The Fragile Promise of Provisionality

James S. Liebman, Columbia Law School
Charles F. Sabel, Columbia Law School


We argue first that the new architecture of educational reform has emerged from the fusion of a top-down national movement for standards and bottom-up initiatives, some of the latter associated with Deweyan progressivism. A key feature of the reform architecture is its use of error-detection to compensate for design deficiencies. No one initially knows how to build a school system that enables poor and minority students to read and do mathematics at levels attained by rich white students. But following experimentation, error-detection and correction at the lowest levels to find out what works, higher level structures can be adjusted to generalize what is learned and encourage more refined error detection, and so on. With regard to reading, for example, all students learn by some idiosyncratic combination of decoding strings of letters/phonemes (phonics) and derivation of the meaning of words and sentences from context ("whole language" method). Teachers in the new system identify the strengths and weaknesses of each student's mixture of strategies by sampling their skills in brief, daily sessions, and suggest improvements. The performance of students in the same grade then is measured periodically statewide by a standardized test, allowing for the comparison of the performance of teachers within classrooms, schools, and districts. The job of principals is to create conditions in the school for generalizing the successes of the most effective teachers, and the job of the principals' superior – the district superintendent – is to create conditions for diffusing the successes of the most effective principals.