How can so much reform yield so little change? That’s the question posed by Frederick M. Hess in Spinning Wheels; The Politics of Urban School Reform, a volume that captures the curious fact that no entity is reforming more—and changing less—than our urban public schools.
Spinning Wheels performs a signal public service by contradicting the oft-repeated claim that what America’s big city schools need is a strong dose of reform. Hess demonstrates that contrary to conventional wisdom, urban public school districts are responsive in at least one sense: Superintendents and school boards alike perceive that the public wants change. As a result, urban school systems are resolved to give the people what they want—reform, and plenty of it.
Hess’s research is numbingly persuasive on this point. His survey of 57 big-city school districts reveals not only that every urban district buys into the reform agenda, but that more than 75 percent of all districts reported at least one significant reform initiative instituted every year from 1991 to 1995. Hess recounts the story of one new superintendent who unveiled a new reform initiative each day, for 50 days. In every big city school district, reforms are introduced not just singly but in batches; new layered atop old, as each successive superintendent charts his own reform course. (After all, you can’t expect a new superintendent to spend scarce time implementing a predecessor’s agenda.) Add to all of this the fact that the average urban superintendent’s tenure is three years or less, and it’s small wonder big city schools are beset by the plague of “policy churn”—or, in Hess’s memorable phrase, “spinning wheels.”
The dirty little secret of urban school reform, meanwhile, remains intact: Reform is easy, but change is hard—at least insofar as real change requires a rediscovery of what works in the classroom, and finding ways to reinforce and replicate the intellectual friction between teacher and student that sparks learning.
On the theory that you can’t tell the players without a scorecard, Hess provides one. Start with school boards which—contrary to the common portrayal that depicts them as riven by ideology and frozen by faction—have proved remarkably friendly to the reform frenzy. And for good reason: Compared to scorched-earth conflicts over school closings, redrawing attendance boundaries, or renegotiating teacher contracts, school reform is the one thing on which board members and the superintendent can agree. Reform is a kind of safe haven, a place to claim consensus and cooperation, wrapped in gauzy promises of future progress.
Or consider teachers unions, another constituency typically perceived as anti-reform. In fact, teachers unions are all for reform—provided, of course, reform doesn’t involve real change. Hess’s research suggests that the “pre-negotiated” nature of most urban school reform softens any harsh edges that might draw ire from teachers union. The result? Reforms that don’t challenge prevailing concessions enshrined in teacher contracts. In the 1980s, that meant death to initiatives like peer review and merit pay; in the 1990s, it means that Charter Schools are typically free to chart their own pedagogical course—provided, of course, that they hire only from the pool of state-certified teachers.
By this time, it doesn’t take a student of institutional dynamics to surmise that, as currently practiced in our nation’s urban schools, reform is a sham—Public Relations tarted up as Policy. Or, in Hess’s more measured assessment, “reform is the status quo”—“symbolic activity” rather than substantive change. By observing the reform phenomenon across many districts rather than from within one, Hess is able to note that school districts “adopt innovative reform A to replace practice B even as another district is adopting B as an innovative reform to replace practice A.” Apparently, reform initiatives play musical chairs just as superintendents do. Still, it’s one thing to join Hess in observing the irony that many superintendents ride into town on a white horse and ride out on a rail. What’s more impressive is that so many superintendents manage to get back in the saddle again before arriving at the next town.
All of which is why books like Spinning Wheels should be read not only with interest, but with impatience. As Hess notes, the reform game derives much of its impetus from the fact that parents, understandably, don’t want to hear that it might take a decade to improve urban public schools. But the all-too-serious point is precisely that urban education isn’t a game for the students trapped in sub-par schools because their parents’ economic circumstances deny them educational alternatives.
In his final chapter, Hess considers several ways to get urban schools’ spinning wheels unstuck, school choice being one. Even so, Hess expresses reservations about what parents will do with the freedom to choose, musing that they, too, might be tempted to treat private schools’ innovations as proxies for educational performance. True, some parents, given school choice, may buy the sizzle and not the steak. Yet there’s no denying that urban public schools’ unfettered ability to substitute PR for real policy reform would be challenged if urban parents possessed an educational “exit option” for their children.
Hess’s book, though written for education specialists, offers an implicit lesson for foundations and philanthropists. Hess footnotes in passing a news story on Walter Annenberg’s generous but ineffectual pledge to spend $500 million to improve public schools, announced with much fanfare in 1993. As Hess puts it:
Problems with urban school reform are symptoms of the institutional structure of urban school districts. Until those larger constraints are addressed, attempts to improve schooling through any reform—no matter how well designed—are likely to prove futile and waste resources.
Rather than ask whether Annenberg couldn’t have figured that out for less than $500 million, another question suggests itself: How long will it take foundations to figure out that—just as behind every addict stands an enabler—they’ve been bankrolling binge reformers as they rove from one urban school system to the next? Perhaps the time has come for public school philanthropists to administer some tough love: No more grants, until urban schools really do change.
Then, too, perhaps change itself is overrated. As Hess observes, some of the very best urban schools are nowhere near the cutting edge of innovation. Rather, they hold tenaciously to old fashioned approaches to teaching and learning in spite of pressures to change. What those schools teach us is that it is possible to be more effective than innovative.
Of course, that’s not what the people who run America’s big city schools want to hear. Like certain brands of dishwashing detergent, our urban schools are always New and Improved! Do those exclamations belie a certain anxiety about the underlying value of the product—or do they simply attest to the fact that, in our culture, nothing sells better than New? Either way, school reform becomes a publicity ploy. Stop in at any school board meeting and ask them about their reforms. Just don’t ask them to change.
Daniel McGroarty, author of Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice (Prima Publishing), is senior director of the White House Writers Group, a Washington, D.C.-based public policy communications firm, and visiting fellow with the Alexis de Tocqueville Institution in Arlington, Virginia.