Chubb, Moe Urge Look at Lessons of British Reforms

By Lynn Olson — March 25, 1992 4 min read
  • It expanded choice by mandating open enrollment, giving schools the right to “opt out’’ of their local education authorities, and creating a limited number of new schools--known as city technology colleges.

Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe, two ardent supporters of school choice, co-authored a 1990 book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, that has become a lightning rod for public opinion.

Their monograph, “A Lesson in School Reform from Great Britain,’' argues that the British “are on the cutting edge’’ of reforms that Americans have taken a keen interest in, including site-based management, choice, and accountability.

In 1988, Great Britain enacted a landmark education-reform act built around three themes now prevalent in the United States:

  • It decentralized power through school-based management, or what the British refer to as “local management of schools.’'

  • It expanded choice by mandating open enrollment, giving schools the right to “opt out’’ of their local education authorities, and creating a limited number of new schools--known as city technology colleges.

  • It held the new schools accountable through the creation of a national curriculum and tests.

Together, Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe maintain, these changes make the act “the most significant educational development in either country during the postwar era.’'

Not Far Enough?

While it is too early to judge the effect such changes will have on student achievement, the authors assert that, based on interviews and school visits conducted during the summer of 1991, the “most radical’’ part of the reform act--which allows schools to opt out of local control--is working well.

“Those schools that we saw were doing quite well in terms of managing their own affairs,’' Mr. Moe, a professor of political science at Stanford University, said.

He said the schools were attracting large numbers of applicants among both students and teachers, spending their extra money on educational programs and services, and drawing students from a wide variety of backgrounds.

If anything, the authors suggest, the problem is that reform in Great Britain has not gone far enough.

The most “glaring deficiency,’' they note, is that the reform act does “almost nothing to liberate the supply of schools, and thus to give parents something new and different to choose from.’'

The same concern has been raised in the United States, where a small number of states and school districts are beginning to experiment with “charter’’ schools as a way to promote the formation of new programs.

The one exception under the 1988 act was the creation of city technology colleges. The idea was to create 20 such schools, funded in part by private industry, that would offer a combination of academic and vocational-technical training.

According to Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe, the schools were an “anti-system reform,’' because they were allowed to emerge without the consent of local education authorities. The colleges are outside local-district control and compete with them for students.

However, private funding for the colleges has been hard to come by. Only 13 such schools have opened, with 2 more in the works.

Although the existing schools are oversubscribed--with, on the average, three times more applicants than places--the reform is largely considered “dead in the water,’' Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe write, because of the perceived expense in creating new colleges and the opposition to them from the Labor Party and the education establishment.

The small number of such schools and the fact that they were conceived and designed from on high makes them of limited value, Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe assert. “If you had a real choice system, all sorts of different things would be happening, not just this one thing,’' Mr. Moe said.

Nonetheless, teachers are flocking to the schools. Recently, some 2,000 teachers applied for 50 jobs.

They also appear to be making a difference: At the Kinghurst schools, in Solihull, average student attendance is 96 percent, and some 80 percent of youngsters are expected to stay until age 18, compared with 20 percent in the neighboring local-district schools.

‘Opting Out’

According to Mr. Chubb and Mr. Moe, “opting out’’ is the most promising of the British reforms. About 150 schools have gone through the legally prescribed steps to “opt out’’ and achieve grant-maintained status. Another 100 or so have announced their intention to do so or are at various stages in the process.

The two major inducements for opting out, according to the authors, are autonomy and money. Grant-maintained schools get the same per-child allowance as local-district schools. But they also get an extra amount, roughly equal to their share of the local district’s administrative costs--an amount the district loses. That translates into about 15 percent more in operating funds than in local schools.

The authors found that “all sorts of schools’’ were opting out, “in poor areas as well as rich.’'

But strong political opposition has dampened the movement to opt out.

For “opting out’’ to really have an effect, the authors suggest, private schools and new schools should also be able to “opt in’’ to the system.

In general, they found that, as in the United States, “politics has been the major impediment to reform’’ in Great Britain.

They warn that Great Britain’s attempt to mesh “top-down control and choice’’ will ultimately prove less effective than a pure choice system. For truly autonomous, effective schools to thrive, they suggest, “the vestiges of top-down control must be jettisoned.’'

They make the same argument in the United States, where they warn that the movement to create national standards and assessments could result in a further erosion of school autonomy that would make education worse, not better.

A version of this article appeared in the March 25, 1992 edition of Education Week as Chubb, Moe Urge Look at Lessons of British Reforms