Why Public Schools Need Less Regulation

Local educators have creative ideas, but federal rules are binding them too tightly

pubschool-body.jpgPicture the following scenario. You ask your friend to come up with a creative meal that will amaze your guests at a dinner party you are holding, but you impose some constraints. Your friend can only use the ingredients from a restrictive list and must follow the specific directions from a meal you cooked these same guests just weeks earlier.


"Over the past couple of decades policymakers have begun focusing on student outcomes, but they haven't loosened their controlling grip on the inputs"

are the odds that your friend makes something innovative? Not good. After all, you've practically defined the solution by specifying nearly all of its inputs before she can even consider what she might cook.

A far better way to generate an innovative solution is to define the outcome you need -- a five-course meal for eight -- and then allow your friend to figure out the best way to get there.

Focusing on inputs has a way of locking us into a set way of doing things and inhibiting our ability to innovate. On the other hand, focusing on outcomes encourages continuous improvement toward an overall set of goals.

Unfortunately, the latter isn't the way we manage our public school system today. Policymakers exert significant control over the inputs in public schools. Their theory seems to be that if we control the resources and processes in our schools, great things will happen.

As a result, school districts are heavily restricted in terms of how they can spend taxpayer dollars and how they cannot. There are district -- or even statewide -- textbook adoption processes that determine what content can and cannot enter a classroom. Principals often have limited authority to manage the school calendar or hirings in ways that would be advantageous for their school's populations.

Representative John Kline (R-MN) recently introduced an act that would change a piece of that. The State and Local Funding Flexibility Act would give states and districts much more flexibility in how they spend federal education dollars -- in effect, trusting local educators to make the best decisions for their students. But Kline's measure created a firestorm when he introduced it shortly after July 4. Opponents fired back that it would unravel much of what the Department of Education has accomplished over the last half century and undermine students' civil rights.

As always with proposals of this nature, the devil is in the details, but there is a strong logic to Kline's basic premise. Over the past couple of decades policymakers have begun focusing on student outcomes -- and taken to demanding accountability for them. But they haven't loosened their controlling grip on the inputs -- the resources and processes schools can use to deliver those outcomes.

No sane business would operate in this manner. What we do today in education is the equivalent of telling a manager that we are going to hold her accountable for a profit-and-loss statement, but that she has no power to change the current operations.

As it happens, there are a number of exciting new tools educators could be exploring if policymakers would grant them that flexibility. The Internet has brought about customization in all parts of our society, and its potential to customize learning in our schools is breathtaking.

Presented by

Michael Horn is Executive Director of Innosight Institute, a nonprofit think tank focused on education and innovation, and the author of Disrupting Class.

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