Choice Insufficient To Reform Schools, RAND Says

By Robert Rothman — October 24, 1990 5 min read

Teachers and principals must themselves create the conditions for effective schools, rather than rely on strategies such as choice or site-based management to produce a climate for student success, a new study by the RAND Corporation concludes.

The study, based on an in-depth analysis of high schools in New York City and Washington, found that successful schools have clear, simple missions centered on improving student performance and attitudes, as well as organizational structures that enable them to initiate action and solve problems.

By contrast, it states, most comprehensive public schools, which the authors deem ineffective, are essentially “franchises” that follow rules set from above.

But unlike other reformers, who have argued that improvements will result simply by allowing parents to choose their children’s schools or giving teachers and administrators greater authority, the RAND researchers argue that such reforms are insufficient.

Site-based management, as it is practiced in most places, the report states, “promises to accomplish little beyond transferring the politics of interest-group negotiation from the school district to the school building.”

And proposals for parental choice, which are based on the idea that ''consumer demand” will promote high-quality instruction, are equally flawed, it contends.

“Like money in the hands of consumers, choice creates the opportunity for people to buy what they want if they can find it,” the authors write. “But purchasing power has little meaning if there are no attractive goods to choose.”

“Demand alone cannot produce good inner-city schools,” they add. “The unfulfilled demand has been there for years.”

P. Michael Timpane, president of Teachers College, Columbia University, said last week that the report makes an important contribution to the reform literature by suggesting that fundamental changes are possible within the existing school structure.

Critics of the current system, such as the political scientists John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe, authors of a widely debated new book on school choice, argue “that the bad old education bureaucracy won’t do it,” Mr. Timpane said. “Maybe [the RAND Corporation] is saying, ‘It ain’t necessarily so.”’

But James S. Coleman, professor of sociology at the University of Chicago, said the fundamental changes the report describes are unlikely to come about in the absence of choice.

“The ‘Baby Bells,’ which were part of at&t, would have stayed the same, very conservative organizations they were if they weren’t thrust out into the market,” he said. “Once they found themselves in the market, and had to survive, they became competitive.”

“The same thing will happen to schools if they become competitive,” Mr. Coleman maintained. “Organizations are not going to change unless they are put in a situation where they have to change.”

‘A Better Way’

The RAND report, “High Schools With Character,” was suggested by Peter Flanigan, a New York investment banker who founded the Student-Sponsor Partnership Program, which provides scholarships to enable low-income youths to attend religiously affiliated high schools.

The study was aimed, the report notes, at discovering “if and how parochial schools succeeded with these students and to compare the experiences of Partnership students with those of students in ‘zoned’ [neighborhood] comprehensive public schools.”

The researchers observed that some magnet and “special purpose” public schools were experiencing similar success with low-income youths. They expanded the study to include such specialized schools.

By analyzing eight New York City high schools in depth, and conducting “partial observations” of five additional schools in New York and Washington, the researchers found that disadvantaged students fared better in the parochial and “special purpose” public schools, which the authors call “focus” schools, than similar students did in the “zoned” schools.

The research “makes an overwhelming case that one form of schooling is a better way,” said Paul T. Hill, one of the study’s authors.

Clear Mission

Mr. Hill acknowledged last week that some of these outcomes may reflect “selection bias,” since students choose to attend “focus” schools. But, the report states, such schools also share characteristics that enhance student learning. And, it suggests, such features can be reproduced in comprehensive public schools.

Specifically, the report says, the focus schools have clear missions that concentrate on student outcomes and ensure that all students have access to a basic curriculum.

In addition, it states, such schools also tend to have organizational structures that allow staff members to exercise initiative and solve problems, rather than spend their time meeting bureaucratic regulations and mandates.

By contrast, the authors observe, “zoned” schools “are designed to administer programs and deliver services.”

“In the absence of a clear central mission or philosophy,” they assert, “‘zoned’ schools are controlled essentially by piecemeal demands, rules, claimed entitlements, and contractual provisions.”

Such practices develop, Mr. Hill added, despite the well-intentioned efforts of school bureaucrats to ensure quality.

“If you try to guarantee quality by controlling procedures,” he said, “what you get are passive-aggressive people who are interested in compliance, not outcomes.”

As a result, the report notes, students, staff members, and parents are nearly universally dissatisfied with the “zoned” schools.

“Perhaps the saddest statistic in this report,” the authors write, is the number “showing how few ‘zoned’ public-school students reported, ‘I am lucky to be in this school.”’

‘Internal Strategy’

To transform public schools into focus schools, the report says, state and district school officials, together with teachers’ unions, should agree to make them available to all students, and to permit such schools to manage themselves.

In addition, it says, students and staff members must be permitted to sort themselves among focus schools.

But, while these reforms are essential, it adds, the schools will only be effective if a cadre of teachers and administrators at each school agree on basic principles and work together to put them into practice.

“Choice and the deregulation that accompany site-based management create the external conditions for effective schools,” the authors state. “The ‘focus'-school approach develops the internal strategy. It shows how schools themselves can become institutions that motivate, lead, and teach disadvantaged inner-city youth.”

Copies of “High Schools With Character,” Number R-3944-RC, are available for $7.50 each from RAND’s Publications Department, 1700 Main St., P.O. Box 2138, Santa Monica, Calif. 90406-2138; or by calling (213) 393-0411, extension 6686.

A version of this article appeared in the October 24, 1990 edition of Education Week as Choice Insufficient To Reform Schools, RAND Says