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Harvard Scholar Makes a Turnaround on Choice

By Debra Viadero — April 13, 2010 2 min read
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Diane Ravitch isn’t the only education scholar undergoing something of an ideological transformation these days. Harvard academic Paul E. Peterson comes to a similar conversion in his new book, Saving Our Schools, which is being published this month by the Harvard University Press.

Peterson is best known for his advocacy of school choice programs in the 1990s. Now, however, he says he has come to recognize that the school choice movement, which never produced the achievement gains its advocates had hoped for, may never be politically viable. He chalks it up, along with the accountability movement, progressivism, teacher unionization, desegregation, and court-ordered school finance reforms. as just another movement in education that failed to ensure that all children receive a challenging education, regardless of where they live.

“Both Diane and I have an unhappy view of where we are today,” Peterson said in an interview here at Education Week yesterday. “But where her dissatisfaction goes back to the last 10 years, mine goes back much farther. ... The reforms of the last 50 to 60 years haven’t been able to shake the education system out of its stagnant condition.”

So, in his new book, which traces the history of American education from Horace Mann to Bill Bennett and beyond, Peterson is placing his next bet on virtual schooling, which he hopes will eventually customize learning for every child. To illustrate his faith in the medium’s potential, he relates the story of the Florida Virtual School, which began in 1997 in Orlando and is now the country’s largest state-run online school.

“Virtual schooling is still in its infancy,” he said, “but it certainly has transformative capacities that none of these other things have.”

As for charter schools, which Peterson has also championed, he expresses a more agnostic view. While the growth of this new breed of public schools has outstripped that of privately funded choice programs, he says, charters still have a long way to go to transform schooling nationwide. “Their promise may be in that they become a vehicle for virtual schools,” he said.

You can hear Peterson discuss his new views today at a panel discussion at the Brookings Institution. Eduwonk also features a debate between Peterson and Ravitch, who favors a return to neighborhood schools and a faith in teacher professionalism as a means of improving schooling. The next print edition of Education Week (cover date: April 21) will also feature a back-page Commentary by Peterson.

A version of this news article first appeared in the Inside School Research blog.