Poor Man's Choice


Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution, 307 pages, $28.95/$10.95 paper

Throughout the 1980s, the debate about education reform in the United States generated more heat than light. Most proposals were not useful, and some appear to have done more harm than good. Despite all the commissions and all the reports produced in the last decade, spending on American high schools increased, while test scores fell.

But in the late 1980s, several books showed that the key to a successful high school is autonomy. High schools that have principals who are freely able to implement their authority and teachers with a substantial say in what and how they teach tend to produce better students than schools where the principal acts as a middle manager and teachers are chained to a curriculum prepared by the central office. These conclusions have been reached by neoconservatives (James Coleman and Thomas Hoffer in Public and Private High Schools, 1987), conservatives (Gerald Grant in What We Learned at Hamilton High, 1988), and liberals such as John E. Chubb, a Brookings Institution senior fellow, and Terry M. Moe, a Stanford University political scientist.

Most of the reforms the authors propose in Politics, Markets, and America's Schools are not new. They do not differ in substance or nature from the decentralizing strategies proposed by Christopher Jencks and his allies at the Office of Economic Opportunity in the early 1970s. Moreover, the authors' public-school choice plan does not go as far as education vouchers, which have been advocated both by conservatives (chiefly at the Heritage Foundation) and by such liberals as Berkeley law professor John Coons.

But the publication of a book such as this by the prestigious Brookings Institution dramatically changes the nature of the education debate. Politics, Markets, and America's Schools was the subject of major articles in the New York Times and the Washington Post; a summary of the book by Chubb occupied most of the op-ed page of the Wall Street Journal. If Chubb and Moe worked for a conservative organization, they would not have received such attention.

Producing Politics, Markets, and America's Schools took the authors several years. As early as 1983, Chubb and Moe decided to expand the High School and Beyond data base (the largest set of data about American high schools) to look at how schools were organized. They sent out surveys, which were returned by 402 principals and 10,370 teachers throughout the United States. The authors then fed the data into their computers, crunched numbers, and produced this book.

Like most social science, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools is better at analyzing what doesn't work than at explaining what does. The authors are most persuasive in showing that all the changes proposed by Secretary of Education Terrel Bell in 1983 and 1984 were at best ineffective and at worst wrongheaded. Lengthening the school year, imposing stricter graduation requirements, and reducing class size, Chubb and Moe found, had little effect on high school achievement. The amount of money spent per student also made little difference; a good school was as likely to be found in the inner city as in a wealthy suburb.

And some "reforms," Chubb and Moe argue, make matters worse: Raising certification requirements for teachers (either through mandating more courses or requiring national examinations) ensures that more good students will choose other careers because they are unable to stand the mind-numbing rigmarole of schools of education.

What does make a good high school? The authors found that schools where teachers and principals had a considerable degree of autonomy tended to produce better students than schools where staff freedom was checked by unions or by the central office. In 61 percent of the ineffective schools surveyed, unions restricted the principal's ability to fire teachers; only 21 percent of the effective schools had similar union controls. In ineffective schools, school boards had an above-average influence on curriculum 59 percent of the time; in effective schools, only 43 percent of the school boards had a similar influence.

To remove the bureaucratic barriers that ensure bad schools, the authors call for public-school choice. They support this reform for both Gorbachevian and Maoist reasons. For Chubb and Moe, turning high schools into a socialist marketplace is a form of perestroika—removing entrenched central planners, smashing existing hierarchies, and transferring power from the central office to principals and teachers. Like Mao, the authors see choice as a form of permanent revolution: Choice, they feel, is the only reform that will ensure that bureaucrats and unions cannot regain their former clout. Only by destroying the power-centralizing mechanisms that have governed public schools for most of the century, they argue, can American education be successfully reformed.

But in calling for public-school choice, Chubb and Moe rely not on their statistical evidence but on theories about the nature of bureaucracies that build on the work of James Q. Wilson. Such theories, while interesting and persuasive, are not facts. It is possible, applying a different theory (such as school-based management), to construct a public-school system that would provide principals and teachers with the autonomy they need while avoiding choice entirely.

Furthermore, the authors propose a top-down method of implementing choice. Parents in the Chubb-Moe system would go to a "Parent Information Center," read descriptions of schools, and register for the ones they want. Once the parents' choices were counted, the school district would allocate funds. Parents would not receive any government aid directly.

But changing social programs from above rarely works. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, for example, the federal government and the Ford Foundation attempted, and largely failed, to implement tenant management of public housing nationally. Because most tenants weren't ready to accept change and resented outsiders telling them what to do, most of the original tenant-management corporations failed. Only when tenants organized and demanded reform did resident management of public housing begin to succeed.

I doubt the authors' reforms, should they be implemented, would be permanent. Most parents would be unenthusiastic about joining a choice plan they had no say in creating. Most polls that show parental support of choice find that parents favor vouchers, which enable them to choose freely between public and private schools. Under the authors' plan, parents could choose private schools only by paying tuition. Indeed, Chubb and Moe would encourage private schools to be nationalized as a precondition of accepting state aid, thus ensuring that few, if any, truly private schools would remain.

Politics, Markets, and America's Schools is an important book that will be read—and debated—for decades to come. But the reforms the authors propose are only partial answers to the problems of American schools.

Washington Editor Martin Morse Wooster is working on a book about reforming public high schools.