Published Online: January 25, 1989

Commentary

Questioning 'Cliches'of Education Reform

American education is awash these days in hoary cliches and trendy maxims thought to be true because they sound so plausible, because we've been hearing them for so long, or because someone we're inclined to trust is uttering them.

But many of these shards of conventional wisdom are unproven. A large number are oversimplifications at best, falsehoods at worst. Some are lightly camouflaged fragments of inertia, self-interest, or wishful thinking.

Yet in these terms the nation's education dilemmas are being framed--and the outcome of our efforts to address the deficiencies of American schooling will be determined to a large extent by how we pose the problems. If you navigate by the wrong stars, pulling hard on the oars still won't get you to the destination.

A large number are oversimplifications at best, falsehoods at worst.

Especially during this brief quadrennial period of national stocktaking that attends a Presidential transition, we might well examine some of the dustier assumptions on the education-reform shelves.

Most of the commonly accepted notions I discuss here bear on what many educators have persuaded themselves is the epochal choice facing school reformers: "top down" changes--those initiated by state or federal policymakers--or "bottom up" innovations--those designed by local districts and individual schools. But the idea that such a tidy choice can be made--indeed, that it presents "right" and "wrong" options (and you don't have to guess which side most educators line up on)--is itself a dandy example of conventional wisdom that, upon inspection, turns out to be hogwash.

One of the abiding strengths of American education is local control.
Though we still have upwards of 15,000 local school systems, the education action has shifted to the states: For a decade, their share of the nation's public-school dollar has exceeded the local portion. And nearly all the boldest changes in the 1980's--Tennessee's career ladder, South Carolina's comprehensive reform act, California's new curricula, Minnesota's school choice law, New Jersey's "educational bankruptcy" scheme, to cite only a few examples--have been statewide policy shifts.

While local governance and financing of schools worked satisfactorily in an agrarian society, it is less suited to a mobile, megalopolitan nation. Local politics are apt to be petty, given to patronage and favoritism. And reliance on local revenues invites allegations of fiscal inequity. The result has been, and will surely continue to be, ever-greater state dominance of education finance and regulation.

Holding individual schools to account for their performance is a good idea. So is conferring more authority on parents. But the county board of education and town superintendent's office are vestiges of the last century that may not be needed at all in the next one.

This Commentary was selected for inclusion in The Last Word: The Best Commentary and Controversy in American Education, published in 2007. Get more information on the book from the publisher.

Politicians should keep their grimy paws off the schools.
Since the turn of the century, civic wisdom has held that education should be left to the experts--professional educators and lay governing boards, many of them appointed to their positions so as to insulate them from the hurly-burly of electoral politics. Governor and legislator, mayor and selectman--this seedy lot should stick to road building, waste disposal, and law enforcement.

That arrangement got us into the fix we're in. Educators attended mainly to their own interests. The lay boards deferred to their professional staffs, in many places lost the ability to attract first-rate members, and wearied of the interminable meetings and a surfeit of detail. The schools decayed.

Today, education is the largest item in the budget of every state and most localities, and taxpayers have begun to hold elected officials responsible for the effective use of these immense resources. As a result, many governors have made education their issue--and some mayors are starting to do the same.

Though many educators still yearn for the old pattern, practically everybody else now acknowledges that the proper duties of elected officials include--along with finding resources for public education--setting standards, creating accountability systems, and charting policy for schools. The education system, we've learned, is not self-correcting.

Policy-driven reforms of the sort that legislatures enact will not yield authentic improvement in education and may make it worse. What is needed instead is "restructuring"--empowering school "professionals" to make key decisions.

It is true that outstanding schools nearly always display homegrown qualities that cannot be mandated from on high, and imaginative experiments underway in half a dozen communities are modifying timeworn practices in an effort to clone excellent schools.

But with some 83,000 public schools in the land, we cannot suppose that most students would benefit if their "school team" suddenly gained greater autonomy. Too many team members just don't have what it takes, and too few really want to change their ways.

While the capacity for improvement may be nurtured in such schools over time, the best approach is to alter the rules by which the system operates. And that is the proper work of lawmakers.

National standards for education are un-American.
We probably do not want federal regulations to enforce them, but perhaps the single most valuable action that George Bush could take as "education President" would be to catalyze a national consensus-seeking process, meant to settle on some basic education norms for all young Americans.

What is the minimum that a high-school graduate should know and be able to do? Why should Missoula have a different standard from Malden? States, districts, and individual schools may add to the core, but in this mobile society, yesterday's 5th grader in Oregon is apt to be tomorrow's high-school student in Delaware.

Youngsters across the land already watch the same movies and television programs, listen to the same music, read (if at all) the same publications, and chow down in identical outlets of the same fast-food chains. And the school curriculum is already similar in many districts, thanks to education schools, professional associations, textbook publishers, and test makers. Why not turn this creeping sameness into a virtue? Why not have uniform minimum standards, too?

Teaching to the test denatures the teacher-student relationship, paralyzes the curriculum, and turns goals into ceilings.
If a standardized test faithfully appraises the skills and knowledge that the school system seeks to impart--if it is properly aligned with the curriculum--then there is nothing wrong with teaching to it. While schools must not coach students on actual exam items, drilling them on the array of skills and knowledge the test will probe is fine.

The tests do not have to be the multiple-choice, machine-readable variety. As has long been the case with Advanced Placement exams, they can involve analytic essays and complex problem-solving. They can entail subtle computer interactions. They can even be oral. But some means are required to find out whether students have actually learned what the education system sought to teach them. Or else there is no accountability.

At-risk children are the chief problem facing education.
The reigning wisdom holds that the school system is drowning in a demographic tidal wave of immigrant and minority youngsters, children from impoverished, broken, and disorganized families, students with masses of social, economic, medical, nutritional, and emotional problems. In this situation, we are told, "It is unrealistic to think of reading Shakespeare."

To be sure, growing numbers of such children are showing up at the schoolhouse door. And the persistence of an "underclass" is as vexing a social-policy problem as any we face.

But schools as presently constituted have scant leverage over the lives of students, who typically spend less than 10 percent of their time in them, even if they attend faithfully until their 18th birthdays. And schools are good at only a few things: imparting cognitive skills and knowledge and--sometimes--boosting sound values, good behavior, and physical fitness.

The tangled problems of at-risk youngsters have their origins outside the schools and seldom can be solved inside them, though it is legitimate to enlist the schools in whatever policy partnerships are formed. To pretend otherwise is to raise false hopes.

But there is one aspect of the at-risk problem that educators alone can do something about and should be held accountable for: the risk of attending a lousy school.

For no one does a first-rate school make a bigger difference than the disadvantaged child. And dozens of schools succeed magnificently, even in the most woebegone locales and with the most challenging of youngsters. Such examples offer plain proof that schools can be islands of order and learning in a tempestuous social sea. What we need are thousands more such places.

The assumption that high standards and a meaty curriculum are bad for disadvantaged youngsters is a recipe for continued second-class citizenship. Anyone who cares about equal opportunity has got to note with alarm that among black and Hispanic high-school graduates in 1987, only 23 and 21 percent respectively had taken a course menu including at least four years of English and three years each of mathematics, science, and social studies. For whites, the figure was 30 percent; for Asians, 52 percent.

Better schools are going to cost more.

The expenditures of American public schools have been rising in real terms for decades and this year are the highest ever--in the vicinity of $4,800 per pupil, or about $110,000 for every classroom. The biggest problem is not that we're spending too little but that the return on this huge investment is too skimpy.

Yes, a few needed changes will demand still more money. Lengthening the school day and year, for example, are big-ticket items. Sophisticated testing methods cost more than the simple kind. But good textbooks cost no more than bad ones; algebra and history are no more expensive to teach than consumer math and family living; at $50,000 a head, enough money is already being paid to high-school principals to hire good ones. And significant sums can be saved--as Chicago may soon demonstrate--by sharp reductions in the bureaucracy of the superintendent's office.

"Choice" is just a code word for vouchers, which portend the end of public education as we know it.
The private-school aid debates of earlier years have nearly vanished from the policy arena; the center-ring event today is choice within public education. Such approaches as magnet schools, alternative schools, and schools-within-schools have proven hugely successful in settings as dissimilar, for example, as Spanish Harlem, Cambridge, Mass., and Prince George's County, Md.

Choice is now also expanding to the state level. The Minnesota legislature voted in 1988 to give every youngster in the state the right to attend any of its public schools. New York's commissioner of education, Thomas Sobol, recently proposed that any child in the state should be able to transfer from a bad school to one that works; California's superintendent of public instruction, Bill Honig, is heading in the same direction.

The choice issue illuminates the folly of polarizing the reform debate into "top down" and "bottom up" strategies. As professional teams in individual schools begin to decide what will be taught, how, and by whom, schools will come to differ. It is only right that children and parents be able to select the ones that suit them: The more such "building-level autonomy"--that is, bottomup reform--is exercised, the more important it is that families be allowed to match the educational needs of their children to the varied offerings of schools in their communities.

Yet replacing involuntary pupil assignments with choice among schools is the quintessential policymakers' decision. However logical a corollary it is to bottom-up reform, the principle of choice cannot be installed from the building level. It needs a gutsy superintendent, a crusading governor, a cadre of bold legislators--and it needs policy control over a lot of schools or it doesn't make any sense at all.

Neither, however, does it makemuch sense to offer choice in a tightly regulated system of virtually identical schools. What then is to choose?

Only when schools are encouraged to differ--and when educators and officials are willing to live with the certainty that some will thrive and others wither--is choice among schools an authentic reform. This means forging the softer metals associated with bottom-up school improvement on the steel policy anvil of the top-down strategy.

We are not dealing with a neat dichotomy after all. Nor is most of the rest of today's conventional wisdom about education reform more than a collection of half-truths, none of them able to bear much weight until the missing parts are located and firmly joined.

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