June 8, 2006

More on incrementalism or tinkering

Since I discussed incrementalism a few days ago, let me continue in that vein here and both praise and criticize the most prominent historians who advocate incremental school reform. Eleven years ago, David Tyack and Larry Cuban's Tinkering toward Utopia appeared, as a short but pithy analysis of top-down school reform efforts. It was not strictly geared at accountability as such (the book came out 7 years before NCLB!), but it is still one of the most popular books on education reform, both in course assignments and in popular outlets.

I'll gladly admit to being one of those who assigns it in a course. There is nothing else in print that makes such a tightly-constructed argument about the dangers of utopian education reform. They pick wonderful examples from the past and make solid historical that many readers see as subtle (such as the point that schools change reforms as much as the other way around). The book easily deserved the praise it has received and more.

And yet...

There is something quintissentially late-20th century in the book, not in the explicit arguments but in the basic assumption that incremental reform is more likely to stick and be successful than dramatic reform. Far from criticizing tinkering, they see real value in it and deliberately choose something as mundane as minor changes to classroom design to illustrate what they see as the ideal scale for school reform.

The fly in the ointment here—only made possible because the book is so fine—is desegregation. Desegregation is a perfect counter-example of a reform that was far from incremental in its plans or eventual execution (even if you or I might have wanted it to be different in several ways). There was really no way to "tinker" towards desegregation. Well, okay, there was, but that was the reason why there was no substantive desegregation for the first ten years after Brown. In her 1984 book The New American Dilemma, Jennifer Hochschild argued that desegregation was most effective (and had the least disruptive implementation) when it was sudden, without compromise, and affected the lives of the youngest children immediately. She pointed out that these traits conflicted with classic pluralist doctrine in political science, which emphasizes compromise and incrementalism as a fundamental feature of the American political system.

In Tinkering toward Utopia, at least, Tyack and Cuban write as pluralists, emphasizing incrementalism and compromise. Yet I think they would acknowledge that desegregation was a good thing, a necessary event. But I don't know how they would reconcile the two.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on June 8, 2006 12:19 AM |