elected by majority vote. But the new paradigm questions the extent to which such structures have truly been effective and raises concerns about how minority viewpoints are easily shut out. It further suggests that "democracy" also means the empowerment of individual families and the engagement structures of civil society (like churches, civic organizations, nonprofits, businesses, etc.) in determining what the educational landscape should look like. Above all, the old paradigm defines the "public" nature of education as "owned, operated, and managed by the government with majoritarian-elected oversight." The new paradigm defines public as "serving the public interest" with a broad array of possible educational options driven by family choice and subsidiarity.

Finally, Smarick illustrates how, per Kuhn, dominant and revolutionary paradigms "ask fundamentally different questions, look for different types of answers, and prioritize different things." Smarick notes how choice-based systems require a great deal of careful thinking and policy-making around enrollment, as decisions have to be made about how families choose schools and how schools are allowed to prioritize student admissions, if at all. These questions are largely irrelevant under the old paradigm, which just assigns students to their schools mostly based on where they live. From my own perspective, another emergent problem is how to determine which schools of choice should really be eligible for public funding (the "authorizing" component of charter schools, for example). Adherents to the territorial exclusive franchise model view the unknowns and risks associated with these new challenges as further evidence of the superiority of the dominant paradigm, while adherents of the differentiation and choice model see them as the natural process of policy-making based on a new set of assumptions.  Thus the "incommensurability" of the two worldviews, as Kuhn called it, becomes more intractable.

Smarick's Analyzing an Educational Revolution helps explain the ferocious backlash of educators toward the differentiation and choice paradigm. Kuhn's Structures described a similar reaction within the scientific disciplines to new paradigms:

Kuhn argued that such shifts are often interpreted as an existential threat to not only established ideas but also the careers and professional work of respected leaders. The revolution reflects critically "upon much scientific work they have already successfully completed." The identification of disqualifying anomalies in the existing system and the offering of a new approach produce "a period of pronounced professional insecurity" for those at the helm.

Choice advocates need to understand this insecurity and respond with some degree of sensitivity and appreciation for the major shift in thinking and practice they are asking of dedicated professionals deeply committed to their work. Likewise, choice opponents would benefit from reading Smarick's analysis to help further clarify how the dominant paradigm emerged in the first place, and to better understand its strengths and limitations, as well as the new problems they are likely to face as the differentiation and choice paradigm grows in strength.

I'll interpret my dream last night in the most positive way possible, especially in light of Andy Smarick's Analyzing an Educational Revolution: as a reminder to be gracious to my fellow educators for whom this differentiation and choice talk sounds like an utterly foreign language. In time, I hope more of them will stay in the room with me to listen.

Usual disclaimer: All views expressed on this website are mine alone and do not reflect the opinions of Western Kentucky University (where I work) or the Kentucky Board of Education (where I serve as a member).

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