Common-Sense Schooling


Amidst the politicized debates over the No Child Left Behind Act's provisions on testing, sanctions, spending and teacher quality, it is easy for voters and policymakers to lose sight of the essential question: How do we build systems of schools that foster excellence?

The truth is that while the nation's schools are in a state of crisis, it is not the one that we usually imagine. American schools are not awful, are not gutting our economy and are not terribly unsafe. On balance, given the population they serve, they are probably doing about as well as they did two generations ago.

The crisis is that performance we deemed adequate 50 years ago is neither tolerable nor defensible today, yet demands for sensible change are met by protestations of good intentions, pleas for patience and an endless stream of ineffectual tinkering.

Researchers have estimated that in 2001 just 32 percent of all 18-year-olds graduated from high school with basic literacy skills and having completed the courses needed to attend a four-year college. The 2003 National Assessment of Educational Progress reported that just 31 percent of all fourth-graders and 32 percent of eighth-graders were "proficient" in reading.

The common culprit for our educational travails is a lack of spending. However, by any reasonable standard, American schools are exceptionally well-funded. In 2000, the most recent year for which international comparisons are available, the OECD reported that the United States spent significantly more per pupil than any other industrial democracy — including those famous for the generosity of their social programs. At the primary level, the United States spent 66 percent more per pupil than Germany, 56 percent more than France, 27 percent more than Japan and 80 percent more than the United Kingdom.

The real problem is a system of schooling seemingly designed to frustrate competence. Teachers are hired, essentially for life, through haphazard recruiting processes. There is little systemic recognition for excellence. Compensation and desirable assignments are treated as rewards for longevity. Informing decisions with data is considered novel, while the very words efficiency and productivity are derided as alien. The result is a culture of incompetence in which educators learn to keep their heads down and avoid causing waves.

There are two approaches to addressing this grim reality: status quo reform and common-sense reform.

"Status quo reformers" believe that the nation's millions of teachers and administrators are already doing the best they can and will willingly make hard choices or seek new efficiencies. Consequently, status quo reformers presume the way to improve America's schools is to provide more money, expertise, training and support, but steer away from radical changes in job security, accountability, compensation or work conditions. Unwilling to consider fundamental change, they allow the status quo to define what is possible.

Common-sense reformers recognize the merit of many status quo suggestions, but believe that these are tangential to or distractions from the larger task of rooting out the culture of incompetence. Centuries of experience tell us that people work harder, smarter and more efficiently when they are rewarded for doing so; that people do their best work when goals are clear and they know how they'll be evaluated; and that smart, educated, motivated people will find ways to do better when given the professional freedom to forge new paths to success.

The principles of commonsense reform are straightforward:

  • Schools must focus on doing a few crucial things and doing them well. At a minimum, schools must ensure that all children master the gatekeeping skills of reading, writing and mathematics, and have a fundamental grasp of science and history.

  • Test-based accountability and market competition should be used in tandem to provide quality control in the essentials while creating room for diverse forms of excellence.

  • School systems should relentlessly seek out talented and entrepreneurial teachers and leaders, and should strive to nurture these individuals. Certification barriers that deter promising candidates from becoming teachers and school leaders should be stricken.

  • Educators who excel at serving children and mentoring colleagues, or who take on the toughest assignments, must be appropriately recognized and compensated. Meanwhile, school boards must stand firm and rewrite contracts so that ineffective educators are identified and then readily remediated or fired.
Some may point to merit pay experiments and No Child Left Behind-style accountability and suggest that common-sense reform is ascendant. In truth, most of these are half-measures born of a reluctance to embrace common-sense principles unapologetically. Policy-makers speak grandly of using test-based accountability to harness tough-minded incentives, then settle for vague, eventual school-level sanctions that have little impact on individual educators.

In a complex world it is easy for simple truths to get lost. Simple truths like responsibility, merit and opportunity. Real school reform begins by resurfacing those truths.


Frederick M. Hess. "Common-Sense Schooling." Washington Times (July 14, 2004).

This article is reprinted with permission from the author.


Frederick M. Hess, a former high school social studies teacher, is Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, Washington, DC. His most recent book is Common Sense School Reform, was published in 2004 by Palgrave Macmillan. He is the editor, along with Chester E. Finn Jr., of Leaving No Child Behind?: Options for Kids in Failing Schools.

Copyright © 2004 Frederick M. Hess

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