The Education Reform Book Is Dead

Education Next Issue Cover

Long live education reform



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Spring 2011 / Vol. 11, No. 2

For this 10th anniversary issue, Education Next asked me to highlight the education reform books, released over the last decade, that define currently dominant education-reform strategies. For any previous decade, this would be relatively easy to do. But picking a recent education-reform book that epitomizes current reform thinking is nearly impossible. The problem is not that there are too many highly influential books to choose from. Nor is it too soon to have the proper perspective. The problem is that education reform thinking is being shaped less and less by books. As we are seeing in other policy areas, blogs, articles, and other new media are displacing books as the primary means by which intellectual policy movements are formed and sustained.

If we were talking about the 1960s, I could easily offer Jonathan Kozol’s Death at an Early Age as the articulation of that era’s strategy of increasing resources devoted to education, particularly for minority students. The revival of progressive education, with open classrooms, student-centered learning, and whole language, which was all the rage in the 1970s, could be found in a few influential books of that time. Neil Postman and Charles Weingartner’s Teaching as a Subversive Activity and Charles Silberman’s Crisis in the Classroom come to mind. If we were talking about the 1980s and the growth of the standards and accountability movement, we could credit E. D. Hirsch’s Cultural Literacy. And the case for school choice was laid out in the 1990s by John Chubb and Terry Moe’s Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools.

The first decade of the 21st century has also had a dominant strategy: incentive-based reforms, such as increasing competition among charter and district schools, merit-pay plans to improve teacher quality, and school-level accountability based on testing. But no single book or set of books stands out as the voice of these reforms.

Rather than articulating a broad, theoretical case for reforms that have been embraced by policymakers, the books of the “aughts” were more likely to engage in debates over evidence, articulate a strategy that had not been adopted, or do battle against the strategies that policymakers did adopt. (See the results of a web poll that invited readers to vote for their favorite education books.)

My own book, Education Myths, may have bolstered efforts to enact the incentive-based reforms that dominated the decade, but it did not provide the conceptual rationale for the movement. William Howell and Paul Peterson’s Education Gap was more a review of the evidence from voucher experiments than it was a call to arms for incentive-based reforms. Eric Hanushek and Alfred Lindseth’s Schoolhouses, Courthouses, and Statehouses and Frederick Hess’s Common Sense School Reform both make a case for incentive-based reforms, but they are also primarily reviews of the current research rather than the articulation of a new reform strategy.

Some books from the aughts did make theoretical arguments for new reforms, but those reforms have not been embraced by policymakers, at least not yet. Terry Moe and John Chubb’s Liberating Learning, Paul Peterson’s Saving Schools, and Clayton Christensen et al.’s Disrupting Class all make the case for technology-based schools that substitute computers for human instruction. Someday that may be the dominant education-reform strategy, but that day is not today.

The most common type of education reform book from the period argued against the dominant strategies. Diane Ravitch’s The Death and Life of the Great American School System, Linda Darling-Hammond’s The Flat World and Education, Richard Rothstein’s Class and Schools, Daniel Koretz’s Measuring Up, Tony Wagner’s The Global Achievement Gap, and Deborah Meier’s In Schools We Trust, among many others, are notable for their opposition to incentive-based reforms. There have always been books opposing reforms embraced by the Establishment, but they were usually outliers. In the aughts, however, a large number of prominent books stood in opposition.

Why is it so difficult to identify a book that embodies the incentive-based reforms of the decade and relatively easy to list books that argue against them? One reason is that books have lost their place as primary vehicles for shaping education policy. Just like in other realms, books are being displaced by other media.

A film like Waiting for “Superman” can have considerably more influence over education policy than any book. Articles and reports can be released on the Internet as soon as they are written. Even blogs are swaying education policy discussions to a greater extent than books. The power of blogs is especially clear when it comes to debating the merits of the research on various policy questions. There is little point in writing a book that reviews and adjudicates research findings when online articles and blog posts can do the same thing and be available within days or even hours.

The lack of policy influence that is attributable to recent education-reform books is not for lack of sales. Some have even become national best sellers. The problem is that policymakers and other elites are less likely to be among their readers. Instead, the buyers increasingly seem to be those actively participating in education reform debates; the people actually shaping policy appear to be paying relatively little attention.

For example, teachers and others hostile to incentive-based reforms consume works by Diane Ravitch, Linda Darling-Hammond, and Tony Wagner to affirm their worldview. These books are not setting the agenda for policymakers. They are feeding the resentment of practitioners to an education reform agenda that draws its inspiration from nonbook sources and is advancing despite the hostility stirred by such books. These best-selling volumes are, in the words of their intellectual nemesis, “standing athwart history, yelling stop.”

But books are no longer up to the task of significantly altering, let alone stopping, education policy trends. Policy agendas are being shaped by online debates, articles, conferences, and documentary films—not by books. In policy terms, the education reform book is dead, even as education reform thrives.

There is hope. To paraphrase Miracle Max, the education reform book is only mostly dead. Its policy influence can be revived if authors steer clear of topics that are better addressed by other media. Blogs can evaluate research as it comes out and are quicker and cheaper to write as well as to read. Emotionally charged anecdotes can be shared to far greater effect in a documentary film. Books shouldn’t try to do what other media can do better, faster, and with greater ease.

Moreover, if book authors seek policy influence, they have to write with policy elites as their target audience. It may sell a lot of books to write for teachers or education school students, but those people no longer dominate policymaking discussions. There is a new set of elites interested in education policy who do not come from the traditional teaching or education school worlds. These people tend to be young and technology savvy, getting more of their information from the Internet than from books. They can still be reached by books, but the volume would have to be written with them in mind rather than the traditional educator audience.

Of course, there is nothing wrong with books that are not written with policy influence as their primary objective. The book geared for an academic audience or designed to encourage a partisan base will continue to have its place. But if there is a lesson from the last decade of education reform books for enhancing policy influence, it is that the education reform book is dead—or at least mostly dead.

Jay P. Greene is professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, senior fellow at the George W. Bush Institute, and contributing editor at Education Next.




Comment on this article
  • Peter Meyer says:

    Jay,

    I think you’re confusing the profusion of book-length ideas with their quality. The fact that no single book seems to have caught our attention the way “Death at an Early Age” did is not a testament to the quality of the books — then or now — but, perhaps, to their quantity. We are burdened with an abundance of wonderful books about education and how to fix it; which is no reason to write the obituary of school reform publishing. Nor should we blame the victim: just because our legislators have given up reading does not mean we should give up writing. Public school improvement, we hope, will re-instill a love of learning (which includes reading) in the next generation!

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Hi Peter,

    I didn’t mean to disparage the quality of the books over the last decade. I actually think we are offering the same argument — more competition is preventing any one or small set of books from having the same dominant influence over the policy agenda that books of previous decades did. The only difference between our arguments is that I emphasize the competition from new media rather than from the profusion of books, but of course both could be important explanations.

  • Tony Wagner says:

    Jay,
    I fear that educational ideology may be distorting perceptions of reality. My book, The Global Achievement Gap, has not been just purchased by the so-called nay-sayers. Since the book was published, I have been invited to speak to audiences from Wall Street to West Point, from Finland to Taiwain. The U.S. Army credits my book as the primary influence in their efforts to re-shape all of their training programs. http://www.politico.com/news/stories/0710/39750.html
    Policy makers from some of the countries that have the highest performing education systems in the world are considering ways in which their education policies and programs must be overhauled to meet the new challenges of learning and teaching in the 21st century. I have also had scores of emails and conversations with senior corporate executives who have affirmed the importance of teaching and assessing what I call the “Seven Survival Skills” and are making these skills the focus of their own in-house training programs.

    Jay, I believe you have framed the wrong question for this article: the question is not which books have inspired piecemeal education “reforms”–like the incentive programs you admire. Rather, the first question is: what books have pushed our thinking about the purposes of education in the 21st century and the ways in which education must be “reinvented?” And the second question is: why are our policy makers so out of touch with leaders in other sectors–including business and the military–who are busy transforming the education for which they are responsible?

  • Hi Tony,

    My task was to identify the books that shaped the education policy agenda over the last decade.  I believe that your book is being read “from Wall Street to West Point, from Finland to Taiwain” and by “senior corporate executives,” but these audiences are not education policymakers.

    My point about your and other well-selling books is that they are not shaping the thinking of education policymakers, which you confirm by asking, “why are our policy makers so out of touch with leaders in other sectors–including business and the military…?”

    Instead, I think we would both agree that your book along with books by Diane Ravitch and Linda Darling-Hammond stand in opposition to the approaches currently dominating the thinking of education policymakers. As I put it, “They are feeding the resentment of practitioners to an education reform agenda that draws its inspiration from nonbook sources and is advancing despite the hostility stirred by such books.”

    Whether it is a good or bad thing that policymakers — from the Obama administration to activist governors like Chris Christie — are ignoring these books is a debate for another day.

  • Alan Matan says:

    In order for us to collectively continue improving student achievement, there needs to be a variety of resources published in a many formats. It is only recent that I began to really look outside the walls of the school in which I have worked for 21 years. I have become a better educator by reading The Global Achievement Gap. Mr. Wagner was a keynote at our school a few years ago. There are so many quality books published, it is difficult to read all of them. But now there are so many different modes of communicating ideas from blogs, articles, podcasts, and videos. I have also communicating with other edupreneurs like myself, rejuvenating my batteries, seeing education in a whole different light. This is an exciting time. We all can help prepare our students to be ready for the 21st century global workplace.
    Alan Matan
    Implementing the Common Core

  • Leonie Haimson says:

    Jay: you were asked to ” highlight the education reform books, released over the last decade, that define currently dominant education-reform strategies”, and you conclude that this is impossible to achieve. I would argue that it is relatively easy. As the Ed Next poll shows, Diane Ravitch’s book wins by a mile. Just because it defines the dominant reforms in a negative way does not mean that it is not qualify.

    The truth is that the current wave of ed reform is being pushed and promoted by a fairly small group of elite players, who have not influenced people through their books or the power of their ideas, but as a result of their overwhelming money and power. Nevertheless, they have still not yet managed to persuade the majority of education stakeholders.

    Diane’s book critiques these elite players, whom she calls the “Billionaire Boys club”, as well as their predilection for privatization and the adoption of a business model for education, very effectively . Her perspective is also reflected and echoed in many widely read blogs across the country, including her own.

    To argue, as you seem to above, that because her book is not in agreement with status quo policies, it does not “define currently dominant education-reform strategies” seems to me to be unfounded.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    If I understand your argument, Leonie, you claim that “the current wave of ed reform is being pushed and promoted by a fairly small group of elite players” and that “Diane’s book critiques these elite players…” Sounds to me like you agree with me that Diane’s book stands in opposition to the currently dominant reform agenda rather than defining it.

    As to your (and Diane’s) point that the “overwhelming money and power” of the “Billionaire Boys club” control ed reform, I would just like to remind you and the readers that the NEA annually spends around $450 million advancing its political agenda (according to Mike Antonucci). And that’s not even counting the money spent by the AFT and other allied public sector unions. If you and Diane are so opposed to big money influencing education policy, when will you come out against the political activity of the teacher unions?

  • Leonie haimsonleo says:

    Of course Diane’s book is in opposition to the dominant narrative of education reform. Your refusing to acknowledge its importance is like saying Jane Jacobs’ book wasn’t a seminal work in city planning, because she opposed Robert Moses and destruction of neighborhoods in the name of “urban renewal.” Some day, current education policies will be recognized as just as destructive and wrongheaded. One hopes that day will come soon.

    As to your other point — the NEA represents thousands of people. You might not like them or agree with their views, because they are teachers, but this is hardly comparable to the handful of billionaires and wealthy hedge fund managers who have now hijacked ed policy in this nation.

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    The piece was not about what books were “important.” As you acknowledge in your comment, the purpose of the review was to “highlight the education reform books, released over the last decade, that define currently dominant education-reform strategies.” We both agree that Diane Ravitch’s recent book did not “define currently dominant education-reform strategies,” so I have no idea what the point of your comment is other than to testify to the importance of Diane and her book.

    As to the political influence of big money, why would it be OK with you for a distinct minority, even “thousand of people,” to have a disproportionate influence over policies that effect everyone by spending $450 million each year? I just want to understand your principles. Minority dominance over policy with big money is OK if it is more than a few people doing it?

  • Leonie Haimson says:

    Jay you miss my point; again. As I wrote in my first post, Diane does indeed effectively define the dominant narrative. Only she defines it in a negative way, which you don’t like.

    I wish public school parents and ordinary citizens had more power over ed policies. But right now they are being driven by a very few billionaires, who don’t even send their own kids to public schools and know absolutely nothing about education. Teachers do. Any effective and meaningful reform should take into account the views of teachers as to what will allow them to be more effective, just as the views of doctors should be taken into account when designing hospitals. As well as the views of parents and other stakeholder groups.

    Not, one would think a radical idea, but it seems to be among the current bunch of privateers.

  • Michael Hicks says:

    Much can be gleaned from this back and forth between Jay and Leonie. As for the article itself, Jay makes his point. As the owner of several books mentioned and illustrated in the article, I must agree with him as to their not defining, but protesting the current dominate ed reform strategies.

    No rational answer is given to explain the wasted millions spent by teacher unions on elections and other policy shaping efforts. Dollar for dollar, don’t more of the funds spent by the supposed sinister billionaires actually trickle down to students in schools?

    Perhaps I am guilty, too, of going off subject and turning every analysis of anything ed reform into a zero sum battle between the righteous ones and the teacher haters.

    That darn Professor Ravitch!

  • John P McCreary says:

    Thank you all for the delightful interchange! I discovered this article in search for books that would be useful for learning about international education reform. I am currently an undergrad at UT of Austin and would like to pursue a master’s in such a topic, for I would like to work/serve in a position that could help to direct influence on the critical need for greater emphasis on education, particularly in developing countries. Unfortunately, I am somewhat of a novice when it comes to matters of educational reform, especially in development, only having read articles here and there about such topics. Can any of you point me in the right direction, perhaps to some worthwhile books/articles/blogs to read or to someone that I could contact and further discuss this subject? Any advice you can offer would be greatly appreciated!

  • Jay P. Greene says:

    Thanks for the comment, John. For research on education in developing countries you might want to check out the work by Michael Kremer (http://www.economics.harvard.edu/faculty/kremer ) and Karthik Muralidharan (http://econ.ucsd.edu/~kamurali/).

    For a doctoral program you could check out my department (http://www.uark.edu/ua/der/PhDProgram.html ). We don’t emphasize developing countries but we have a great set of faculty and students with very generous financial support for qualifying students.

  • YINUSA OKANLAWON says:

    i love all the books but can get copies of them at subsidized rates considering being a pauper.

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