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Make Public Schools More Like Private

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It will take a lot to make public schools more effective for all students: greater academic rigor; higher standards of conduct; more parental involvement; stronger incentives for the students themselves; and, of course, more access to health and social services for the many students who are in need of such. Everyone knows this, yet some continue to call for privatization, vouchers, and other schemes that would allow parents to spend public money to send their children to private schools.

Such a defeatist approach is both irrational and unnecessary—especially since we have not yet tried to fix that which truly ails public education in this country. It confuses "helping" public schools with "dismantling" public schools. The cure would be worse than the disease. Instead of giving up on public schools altogether—which is precisely what would happen if we drained them of resources by diverting public funds to private schools—why not make public schools more like private?

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.

What makes private schools different from public schools? Is it that they have better teachers? Hardly. Teachers in public schools are just as dedicatedand often more credentialedthan teachers in private schools. Better students, then? No. The fact that more public school children are poor does not mean that they are less intelligent. And while family support and readiness to learn are, indeed, relevant factors, they are not insurmountable hurdles—if we accelerate our efforts to coordinate education reform with reforms in health care and social services.

It seems to me that the way to make public schools more effective is to emulate some of the desirable features of private schools: small size of schools and smaller class size; less bureaucracy and fewer layers of administration; more choice and more market dynamics; and, most importantly, the right to set and enforce high standards of conduct and academic rigor.

I believe that this can be achieved in the public school system. Here's how:

    • Continue and accelerate the current drive to create smaller schools and schools-within-schools. Of course, some provisions need to be made to keep the advantages of large schools, such as offering courses that only a small percentage of students want. But small schools where students are well known are more effective. Also, by multiplying the number of available schools, we would expand the number of choices for parents, students, and educators.

    • Give each school increased autonomy over its own organization, budget, and staffing. Each school should also have the right to exceed (but not lower) the uniform standards for behavior codes and academic expectations. Each self-governing school would also be free to develop its own theme and its own uniqueness. Each school would be led by a "teaching principal" or a "principal teacher"—in either case subject to annual affirmation or nonrenewal by the faculty.

    • Subject schools, on an annual basis,to an external, curriculum-based evaluation, focusing on student learning. The results of such an annual assessment would be made public and would serve to inform parents about the quality of each school.

    • Allow parents to choose the right schools for their children from all available schools—and make every effort to ensure that this is an informed choice based on accurate information.

    • Give the chosen school the authority to require that parents and students who select that school sign a compact outlining mutual obligations vis-…-vis behavior codes, academic performance standards, parental involvement, teacher and school commitments. Students and parents would have to adhere to this compact in order to continue in that school—or "shop around" for a school that might be a better match.

    • Let schools not chosen by parents and students diminish in size. The vacated space could be filled by satellites of more effective schools or by other newly developed schools.

    • Schools that were chosen by more parents and students than they could accommodate could "franchise" themselves by expanding into satellites in spaces vacated by other, less effective, schools.

    • Designate some schools as "full-service schools." These schools would have health and social services for students who need them, case managers, a lower student-to-adult ratio, more counseling services, and other resources that only some children need. They would be staffed by the most experienced and accomplished teachers and would become the "educational intensive-care units" of each district.

    • Decide districtwide the per-capita amount of money allowed for each category of students and allow these amounts to vary. For example, students with greater needs would be allotted a higher per-capita funding support than "regular education" students, as would students in full-service schools and students with special educational needs. This would serve as an incentive for schools to seek these students instead of avoiding them.

    • The weighted formula for each student would also include a "margin of profit" so that schools that were more successful in increasing student achievement would have more incentives and could engage in profit-sharing. Each profit-making school would decide how to use the extra money.

A market-driven system that includes a two-way choice for public schools could offer incentives for everyone, encourage entrepreneurship, lessen the bureaucracy, phase out failing programs, and replicate successful schools. It would be more responsive to students and more conducive to continuous improvement.

This could radically change the very structure of public education by injecting market dynamics into our system, providing for shared accountability, enabling schools to enforce standards, and empowering students and their parents to choose from among all public schools the one best suited to their needs.

Such a two-way choice would mean that accountability would be built in: Parents and students would vote with their feet, while public schools would, for the first time, gain the right to actually enforce the academic, behavioral, and parental-involvement standards that they set. In a way, public schools would gain the capacity and authority that private schools have had all along.

But whether schools are public or private, they will continue to flounder in the absence of parameters for a common curriculum, performance standards, common assessments, and higher stakes for students. Making public schools more like private ones makes sense largely because the private school model offers greater opportunity to enforce standards—assuming that there actually are high and rigorous standards to enforce. So the issue is more one of "having standards" and "enforcing standards" than of public schools vs. private schools.

It would be a grave mistake to privatize or weaken our children's public schools. Voucher plans that have already been tried have increased inequality without making the schools any better. They merely widen the gap between the haves and have-nots. And that is one social experiment our children cannot afford.

Public schools should be overhauled, not abandoned. We can preserve our commitment to universal access to education by introducing into the public sector some of the private and market dynamics that offer greater promise for better results. That includes putting first things first: high standards of conduct and academic rigor. But standards that cannot be enforced are meaningless.

So let's follow common sense and do what the public wants, what teachers have supported all along, and what our students need. Making public schools more like private schools is a way to begin. Along with the other needed changes, this can help increase the chances that more children will learn better.

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