How Fundamental Change Happens in America

Writing for the Fordham Institute, Chester E. Finn, Jr. presents an explanation of what is needed to fundamentally change schooling in America. Excerpts from the piece appear below:

What distinguishes problems we tackle in a serious way from those we mostly just wring our hands and protest over? What distinguishes those we merely tackle from those we more-or-less solve? And what distinguishes those we “sorta solve” from those that transform society in lasting ways?

Mostly, it appears to me, the push for significant change can originate from either of two directions. In the end, however, both are needed. From the top must come sustained leadership combined with bipartisan, or at least “centrist,” consensus that we’re looking at a major problem overdue for solving, that we’re ready to make big changes to do that, that we have the fortitude to stare down some vested interests, and that we’ll stick with it no matter who wins the next election. From the bottom comes popular understanding and acceptance, even ardor, for such changes. Either may come first, but both will be required. 

In K–12 education, where I mostly reside, the pandemic-connected shutdown has brought much anxiety about schools reopening, and we’ve already seen myriad “plans” for how that should be done. But only among pundits and think-tankers am I yet seeing much appetite for large and lasting change in how education gets delivered.

So let me ask again: What would it take for that to come about—and for this opportunity not to go to waste? I believe three ingredients would be key. In order of increasing difficulty, they are: (1) successful examples, (2) sustained leadership with a modicum of centrism or bipartisanship, and (3) a culture shift on the part of parents—or at least policy changes that enable those who can and want to shift to do so. 

Since one of the biggest deterrents to successful education innovation is people’s inability to imagine something they can’t actually see in action, examples matter—and they’re beginning to show up in a handful of foresighted districts and charter networks that were already savvy about technology, adroitly led, and (for the most part) small enough to be nimble.

By autumn I trust there will be more worthy examples.

As for leadership from the top, in a one-party community or state, that may not require bipartisanship. Thus we’ve seen sustained education reform in places like Florida and—in its way—California. But in most of America, including bellwether Massachusetts, big education change has required a commitment on both sides of the aisle to keep a reform agenda moving forward even when the governor or legislative leaders change. That’s not impossible today. It’s just harder than ever to achieve.

Yet culture shift will be the biggest challenge, and it goes beyond habits and attitudes to include the basic rhythms of family life in America. 

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