Until 1987, education was one of the dullest subjects in America. The debate—and the debaters—are much the same as in 1977, or 1967. Indeed, American education seemed as fixed as Eastern Europe, and there were striking analogies between the two. The National Education Association was equivalent to the Stalinists, relentlessly committed to suppressing reforms and democracy. The American Federation of Teachers played the part of the reform Communists, in favor of the existing order but occasionally supporting incremental change.
The AFT was more interesting because of the charming volatility of its president, Albert Shanker (a trait Woody Allen noted in Sleeper, where he predicted that World War III would begin when Shanker acquired a nuclear warhead). But both unions were intent on ensuring that American public schools changed about as much as the Berlin Wall.
Although it has not yet met the fate of the Berlin Wall, the US.educational system has been in flux during the last three years. The unions have steadily retreated; public-school choice has become fashionable; and the command-and-control bureaucracies implemented in the Progressive era are slowly being dismantled. A revolution has not taken place, but the likelihood of permanent and healthy change in American education is higher than at any time since the turn of the century.
One reason for the changes in American education is structural. In the December Phi Delta Kappan, Larry Cuban, an education professor at Stanford University, notes that since World War II, public schools have been burdened with more regulations and more administrators than at any time in American history. They have also been called upon to do far more than teach students; they have to head off teenage pregnancy, prevent diseases, aid the handicapped, and so on. But it's far easier for a governor or a county executive to announce a new goal than it is for the schools to achieve it. So while the public schools may look like behemoths, Cuban argues, the story of public education is actually one of "divided authority, policy clutter, and the inability to enforce mandates and regulations."
Given the stagnation and decay of public education, parents have tried to find alternatives. Kathryn Olney offers a poignant example of this in the November/December Mother Jones.
San Francisco, Olney reports, is a progressive demi-paradise. Leftist political correctness wafts through her upscale neighborhood like exquisite perfume; the residents work to prevent AIDS and save the environment, and the stores are rife with organic foods and handcrafted goods from toiling workers in Central American communes. All is well, except for the schools. For San Francisco, like most American cities of its size and age, has a public school system in which most students are bused. Olney's neighborhood elementary school, instead of being packed with white junior liberals, is filled with "students, most of them black and Hispanic…bused in from some of the most poverty-stricken, drug-infested neighborhoods in the city."
To prevent "white flight," San Francisco has three magnet schools, which, Olney testifies, are the only decent elementary schools in the city, with 500 applicants for each class. White parents frequently forge addresses or pretend that their children are black or Hispanic in order to raise the odds of acceptance. Even former Black Panthers refuse to send their children to public schools.
Olney describes her agony as she "slunk guiltily" through private schools and worried about whether she should pay tuition or flee to the suburbs. Fortunately, she won the lottery; her child was accepted by a magnet school. But are the only alternatives for urban children bad public schools and expensive private ones?
Sensible liberals and leftists see a third way. Weary of the centralizing New Deal and Great Society policies that have led to the sorry state of public education, they prefer decentralized, market-oriented government. In the December 7 Washington Post Magazine, neoliberal journalist David Osborne, borrowing a phrase from E.S. Savas, says government should "steer" rather than "row"—guide the economy but not attempt to duplicate services or compete with the private sector. "When government also rows," says Osborne, "it can lose the flexibility to steer effectively, particularly in times of rapid change."
The "entrepreneurial" governments Osborne envisions contract out services, use regulations as a replacement for budget increases, and decentralize as much as possible. Thus Osborne approves of public-school choice because it treats parents as partners rather than clients. "Treat people as dependents," Osborne notes, "and they become dependent." Welfare recipients become attached to the dole, and parents ignore their children's education.
But although Osborne wishes to reduce the scope of government, he does not call for reducing its authority. Saying that governments should act like entrepreneurs is not the same as saying that capitalists should take over the state. "Wouldn't it be nice," Osbome asks, "if government worked again?" A decentralized, efficient government, he argues, would be as free to grow as it would be to shrink.
Thus the educational reforms preferred by sensible liberals such as Osborne—public-school choice, school-based management, devolution of power from superintendents to principals, teachers, and parents—are deemed acceptable because they do not involve reducing tax dollars spent for education. True privatization via fully portable vouchers or tuition tax credits is still an anathema to the left.
While the decentralists have gained the upper hand in the debate over education, the centralists are far from finished. Perhaps the most prominent argument in favor of a top-down answer to school problems is offered by Michael Barrett in the November Atlantic Monthly.
Barrett, a Massachusetts state senator, argues that lengthening the school year from 180 to 240 days will ensure that Americans can compete with international rivals whose children spend far more time in the classroom. Look at the Japanese, Barrett tells us; their children spend, on average, 243 days a year in the classroom and countless hours cramming in private schools. Spending more time in school, Barrett assures us, will allow the United States to end its decline and declare victory over the Japanese economy.
But Barrett makes a weak case for his proposals. He relies extensively on comparisons that purportedly show higher test scores among Asian and European students than among Americans. But as John Hood notes in a recent Cato Institute paper, comparisons between the widely differing policies of national school systems are at best elusive and at worst seriously misleading.
Furthermore, Barrett cites current "effective schools" research (largely conducted by Herbert Walberg of the University of Illinois) that shows that how teachers teach and how parents motivate students have far more to do with student achievement than whether the school year is 180, 240, or, for that matter, 300 days long. Still, he says, schools can't do very much to cut down television viewing or monitor how teachers teach. Lengthening the school year is an "easy improvement" that will enable thousands of students to do better in school.
Barrett shows the politician's gut instinct to Do Something, regardless of whether that something is useful. If even such a diehard centralist as Barrett can implicitly admit that the case for top-down measures is weak, then the centralist position is less secure than one might think.
But most of the chief executives of American education—state school superintendents and governors—still believe that throwing money at the schools is the only way to save them. In the fall New Perspectives Quarterly, various educational sachems—the president of the University of California, the governor of Arkansas—deliver short info-bites on the future of American education. Though marred by the bland, cream-cheesy voice preferred by NPQ and presidential speech writers, the issue is a useful reminder that most educational mandarins have very little to say these days.
That is because the demands for true reform are coming not from the top of the educational ladder but from the bottom. If choice and decentralization are implemented in American schools, it will not be because of a national commission or the whims of the secretary of education, but because parents and teachers are tired of the existing order and want schools that work.
Washington Editor Martin Morse Wooster is writing a book about reforming public high schools.