1. Require all schools everywhere to follow the same detailed laws and regulations. Filter all decisions through a large, central bureaucracy. Vest ultimate policy-making power in the hands of people whose elections do not depend to any meaningful degree on their stands (or lack thereof) on education.
2. Allow educational policy to be set locally. Allow wide variations in approach. Vest decision-making power in local boards elected specifically to govern educational issues.
We are living through the first approach. It is inherently risk-averse. What it does best is minimize the worst-case scenario, preventing schools from falling below a certain basement-level standard, as measured by whatever the popular metric is. That comes at the cost, though, of constraining people from doing the sorts of things that might produce unusually good schools: experimenting, drawing on local knowledge and experience, departing from the conventional wisdom, pursuing unique alternative visions. Although our governor claims he wants to create “world class schools,” his wholesale embrace of the first approach pretty much guarantees mediocrity.
I like the second approach. Since communities differ on what they want from their schools, the second approach would, almost by definition, be likely to satisfy more people. It would free local communities to try a wide variety of policies, so its potential upside would be greater than that of the first approach. And because it would be more democratically accountable to the people it affects, it would have at least some built-in check against sub-basement outcomes. But I don’t deny that there’s a tradeoff—that any policy that permits wider variation opens the door to both better and worse outcomes than you’d get under a system of enforced mediocrity. I think the risk is worth taking, but I can understand how someone could disagree.
The people I don’t get are the ones who accept the premise that education policy should be uniform and centralized, but argue that we should just adopt really great uniform, centralized policies. They never stop hoping for shiny red apples to come out of the sausage grinder. Outstanding schools, however you might define them, aren’t likely to come out of a system that’s practically designed to prevent outliers.