Education Commentary

The Trouble With Policy-Minded School Reform

By Joseph P. McDonald — September 08, 1999 14 min read
The sense among aging baby boomers is that hardly anything is as good today as when they were young, including schools, teachers, and children.

Behind today’s interest in school reform lies a variety of concerns. Among them is a fear that the American workforce will be ill-equipped to face international economic competition once it turns up again. Another is a fear that the revitalization of big cities like Chicago will be blocked if the schools in these places are not made more attractive to middle-class families. There is also the worry that even the best public schools provide a superficial and impersonal education for most students. And there is the outrage at the abiding inequalities in American schooling--more than 40 years after President Eisenhower sent troops to Little Rock, Ark. Finally, there is a concern rarely acknowledged explicitly: The sense among aging baby boomers that hardly anything is as good today as when they were young, including schools, teachers, and children.

Politicians exploit the overlap in these concerns in order to build a coalition. Many want an issue to run on in 2000 that sounds suitably “millennial,” but promises to be less difficult (in terms of endangering campaign contributions) than, say, health-care reform. Policy activists design the platforms these politicians run on. One result is that the interest in school reform tends to be focused on policy-minded strategies. The good news in this is that policy is implicated in all the problems that bedevil schools and must be part of the solutions. The bad news is that it’s a long, long way from Sacramento or Albany to the Hernandez School in Oakland or Seward Park High School on the Lower East Side. Longer still from California and New York to the nation’s capital. Where the stretch is so long, the touch can be untrue.

The dominant policy-minded strategy today involves the stimulation of what is called accountability. Testing is its principal tool. State- or district-directed testing is an old American school habit. What’s new today is the sheer volume of testing (every grade, every year in some jurisdictions), the efforts to link the tests to curriculum through the use of standards, and the stakes. These are high for students, schools, and districts. They include promotion and graduation decisions, “school report card” scores published in local newspapers and on the World Wide Web, school reconstitution, and state or city takeovers of districts. In some cases, the impulse behind all this is crudely behaviorist, as if teachers and students simply need the right prods to do better. In other cases, there is an explicit acknowledgment that more is involved: Classes may be too large; teachers may need to learn new skills; schools may need restructuring. Still, in what I am calling policy- minded reform, the assumption is that policy can directly solve such problems, and that solving them is enough. It is a faulty assumption. Thus, when the governor of California tries in a single summer to reduce class sizes in all California primary classrooms, or Massachusetts tries to improve teaching with a teaching exam, or the U.S. Congress specifies which school reform designs are worthy for schools to adopt, good intentions go awry. California creates a massive teacher shortage, Massachusetts demoralizes its teachers, and Congress undercuts reform creativity.

In fact, even more factors than overcrowding, teacher skill gaps, and faulty school structures impede genuine accountability in American schooling. Accountability-based reform must also deal with inadequate financing, the effects on school of family poverty, the intransigence of district bureaucracy, the reluctance of students to embrace the goals set for them, many teachers’ utter inexperience with the kind of learning policymakers promote, and many teachers’ doubts about their students’ learning capacities. Overcoming such problems requires close tending and on-the-spot design. Remote control is insufficient.

A second policy-minded strategy of school reform works on a different premise. Where the first is regulatory, the second is deregulatory. The idea is to create a market for better schools by liberating supply and demand from what are presumed to be the fetters of a public monopoly. The trust is in self- interest and entrepreneurship, rather than in the reach of smarter higher-ups. Two tools are favored here--usually by distinctly different reformers.

Voucher-based policies work on the demand side. Some voucher plans would give all parents a voucher per child redeemable in any school, even a religious one (though in most plans, only for part of the cost of the child’s education). Other plans focus on poor families and may require that participating schools accept the voucher as total payment for tuition. Many system insiders today view this policy tool as a radical spoiler, though it has roots in the larger American educational experience. Think of the GI Bill and the referral of a child with special needs to a specialized private school.

Meanwhile, charter-based policies work on the supply side. They try to stimulate the creation of alternatives to regular, district- run schools. Like other public schools, charter schools are free and open to all, though in some states for-profit groups may run them. Policymakers often promote charter schools as a competitive shock to the system, a threat to the customer base that is likely in the long run to improve customer service. Again, the tool has roots in the American educational experience. Think of the alternative schools launched with federal dollars in the 1970s.

As with accountability- based reforms, market-based ones are often portrayed as easier to carry out than they actually are. The reason is the same--to avoid messing up what seems a winnable political argument. Once again, the idea is that reform can be implemented by remote control--though here the agent is Adam Smith’s invisible hand rather than the behaviorist’s stimulus-response cycle. And once again, the assumption is faulty.

Of course, one can imagine a market-based system in education that serves the public interest with regard to such things as curriculum standards, teacher qualifications, equitable access for all children, and safety. But a large and novel system of market regulation, inspection, and consumer information and protection would have to be invented to back it up. And even well-regulated markets do not necessarily cater to consumer interests in anything more than superficial ways. Indeed, to the extent that they emphasize consumer choice with an exit option for the dissatisfied customer, schools might actually prove less responsive to the perceptions and voices of families: “If you don’t like it, shop around.” But in education, the exit option is never easy to take, no matter the degree of dissatisfaction. So many variables are involved: transportation, a child’s peer relationships, attachment to a neighborhood, sibling preferences, availability of attractive alternatives, and more.

Meanwhile, the situation is no less complicated on the supply side. Markets are by nature full of failed ventures as well as successful ones. The “creation of new settings,” as Seymour Sarason once put it, is by no means an easy task. Nor is there much prevailing expertise among educational professionals relevant to the task. A major problem for charter school development--or, indeed, for independent or religious school development--is the scarcity of capital funds. Another involves the provision of crucial ancillary services like indemnification, legal assistance, food service, transportation, and so on. Another is the development of a stable and duly protected professional labor market. Again, one can imagine systems for dealing with some or all of these. They might include franchising, a teachers’ version of Actors Equity, the kind of networking of expertise that built Jesuit schools or Waldorf schools, and the transformation of school boards into contractors. But these things are not easy to invent. The challenge is the reverse of the one facing the accountability reforms--here a complex ecology must be constructed rather than deconstructed--but the challenge is nonetheless daunting.

The alternative to policy-minded school reform is one that I call civic-minded. It has the deepest roots of all in the American educational experience, relying as it does on locally developed public-private partnerships--a staple of American schooling since the 18th century. However, civic-minded reform is less fashionable now, partly because it is avowedly messy rather than secretly messy--and thus less appealing on the political stump. The messiness comes from inserting other interested parties between policymakers and the schools: parents, reform activists, teachers’ unions, local business leaders, foundations, and so on. Yet it is the insertion of these interests that makes the reform viable in the long run by enabling it to tend responsively to complex problems and to withstand predictable political backlash.

Civic- minded school reform may also employ accountability-based or market-based strategies, though it does not trust to remote control. The difference is spelled out in a recent working paper produced by researchers studying the civic-minded Annenberg Challenge. The challenge is a loose association of 18 school reform projects funded in part by a $500 million grant from the philanthropist Walter H. Annenberg. An additional grant from the Annenberg Foundation supports an effort by the researchers who serve as independent evaluators of each project to pool their learning.

To illustrate civic- mindedness in school reform and to contrast it with policy-mindedness, I will briefly discuss two Annenberg-related reform efforts, one in the San Francisco Bay area and the other in New York City.

The Hewlett-Annenberg Bay Area School Reform Collaborative, known as BASRC, was one of the first projects of the Annenberg Challenge. It employs an accountability-based reform strategy but in a civic-minded way. BASRC is a voluntary organization of 218 schools, 60 districts (from among 118 geographically eligible because they rim the San Francisco Bay), 49 reform- support providers (like the Bay Area Writing Project, the Coalition of Essential Schools, and the San Francisco Exploratorium), and numerous funders of reform. Created at a time of great policy confusion in California, its founders wanted BASRC to do what they knew policy cannot do, namely build a new belief system about schooling in their region--one based not only on taking action to improve teaching and learning, but on honestly examining the evidence that such action helps all the community’s children.

According to its executive director, Merrill Vargo, the Bay area collaborative thinks about accountability as “giving direction rather than finding fault.” It works especially closely with 86 funded “leadership schools” in 38 districts, selected by a peer review of their school portfolios, and representing the geographic and ethnic diversity of the whole Bay area. Its work in these schools keeps BASRC aware of the real complexities of reform at the school level and informs all the rest of what it does, including its effort to stimulate peer pressure on reform actors throughout the region, and its pursuit of an extensive research and development agenda.

Because BASRC’s legitimacy is different--based on voluntary rather than hierarchical association, and on intimate rather than remote expertise--BASRC ends up being able to do things that the state of California cannot do with respect to accountability. It is no less concerned than the state with student achievement scores (and even more concerned with gaps in scores between white students and students of color), but it is better positioned to foster the development of a culture within school that cares about such data. Indeed, BASRC works to ensure that its schools generate such data willingly and discuss it openly--not only among faculty members but with the public. BASRC is a good example of what the Annenberg Challenge researchers call an intermediary organization. It deliberately straddles the divide between public and private. It is independent of the systems that need reform, yet close enough to deal with the problems that typically swamp these systems when they try to change.

My second example of civic-minded reform involves the use of a market-based reform strategy. It comes from New York City, where a coalition of private groups has long cooperated with public education authorities and the teachers’ union to establish and support small schools of choice. One of the city’s community school districts, in East Harlem, pioneered urban school choice on a mass scale more than 20 years ago, and continues today to operate on this basis. For nearly as long, the city has operated a large network of small alternative schools. And over the last five years, aided by an Annenberg grant, the city has developed nearly 100 small new schools, many of them housed in leased space, most of them founded in collaboration with community groups and private-sector partners.

Many of New York’s small schools of choice have operated with a degree of autonomy and creativity unusual in big-city school systems. The community partnerships have helped in this regard--providing some measure of support and insulation. And the networking they have supported among school leaders has helped spread expertise, including skillfulness in creative insubordination. Another crucial factor is the sheer massiveness of the system. It is easy to become creatively “lost” within a system of nearly 1,200 schools serving just over a million children.

Facing up to the limitations of regulatory reach within such a system, Schools Chancellor Rudolph F. Crew recently proposed to systematize the benefits. He announced a plan to build a unique system of New York City charter schools by building on New York’s unique history of civic partnership in support of small schools. The plan responds to an opportunity presented by the state’s new charter legislation, which authorizes the chancellor to approve not only a limited number of charter applications, but also an unlimited number of charter-conversion applications--that is, applications by existing public schools seeking charter status.

Departing from the course pursued by most big-city school chiefs, Mr. Crew proposes to experiment in an extensive way with system deregulation and performance-based contracting. He has in mind a system of independently functioning public schools. They would be autonomous with respect to their curricular character, their purchasing decisions, and their personnel policies. However, they would operate within a public system that provides some capital, offers services on a fee-for-service basis, and holds the schools accountable for performance on the basis of a contract.

What makes the plan feasible in New York are the city’s existing networks of private supporters of public education, and its experience using them to work through the problems associated with genuine school reform. The networks would help supply some things vital to high-performing schools that policy entities by themselves cannot reliably supply: things like vision, focus, mobilization of creativity, and community investment. These are, of course, the same things that the Bay Area School Reform Collaborative works to provide its member schools and districts.

Policy-minded school reform presumes that remoteness lends leverage. Operating from a distance, reform seems smarter and less subject to interference. This is pure illusion. As I’ve argued, distance makes reform dumber rather than smarter. Moreover, the dependence of policy-minded reform on high-level political authority makes it subject to the swings of electoral politics. This in turn makes its influence exceedingly unstable over the long run.

By contrast, civic-minded reform gains leverage in the opposite way--by getting closer and inviting collaboration. It thereby gains awareness of the real problems of reform, and gains greater stability for the long haul as a result of the alliances it forms. But there is a political drawback--particularly in the current political climate. It’s the one I mentioned before--that civic-minded reform is avowedly messy rather than secretly so. Thus, for example, Chancellor Crew’s plan to use a market-based strategy in a civic-minded way in New York City remains hostage for the moment to the political ambitions of a mayor who wants to run for higher office on an “un-messy” education platform. Vouchers plus grade retention can solve all the problems, he says. And in California too, the state seems poised to plunge deeply once again into policy-minded school reform, perhaps in the process swamping BASRC’s efforts--which must seem to Sacramento so time-consuming and so messy.