In Search Of An Education Breakthrough

by Clint Bolick, Kate J. Hardiman
Wednesday, January 13, 2021
Image credit: 

Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from Unshackled: Freeing America’s K–12 Education System, by Clint Bolick and Kate J. Hardiman, newly published by the Hoover Institution Press. Click here to buy a copy.

Take a moment for a thought experiment.

If you were creating the ideal American elementary and secondary education system from scratch, with absolutely no preconceptions derived from the current system and with the full range of technological tools at your disposal, what would it look like?

If you give this exercise even a modicum of thought, chances are that the model you come up with would look little like the ossified, monopolistic, monolithic, top-down, bureaucratic, command-and-control, hidebound, wasteful, inefficient, brick-and-mortar, one-size-fits-all, special-interest-dominated system to which most of America’s children are consigned.

Education is America’s great conundrum. Its structure and outcomes have largely remained the same since the early 1900s despite waves of “reform” and a rapidly evolving society. We are the greatest, freest, most productive nation in the world, yet our primary and secondary educational system is mediocre compared to those of other industrialized nations. Though there is seemingly little that anyone agrees on in American public life these days, the general consensus is (and has been for decades) that something is wrong with our public education system.

The best and brightest students from the entire globe flock to our nation’s colleges and universities, yet our K–12 schools are so feeble that most high school graduates need remedial courses when they get to college. We remain the most cutting-edge nation in terms of technological innovation, yet our educational institutions are largely untouched, and certainly untransformed, by the breathtaking advances that have profoundly affected and improved almost every other aspect of our lives. We spend more on K–12 education than almost every other nation, yet our fiercest international competitors produce far-better-educated students for less money. Our educational system produces only a fraction of the skilled workers needed for high-tech jobs. We cannot continue to compete effectively in a global economy if our educational system continues to produce such dismal results.

Our education system not only fails to reflect our national commitments; it rejects them.

We measure educational quality in terms of dollars spent rather than results obtained, with little accountability for the allocation of billions in taxpayer funds.

We believe in merit-based compensation, yet we pay teachers based largely on seniority, not for how much students learn.

We are averse to bureaucracies, yet we spend lavishly on administrators who contribute little to the educational enterprise, and they are paid far higher salaries than our best teachers.

We have well-intentioned philanthropic funders from the technology sector who invest in the stagnant status quo rather than in bringing disruptive innovation to the educational marketplace in ways that fueled their own entrepreneurial success.

We made a solemn commitment more than sixty years ago to provide equal educational opportunities for all American children regardless of race; yet despite enormous investments, the vast majority of students trapped in failing public schools are those who need education improvements the most, including low-income and minority schoolchildren.

We embrace choice and competition for virtually every important product and service in our lives, but we resist choice and competition for the service most central to our children’s future.

If someone who lived in the late 1800s were to teleport to the present day, that person would recognize almost nothing about life in America. Nothing, that is, except our schools, which have changed remarkably little in the past 125 years. Most students still attend the brick-and-mortar school assigned based on their zip code (though these schools are now far larger). They sit in rows focused (or not) on one teacher in the front of the classroom. The schools are organized into districts whose boundaries are usually unchanged, despite shifting demographics. That nineteenth-century factory model adequately served generations of American students (less so those who were segregated into inferior schools) through much of the twentieth century. Yet it works poorly for most children in the twenty-first century. Sadly, we are bound to that system by nostalgia, inertia, lack of imagination, and the political muscle of some of the nation’s most powerful special-interest groups.


Were we to loosen those bonds, we would enable our largely untapped capacity to deliver a personalized, high-quality education to every student. Education that reflects the values, abilities, needs, interests, and aspirations of children and their families. Education that harnesses our technological power and can be accessed in traditional settings, at home, or in a blended experience. Education that equips American students for the ever-evolving challenges that will determine our nation’s future freedom and prosperity on the world stage.

Our new book is primarily about the policy changes necessary to bring our educational system, perhaps kicking and screaming, into the twenty-first century. Although we highlight many effective educational models and innovations, we do not prescribe all of them for all students. We have had far too many prescriptions from self-styled experts who “know what works,” and we have wasted precious resources in pursuit of educational conformity. Instead, we propose policies to facilitate innovation, reward excellence, increase parental choice, and promote accountability. With enough options and the power to choose among them, families can determine what works best for their children, those who contribute most to the educational process will be rewarded, and success can be replicated.

Creating a twenty-first-century educational system requires a willingness to embrace fundamental change, which in turn calls upon us to diagnose the current system’s failures and learn from several decades of failed or low-impact reforms. As we develop further in our book, a clear-eyed assessment of the status quo yields at least ten basic principles, all of them interrelated and mutually reinforcing, that should guide a transformative education policy agenda. We should measure every education policy by these principles:

The school system is a means to an end, not an end in itself.

We are mired in educational mediocrity and dysfunction in large part because we confuse means and ends. Schools were created because they were an efficient and effective way to educate students. Often, they still are. But if they ever cease to be the optimal way to educate children, or if they are not the best means of educating a particular child, the system should not be exalted to the detriment of each child’s learning and development.

The most frequent and effective accusation hurled against any type of meaningful education reform is that it will hurt public schools. In nearly all instances, those challenges arise when a proposal permits public funds to flow to schools other than traditional public schools, which is conflated with hurting public schools. If traditional public schools provided an optimal education to every child, then as a matter of public policy we should support them exclusively. But they don’t, which means we face a choice between supporting schools as ends in themselves, regardless of how well or poorly they perform, or enabling students to pursue educational opportunities in some other fashion. Those who genuinely care about our children’s future should focus less on defending systems, whatever they are, and instead dedicate themselves to enabling students to achieve their full potential.

Public education should be concerned about whether, not where, kids are learning.

Related to the first principle is the crucial conceptual difference between public schools and public education. Education can take place in a public school, some other type of school, at home, in front of a computer screen, or in some hybrid experience. When a student sits in a public school learning little, the obligation (guaranteed in every state’s constitution) of providing a public education is not advanced. Children learning in a private school or at home advance the goals of public education, even though they are not in a public school.

Much of the energy against education reform is directed toward preventing children from pursuing options outside traditional public schools, even where many of those schools are failing and alternatives exist. When such efforts deprive children of high-quality educational opportunities, they do not advance the goals of public education; they defeat them.

Education policy should be about kids, not adults.

Too often debates over education policy are driven by what benefits the grown-ups in the system rather than what tangibly benefits children. That gets the public education equation exactly backward: decisions should be made based on what benefits students.

No one in our society provides a more important service than the men and women educating our children. Those who do so effectively should be rewarded commensurately (we do explore ways to do that far more generously and effectively than we do today). But public schools are not a jobs program. We need to attract the best and the brightest to the vital task of education while refusing to subsidize mediocrity and unnecessary bureaucracy. Every education policy should be assessed on how and whether it will benefit students.

We should recognize that every child is different.

All children have unique needs, talents, aspirations, and personalities, yet most schools are not organized to effectively teach children as individuals. For the past century and a half, K–12 education has been about grouping children: into grades based on their age; into schools according to their zip code; into school districts according to arbitrary and obsolete (and sometimes impenetrable) boundaries; into classes according to their perceived abilities. Teachers often teach to the middle, leaving brighter students bored and more challenged students behind.

Traditional public schools are remarkably inflexible. Try getting an advanced middle school student into high school classes—a nearly impossible feat in most districts. Try getting extra help or resources for a student who has difficulty with certain tasks without going through the painstaking process of having your child declared learning-disabled (even if the student does not have a disability) and obtaining an individualized education plan. Imagine how difficult it is for parents who themselves lack education or resources to obtain individualized services for their children, especially in a massive, impersonal school district.

Technology makes “groupified” learning obsolete. Integrating computers as an important part of the learning environment allows students to proceed at their own pace in every subject. One child may have a talent or passion for math, another for language or science or writing. Frequent testing indicates when students have achieved mastery or need extra help. Customized instruction is highly flexible and efficient, providing education tailored to each child’s unique needs and abilities.

Schools should operate like businesses.

Another effective reform opposition tactic is to decry proposed changes as “privatization” that would turn public schools into the likes of McDonald’s. We should ask ourselves why those arguments are persuasive. We rely on private businesses to provide the vast majority of goods and services. They generally do a good job, and those that don’t go out of business. And at Burger King, you can “have it your way,” whereas at most public schools (or other government service providers), you emphatically cannot.

Many of our reform proposals involve injecting greater choice, competition, and business principles into the education enterprise. We recognize that at least for the foreseeable future, most education will be provided by government actors. But the rules of economics are not suspended at the schoolhouse doors: public schools can and do respond to market forces like consumer choice. Whether as taxpayers, parents, or even teachers employed in public schools, we should welcome and not fear this development. For those who champion educational opportunities for children, the fact that they may be provided by someone outside the public sector does not discount the possibility that they may provide excellent services. And it’s important that such providers face consequences for failure.

Power over education should be allocated to those who have the greatest stake in children’s success.

Many debates over education policy focus on money, specifically how much is spent and whether it is equally distributed. To stoke systemic change, we need to worry less about money and focus more on power (including who controls the vast amounts of money spent on public education). In our public schools today, politicians have power. School boards have power. Bureaucrats have power. Unions have power. Principals, who are answerable to superintendents, who are answerable to politicians, who are answerable to those who supported their campaigns, do not have power commensurate with the central role they play in the effective delivery of educational services. Teachers, at least individually, do not have power, even though they affect educational outcomes much more than anyone else. Most unfortunately, many parents, especially those who are poor, do not have power, despite the fact that they have the greatest stake in their children’s opportunities and success.

We need to reverse that perverse misallocation of power. Those with the greatest stake in and responsibility for children’s educational success lack the essential power to control outcomes. They are subject to the whims, caprice, self-interest, and misguided best intentions of those who are not directly responsible for children’s success. Schools themselves should have authority to direct resources as their needs dictate, as well as control over personnel decisions. Public policy should be measured by how much power it provides to those on the educational front lines: principals, teachers, and especially parents.

Funds should be allocated toward students, not schools.

The most effective way to transfer power over education is through the purse strings. Private businesses must attract and satisfy customers to survive. Most governmental entities do not. Funding for government entities is a political decision, meaning that those who desire increased funding apply pressure to elected officials rather than appealing to consumers. This is not entirely true for public schools—many are funded partly on a per-capita basis, that is, based on the number of students—but funding is primarily a decision made by state legislators or school district officials.

Imagine the transformation if students were the primary source of public school funding. Schools would be focused on attracting and retaining students by offering a distinctive, high-quality, responsive educational product. The power of politicians and special-interest groups would be reduced. The biggest beneficiaries would be low- to middle-income parents, who lack any real power in the current system. Placing at their disposal the significant resources expended on their education would shift power with great consequence. “Backpack funding,” where the money follows the children to their school of choice, must be a central feature of systemic education reform.

Variety should be the spice of education.

Public schools are, by and large, remarkably homogenous. Chances are that on any given day, most schools in a district—or an entire state—will be teaching the same thing at the same time in the same way. Common Core (though many states have rejected it and some never implemented it) arguably exacerbated this standardization.

Educational options should be as numerous and varied as the students who pursue them. Families should be able to choose from a menu of alternatives, even combining public and nonpublic education. Schools should be free to break the mold to serve their students and control their own budgets, unleashing their untapped potential. We should encourage innovation both inside and outside the public schools and allow students to mix and match options that best match their needs and abilities.

Education providers should be held responsible for outcomes.

For the freest nation on earth, our K–12 school system is amazingly prescriptive. The government tells public schools what they must teach, when they must teach it, whom they can hire, what salaries they must pay, and so on. Public education focuses on inputs, not outcomes. Who cares if teachers who can’t teach are certified? Who cares if the best teachers have never spent a day in education school?

We should worry less about how schools operate and more about whether they are effective. That doesn’t necessarily translate into a standardized testing regime, but it does require us to effectively measure progress and achievement. Vast strides have been made in measuring value added—that is, how much a student progresses in light of where that student started. We should generously reward schools and teachers that take underperforming students and move them to grade level. Bad teachers should be fired and bad schools closed; good teachers should be well compensated, and effective educational providers rewarded.

Reforms should be adopted with an urgency that reflects the reality.

How many times have we embraced broad, sweeping national or state-level reforms that promise results over the long term? They have rarely fulfilled their great promise, despite consuming large sums of taxpayer and philanthropic dollars. Worst of all, they provide false promise to families and students who need results not at some point in the future but today. Our policy agenda should reflect the short time horizon that students have: a child who cannot read after third grade may never remediate; a student who lacks basic skills in high school has little hope of graduation, college, or a productive livelihood.

If we cannot produce a school system that provides a high-quality education to the vast majority of students, we should at least have an exit strategy for families to pursue different options. Whatever we do, we must realize that the one commodity in the shortest supply is time.