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The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas

reviewed by James Kauffman - March 02, 2011

coverTitle: The Same Thing Over and Over: How School Reformers Get Stuck in Yesterday's Ideas
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674055829, Pages: 304, Year: 2010
Search for book at Amazon.com

Every reasonably self-critical reviewer eyes the task of critiquing someone else’s work with considerable trepidation. He or she will remember that critics have described some great, enduring works as trivial and have proclaimed some trivial works immortal. Literate reviewers may know Mark Twain’s observation that “the trade of critic, in literature, music, and the drama, is the most degraded of all trades, and … has no real value—certainly no large value” (Smith, 2010, p. 339). Any reader might well question also the value of critiques of academic works. Twain went on, “It is the will of God that we must have critics, and missionaries, and Congressmen, and humorists, and we must bear the burden” (p. 340). Yet, who can read Mark Twain’s criticism of James Fenimore Cooper’s “literary offenses” (see etext.virginia.edu/railton/projects/rissetto/offense.html) without admiration?

Many scholars besides Hess have noted that school reform is the same thing over and over (e.g., Cuban, 1990, 2006). Perhaps, as some have suggested, history does not repeat itself exactly, but it rhymes. Metaphorically, if previous essays on school reform are the tomayto, this book is the potayto or, at best, the tomahto.

Hess is right about this: American public education needs reforming. But the idea that today’s reformers are no closer than yesterday’s to achieving needed change is not imaginative. Neither are most reformers’ key questions imaginative. Hess repeats the tired ideas of the earlier reformers he so justly criticizes: “the key question: Are our schools as they are now configured capable of accomplishing what we now ask of them?” (p. 1).

I admire some of the statements in this book. For example, I like Hess’s suggestions that we need instructional specialists and we need to group students based on what they need to learn. But my admiration of this book is bounded by many disappointments. Determined readers can catch glimmers of sound thinking. For example, Hess comes close to what matters most in school reform when he notes (on p. 27, with reference to others’ work) that there is a difference between school and schooling, that schools are organizations in which instruction occurs. But he never focuses squarely on instruction. Most of the book contains the same-old-same-old complaints about rut-stuck educational structures. Hess misses many opportunities to suggest something truly radical—focusing on instruction and scientific evidence about it rather than on the configuration of schools. Configuration has preoccupied reformers for more than a century, so I am left wondering about this book’s value.

I wrote this book hoping to encourage those willing to search for an alternate trail to do so, and to suggest some promising paths they might explore. I do not claim to know precisely the shape that the trails ahead should or will take. (p. 209)

This, too, is a familiar refrain: “I don’t know how schools should change, but the important thing is that they do.” Not a good strategy for getting off the treadmill on which Hess bounds. “Unfortunately, all this frenetic bounding hasn’t added up to much. The faster we’ve sought to run, the harder it’s been to recognize the treadmill on which we’re running” (p. 211). Indeed. True even for entrepreneurs, as Cuban (2006) notes.

In Chapter 7, Hess drops any disguise of his anti-school-as-we know-it sentiments, calling even a local district a “monopoly” on how schools are run—and it is the running of schools, not the teaching of students, that is his preoccupation. Like so many others who have written of school reform—whether the liberal “progressives” that he so rightly disparages or the conservatives or libertarians, whose hubris he ignores or assigns to science—he assumes that the root problem is how education is managed, funded, designed (no, not instructional design… perhaps architectural or administrative design), and overseen. “But it may be that the problem is less with inept reformers than with a philosophy of school improvement and a system of schooling that renders success impossible” (p. 130). Hess seems not to see the contradiction here of his own claim that the key question is configuration, a philosophy of how schools should be organized—no, more exactly, how they should not be organized. He seems to be an admirer of philosopher John Stuart Mill but misses Mill’s implications for instruction. Because of its recent publication, he may be forgiven his unawareness that a book by Engelmann and Carnine (2011) explicitly links Mill’s logical analyses to instructional design, although nearly three decades ago Engelmann and Carnine (1982) published a theory of instruction not as meticulously linked to Mill’s ideas.

Occasionally, Hess seems on the verge of getting off the treadmill. “We have the power to take another road, if we find the strength to free ourselves from the heavy hand of the past. The choice that lies before us is whether or not to do so” (p. 232). But the “road” we should seek is, to him, organizational or structural, a path with a trailhead marked “configuration.” School reform is hung up on the idea that we must change something other than instruction to realize the goal of helping all students learn all they can, and this obsession with the organizational structure or configuration of schools has led to predictable frustration and disappointment (see, Engelmann, 2007).   

Among my many disappointments in this book is Hess’s depiction of science as something applicable only to the structure of schools or to testing and leading surely to hubristic claims. “Science is always an awkward, lurching process [true]—although the search for new orthodoxies and the accompanying faith in the power of their new tests, assessments, and measurements has (sic) repeatedly led would-be reformers down the path of hubris” (p. 128). Science is not an inevitable path to hubris, nor is it the only path.

Hess connects competing schools of thought on instruction to the Greek philosophers (e.g., pp. 101, 106-107) as if instruction is merely a philosophical matter and we have no means of choosing one instructional method over another on an empirical basis. This kind of agnosticism characterized medieval medicine and, as he so amply demonstrates, is typical of many educators today (Cuban, 2006). He writes, “Rather than seek consensus and uniformity, let us revel in a world of schooling that embraces competing pedagogies, missions, and approaches” (p. 38). Competing pedagogies? Just suppose that scientific investigations reveal the best pedagogy? What then? He writes that, “Effective teachers may share certain instructional practices or habits…” (p. 149). Does it matter that we find out what these are? Could science help us find out?

“Scientific research is a powerful tool, but we should have no illusions that researchers will settle value-laden debates or identify the ‘correct’ way to arrange, govern, staff, or provide schooling” (p. 203). Using the tool of science first on something other than instruction is probably a foolish way to try to improve schools. Furthermore, no credible scientist suggests that science can tell us what our values should be. Hess asks rhetorically, “If science alone cannot deliver us clear direction, what can point us toward the trailhead?” (p. 204). He does not answer, but presumably it is philosophy, not science. If we continue Hess’s metaphor, science won’t tell us what trail to take, although science might be able to tell us something about what we might find on it. He seems to suggest that if science can’t tell us everything then it will tell us nothing of value, or that because science has been abused or pseudoscience has been mistaken for the real thing, we should steer clear of science. Alas, portrayal of science as untrustworthy and inapplicable to many real-world problems has become trendy (Specter, 2007).

What a pity! Another bright observer of failed school reform has called it failed but mistaken the cause of its failure. Were he alive today, Mark Twain might list education reformers—along with missionaries, Congressmen, and humorists—among the burdens we must bear. But that is only my opinion as critic, which Mark Twain reminds me may have no value at all.


Cuban, L. (1990). Reforming again, again, and again. Educational Researcher, 19(1), 3-13.

Cuban, L. (2006). Educational entrepreneurs redux. In F. M. Hess (Ed.), Educational entrepreneurship: Realities, challenges, possibilities (pp. 223-242). Cambridge, MA: Harvard Education Press.

Engelmann, S. (2007). Teaching needy kids in our backward system: 42 years of trying. Eugene, OR: ADI Press.

Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (1982). Theory of instruction: Principles and applications. New York: Irvington.

Engelmann, S., & Carnine, D. (2011). Could John Stuart Mill have saved our schools? Verona, WI: Attainment.  

Smith, H. E. (Ed.). (2010). Autobiography of Mark Twain, Vol. 1. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Specter, M. (2009). Denialism: How irrational thinking hinders scientific progress, harms the planet, and threatens our lives. New York: Penguin.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: March 02, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16356, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:24:39 AM

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About the Author
  • James Kauffman
    University of Virginia
    E-mail Author
    JAMES M. KAUFFMAN, Ed.D., is Professor Emeritus of Education at the University of Virginia. A former teacher in general and special education, he has been a faculty member at the University of Virginia since 1970. His two most recent books are The Tragicomedy of Public Education: Laughing and Crying, Thinking and Fixing (published by Attainment, 2010) and Toward a Science of Education: The Battle Between Rogue and Real Science (published by Attainment, 2011). He co-edited The Handbook of Special Education with Daniel P. Hallahan (to be published in April, 2011 by Routledge).
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