NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

An "American" Approach to K-12 School Reform

November 21, 2011

All too often, lawmakers and everyday consumers propose the same solution to America's current education woes: we need to be more like nation "X."  Inevitably, nation "X" is one of those countries that they've read about in recent weeks that is churning out math and science-proficient students at record paces while American struggles to help students pass bare minimum standardized tests.  However, this solution is not one worth pursuing for two reasons.  First, it assumes that strategies employed in other nations can work in the United States, and second, it precludes the use of America's comparative advantages, says Frederick M. Hess, a resident scholar and director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

This first point is demonstrated by the sheer demographic uniqueness of the United States.

  • By population, it's the third largest country in the world, and it boasts the most racially and culturally diverse society in history.
  • This is a huge impediment for those who dream of mimicking national policies suited to tiny islands of homogeneity (like Finland).
  • This international envy is unproductive as it fails to recognize the basic principle that what works there may not work here; or at least, it may not work as well.

The second point requires a great deal more explanation, because many question why America is rapidly falling behind in education if it is in fact in possession of comparative advantages.

  • The answer is that lawmakers do not allow the advantages of America's uniqueness to come to fruition.
  • One such advantage is the federalist system, such that the United States has 50 chambers in which to experiment with any given policy.
  • Additionally, the United States must embrace its historical background in entrepreneurialism and business innovation by recognizing the value of various for-profits and non-profits that have begun to become big players in education.
  • Non-profits like Teach for America, Florida Virtual School, The New Teacher Project, Carpe Diem and Citizen Schools, along with various for-profits, present new opportunities for growth and innovation, and should be recognized as such.

Source: Frederick M. Hess, "An 'American' Approach to K-12 School Reform," The Atlantic, November 14, 2011.

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