Where Al Shanker Stood: Policymaking And Innovation

In this piece, which was published in the New York Times on December 24, 1995, Al Shanker uses a creative analogy to argue that policies require experimentation and refinement before they are brought to scale, and that some reformers mistake this process for rigidity and "stifling innovation."

A couple of weeks ago, the New York Times food section ran an article about a French bread that you can make with a food processor (November 22, 1995). The article claimed that the baguette was as delicious as the kind you buy in a good bakery. I was skeptical. I have made bread for my family and friends for a number of years, and I know that a good French loaf is a real accomplishment. I had no trouble believing that the bread would be quick and easy. But delicious? Nevertheless, I tried the recipe for Thanksgiving. It was terrific!

Though making the bread was as painless as the article said, the process by which Charles van Over, a chef and restaurateur, arrived at the recipe was anything but simple. Van Over experimented over a period of several years in order to get a bread with the best possible texture, flavor, and crust - and a recipe that could be made with predictable results by other cooks. It occurred to me as I read the article that there might be some lessons for school reformers in van Over's systematic efforts to perfect his recipe for a food processor baguette.

Van Over thought his first batch of bread was pretty good - but not good enough. So he went on working and reworking the recipe and playing with the different variables in the recipe. He experimented with different flours, types of yeast, water temperatures, and rising times. In the course of this experimentation, he discovered that chlorinated water impeded the growth of the yeast, so he began using spring water. Another chef suggested that he use the metal blade of the food processor instead of the plastic one. He did and liked the result, so that, too, became part of his recipe.

In the end, van Over had a bread that resembled its excellent prototype. This was quite an accomplishment. But even more impressive is the fact that ordinary people can make this bread in ordinary kitchens, with a one-minute mixing time, and be sure of getting good results. Van Over continues to "refine his techniques [but] he now believes he has come close to the near-ideal combination of the best quality with the least effort."

What would have happened if van Over had proceeded like some school reformers instead of like a baker?

He might have rejected the idea of adapting French bread for a food processor in the first place. Too traditional. Not innovative enough. And not American, anyway. Never mind the fact that French people have been enjoying it for years, and it is admired as a standard all over the world.

If he had gone ahead, it's unlikely that he would have tried to get exact ingredients and procedures - many school reformers stop when they have a general idea of what they want. People would have implemented this general idea in all kinds of ways, and most of them would have been disappointed with the results. ("This is French bread?") So they would soon have abandoned van Over's idea and started looking for the next new fad in baking.

But Van Over knew that he needed more than an appealing idea with some general guidelines about ingredients and proportions. So he tested results and refined procedures until he had created a recipe that was excellent and certain to succeed. If this were school reform instead of cooking, would he get applause for developing a reliable way of getting children to understand a particular idea? I don't think so. He'd be more likely to hear, "It's OK for him, but our situation is different," and complaints that his detailed procedures stifled creativity.

I wish I could say this is an exaggeration but it's not. Many school reformers would not consider working for years to figure out every detail of their system and trying it a thousand times to make sure it would work for everybody. (Often, they have no proof that it will work for anybody.) And if they did subject their idea to the van Over method, it would probably be rejected because the procedures they developed would be considered too rigid.

We could laugh about the absurdity of these ideas if their results were not tragic. In cooking, as in medicine and pharmacology and every branch of pure and applied science, innovators understand that they must perfect a procedure before going public with it - and the people who use a new procedure feel obliged to follow it exactly because it is far superior to the "creative" ideas they can come up with on the spur of the moment.

This is not an attack on all school reformers. Fortunately some are working carefully, trying out their ideas, and getting them right before recommending them for general use. They must be distinguished from those -- unfortunately many -- who do not follow this path.

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