The Failure of Buffet Reform

Some in the reform crowd are so eager to “race to the top” they seem like they aren’t taking a few seconds to plan their route. They just spout words like accountability, choice, and charters without any pause for the best way to implement those principals. Then there are those who tout one reform as some sort of cure-all. These reformers have tunnel vision. They miss the interconnected nature of school reform. Both of these attitudes are dangerous.

This is buffet reform. Buffet reformers mix and match foods, pile their plates high, maybe get dessert first. The buffet is not about quality or satisfaction, it’s about how much you can stuff. The result is usually the same; you wind up overstuffed and unsatisfied. You may stumble upon an exemplary meal, say at the Plaza or Harraseeket Inn on mother’s day, but for the most part it’s not a great experience.

True reform works more like a great tasting menu. Everything is planned with a purpose. All of the ingredients cooked to be so much more than the sum of their parts. Each dish complementing the last. Education reform functions best when implemented in that fashion.

Take the example of school choice. Many see school choice/ competition as a positive force. Those with the wealth to do so have been able to choose private school for their children. Since we have become a physically mobile society, those with money have been able to choose their children’s school by where they live. Making school choice available to all students levels the playing field. But just advocating choice alone does not foster meaningful competition or provide the greatest benefits to schools, parents, and students.

How is a parent to know what a certain school offers to their children? There is no simple way for a parent to examine a school. A system should first be in place that collects school information and it should include more than just student test scores. Parents should be allowed to view school safety records, graduation rates, college attendance rates, extracurricular programs, arts programs, ap courses offered, and other relevant data. Districts should be able to provide families with this information in a simple format. This data should make it easy to compare schools and locate certain strengths parents and students desire.

Although test scores are only one part of the information provided to parents, they are an important one. Choice forces districts to set clear goals which necessitate better, more efficient testing. Reforms to what we test and how we test, moving toward leaner problem solving and analytical testing, need to be coupled with school choice. So we are moved toward greater accountability for students and teachers.

Greater flexibility also comes along with this. Flexibility and accountability go hand in hand. If you have one without the other you might as well have neither. So with accountability teachers can be given a wide birth as to how they instruct in the classroom. As long as the students are learning who cares if a teacher can convey their knowledge best by hanging upside down from the ceiling. And of course with schools accountable districts and schools can have greater flexibility as to who they hire for teaching and administrative jobs. A certain amount of decentralization can be encouraged.

You can see how the business of meaningful reform quickly becomes interdependent, or perhaps I just confused the Hell out of you. Flexibility and accountability are always at the heart of every reform. Without flexibility choice cannot be meaningful. There will be no more choices then there are now. Great innovation will not be allowed to develop. Without accountability nothing is in place to ensure a certain standard to what our children our learning. Parents will have no way to make a proper decision in choosing a school without data to back it up. Accountability provides that data.

Of course I have simplified, for sake of this conversation on choice, what flexibility and accountability can do for education. The topic has been explore on numerous websites and books. Most people who disagree with particular reforms have not seen a comprehensive well thought out plan. All they have been given are buffet reforms. Which is why they continue to leave the table unfulfilled.