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The Best (Only?) Alternative to Vouchers

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Voucher advocates boast that polls show a majority of the public now favors their approach, over the so-called bureaucratic "blob."

In 1971, I gave a talk at an "Issues for the '70s" conference predicting that if public education failed to come up with a credible program for reform by the end of the 1970s, the American public would lose faith in public education and shift to vouchers. I was wrong. About the timing.

The end of the '70s came and went without a serious loss in America's loyalty to its public school system. It's true that Ronald Reagan's 1980 victory, with an education platform calling for a voucher cousin, tuition tax credits, signaled some loss of faith in the traditional public school agenda. But Congress balked at tuition tax credits (as well as his platform's two other "solutions" to education's problems--prayer in the schools and abolishing the U.S. Department of Education), and Mr. Reagan, thanks to his blue-ribbon National Commission on Excellence in Education, soon found himself one of the most eloquent spokesmen for reforming the present school system that ever sat in the White House. Although he stuck to his belief that the reform was a state and local responsibility and shouldn't cost any federal money, his commission's report, A Nation at Risk, became a clarion call for a nationwide movement for school reform that gained such momentum and staying power that it held discussions of vouchers at bay.

But times have changed. Public education advocates are now in a panic. The "V" word is seemingly on everyone's lips, and voucher advocates boast that polls show a majority of the public now favors their approach, signaling that people's faith in the so-called bureaucratic "blob" is finally ebbing. They point to the shift of prominent African-Americans to their side as heralding the beginning of the end of the public education coalition that has stood in the way of vouchers for many years.

Unfortunately, the main response to this emergency by many public school advocates has not been to rally behind the long-needed credible program for reform, but to mount instead a massive campaign against vouchers. Worse yet, in the hope of making the voucher threat go away, they are increasingly insisting that claims about serious problems in the present system are "myths," thus appearing to deny the underlying premise for any significant change.

This defensive stance is dangerous in the extreme. Too many Americans (including those who teach in the schools) know there are serious problems, with far too many children (and not just in the inner cities) not learning at the levels needed for today's world. For public school supporters to take a stance that seems to brush this aside only makes people more likely to turn to vouchers as the only alternative that faces the reality of underachieving and unresponsive schools.

More to the point, this kind of defensiveness and denial is unnecessary. Institutions turn to such tactics when they have nothing positive to offer. Public education, on the contrary, in the decade and a half since A Nation at Risk has developed a positive story to tell. A credible program of reform has finally taken shape that can win over the American public if public school advocates will only rally behind it, instead of squabbling with each other and trying to cover up the problems in the hope that people will see no need for vouchers.

In the early days after A Nation at Risk was released in 1983, many reformers hoped "standards" alone would fix the problem: Make everyone take "tough" academic courses and the days of low achievement would be over. When this didn't work, a whole host of technocratic improvements in the schools were unleashed--new curricula, "computers in every class," improved teacher training, smaller class sizes, up-to-date textbooks, and so on. While some of these improved achievement marginally, it soon became evident that something more fundamental was amiss.

Gradually, more reformers began to realize that the basic culture of too many schools, the relationships among the key players, the mind-sets, habits, and procedures of years of low expectations and bureaucratization, were preventing both teachers and students from working at anything like their full potential. They saw that there was no simple solution, no "silver bullet" that would "fix" the schools in a short time. Deep, systemic change would be needed that would take years rather than months to accomplish.

What can be done about the reform paradox: loss of public confidence just as success is finally taking shape?

Daunting as this challenge was, some school systems, such as the whole state of Kentucky and some city systems, as well as various "whole school" reform projects, began to work on the various components of this kind of systemic reform. Where properly implemented, this approach has demonstrated results that hold promise of the improvements needed, rather than the marginal and ephemeral gains shown in previous superficial and piecemeal reforms. What were originally only proposals often condemned as "visionary" began to take shape as the realistic and credible path to reform that has long been needed. The Accelerated Schools Project, for example, already has more than 1,000 schools in over 40 states undertaking fundamental restructuring around high standards and a radical change to a team approach to achieve these new standards.

Unfortunately for popular understanding, systemic reform isn't easy to explain. Compared with voucher proposals, which can be explained by simple slogans such as "the market system" and "choice," systemic reform requires at least eight to 10 complex elements, such as much higher standards; new types of assessment; changes in governance structures; increased autonomy and teamwork at the school level; new approaches to teaching and management; real partnership with families and community resources; and, yes, some funding at least for professional development to help staff members and parents learn their new roles and responsibilities.

Furthermore, it is inevitable that there will be a lot of trial and error in making such fundamental changes in long-established systems. Nor is it foolproof: On the contrary, it is almost bound to fail when it is foolishly implemented, which it often is (for instance, with insufficient training of teachers, administrators, parents, and students in their new roles as responsible collaborators). It is easy to understand, then, why the public does not yet see a clear picture of a solution to public education's problems.

The process has been taking so long that even many reformers themselves have begun to lose confidence. But the basis for confidence is there nonetheless: a genuinely new and promising approach to educational reform that has the capacity of educating children to far higher levels and thus regaining public confidence in public education.

What can be done about this paradox of loss of confidence just as success is finally taking shape? One corrective may be to simplify the message. There are two underlying concepts at the heart of the successful reforms now under way: (1) a shift to much higher standards and expectations for children's learning, and (2) a shift to a collaborative model to achieve these expectations. These are such simple and obvious ideas that many people don't even recognize them as "reforms"; they seem like platitudes that are worthy of lip service but irrelevant to the "real business" of reforming what goes on in the classroom.

But taking these two concepts for granted is a grave mistake, and may help explain why the public and even educators have not yet grasped the importance of what has been developing. While they seem very simple, these two concepts represent the most profound changes from the present policy framework, not only within most public schools but in the society at large.

America has never in the past committed itself to high expectations for all children; it provided schools for all children, but it never said children had to learn anything in particular or to any particular level. On the contrary, it expected children to sort themselves out over a range stretching from excellence for the few to mediocrity and minimal literacy (if that) for the many, since this was all that was assumed to be needed for farm and industrial labor. It set up school systems that did a remarkable job in establishing schools all over the country and in hiring teachers to "deliver instruction" to produce this range of results. But these systems not only didn't call for real teamwork within the schools and between schools, families, and communities; they ultimately, as they became more bureaucratic and factory-like, thwarted such teamwork by dividing teachers and administrators into often warring factions, and by placing parents, students, and community groups outside the circle as passive recipients of the system's services, rather than as active participants in helping children become successful learners and citizens.

Unfortunately for popular understanding, systemic reform isn't easy to explain.

In the decades after World War II, when a postindustrial, information age began to require a whole new and much higher level of educational achievement, this kind of system, despite its past accomplishments, was simply (as New York state's Compact for Learning called it) obsolete. It was incapable of engaging the masses of students, teachers, and families at the levels of motivation needed for the higher achievement required.

The two underlying concepts of systemic reform--high expectations and the collaboration of home, school, and community to achieve these expectations--call for a radical shift in the American public education system. Once they are recognized not just as platitudes, but as fundamental concepts of reform, they can become the banner around which the forces of public education can unite in rebuilding support for a restructured public school system.

Yes, of course, they are not self-implementing, which is the reason for the other elements of systemic reform. But they are simple enough for anyone to grasp--much higher expectations, and working together to achieve them--and, as has been learned in the reforms that are working, they indeed must be taken seriously as real changes from past assumptions and practice for systemic reform to work.

The big problem is that the advocates for public education have not yet seen the need to unite behind this reform agenda. They give it lip service, but then fall to bickering over issues that pale in importance beside the need for unity at a time when faith in public education is wavering. Instead of being called upon by teacher, parent, school, and community leaders to join together to work for this kind of reform and student achievement, the public is instead distracted by fighting over national testing, "un-American" history curricula, condoms in the schools, phonics vs. whole language, bilingual education, dumbed-down math, local choice options, and budget crises.

Many people assume that unity around a systemic reform agenda is impossible in such a pluralistic society, and cite not only the many current controversies, but the seemingly implacable intergroup antagonisms between teachers, administrators, parents, and political leaders--not to mention ethnic groups, religions, and ideologies. But teacher leaders' increased interest in "new unionism" is an encouraging sign that systemic reform can in fact unite many interests that have been at odds in the past.

Some people dismiss the "new unionism" as just a public relations ploy to counter unions' obstructionist image; and admittedly, there is internal opposition within both teacher unions to the new approach. But if a shift to high expectations and a collaborative model is indeed what is needed to save public education, then the proposals being advanced by the National Education Association's Bob Chase and the American Federation of Teachers' Sandra Feldman are very much in the unions' self-interest, as well as the public's. If teachers' unions are in earnest, this nonadversarial approach should make it easier for other stakeholders--administrators, parents, and community groups--to work together in new ways to achieve a common purpose.

Once certain truths are understood--(1) that, unlike auto plants, quality education requires partnership not only between "labor" and "management," but also with parents, communities, and students as well (since students are the ultimate producers of the learning schools need to produce), and (2) that the high expectations and school-site management called for in systemic reform aid the context within which this partnership can be formed--the stage is set for the kind of unity around systemic reform that is needed to win back a wavering public to the loyalty public schools need to survive and prosper.

All that's needed for it to win the day is for public education's advocates to unite behind it, explain it to parents and the public, and ask for their help in fulfilling their new roles and in working through the many problems of shifting to a new and better kind of system. Working together in partnership will provide a much better context for resolving many of the controversies that now beset the schools--and for relegating those that can't be resolved to a subordinate position on the schools' and the public's agenda.

Did I say this would be easy? Of course not; any such change will take a lot of work and adjustments from everyone. All I'm claiming is that it is the best--perhaps the only--alternative to vouchers. If anyone has a better solution, they should step forward. Meanwhile, though a better alternative may develop in the future, for now, no other course of action has the necessary momentum and the demonstrated track record to be credible. Systemic reform is more capable of uniting people than vouchers; it can unite people from all parties and political persuasions, which is what is needed for a public education system that serves everyone; it is less fraught with serious risks of dangerous unintended consequences than vouchers; and it is capable of bringing improvements in student learning fairly quickly, even though a much longer period is needed for the changes in the habits, attitudes, and practices of the old system that are required to reach the highest levels of learning.

So let's get to work and unite around the systemic reform agenda that has finally taken shape ... before it's too late.


David S. Seeley was the assistant U.S. commissioner of education in charge of desegregation during the Johnson administration. He is now a professor of education at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York, Staten Island, N.Y.

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