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Barriers to Improvement

By Paul Hill

If there is one finding common among all assessments of K-12 initiatives, it is that nothing works as dramatically its advocates expect. This is true of big national programs like Head Start and Porter-Obey (school redesign) as well as more localized efforts like professional development programs, uses of technology, and new schools.

Advocates always complain that their ideas weren't faithfully implemented, and they usually have a point. New ideas must be adapted to work in a system where most action is predetermined by regulations, contracts, and constraints on use of time and money. In most cases new ideas have their edges ground off, in order to fit with established uses of time, money, staff, and facilities.

I first saw this in the late 1980s while studying site-based management, under which schools could make any change they wanted as long as it did not violate any regulation governing time, money hiring, or teacher assignment. Schools tried ideas, but implementation was weak, compromised, and temporary.

Public education wants and needs new ideas, but it blocks their implementation and prevents their getting a real test. That's another reason why some market elements - school level freedom in spending, staffing structures hiring and assignment, use of time, class sizes, etc. - are essential preconditions for innovation in public education. Innovation also requires accountability (weak ideas once tested must be abandoned) and family choice (if schools are different by design, no child should be forced to attend a particular school).

If these market elements really existed in public education who knows what reasonable ideas, once subject to inadvertently biased testing and subsequently pushed aside, might look promising? Who knows what new ideas, now clearly too infeasible to merit development, might emerge?


Paul T. Hill is the John and Marguerite Corbally Professor and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell. His latest book is Learning as We Go: Why School Choice is Worth the Wait (Hoover Institution Press, 2010).

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