Prescription For A Revolution

By Lynn Olson — August 01, 1990 21 min read
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John Chubb is a political scientist, not a politician. His name is not a household word, he has no constituency, and he is not accustomed to being in the public eye. But even as he sits here in his quiet Washington, D.C., office on this warm, spring afternoon, that is rapidly changing. In a few days his controversial new book will be released at a press conference, where he and a panel of educators and policymakers will debate the issues it raises. Several days later he will appear on CBS’s Face the Nation, followed by an appearance the next morning on NBC’s The Today Show. Within the week he expects to be on the MacNeil-Lehrer NewsHour. And by the end of the summer he will have met with federal and state legislators, corporate leaders, and newspaper editorial boards from coast to coast, and schmoozed with fellow citizens on a number of radio talk shows.

“Getting out and speaking is my outlet,’' he says, flashing a boyish grin that should play well on camera. “It’s a way of reaching audiences and getting feedback to see if what we’re doing makes sense.’'

What has propelled Chubb into the limelight are the radical ideas expressed in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, the book that he wrote with fellow researcher Terry Moe. Bluntly put and somewhat oversimplified, the two scholars claim that the school reform movement hasn’t worked and is destined to fail and that nothing short of a whole new system of public education will suffice.

Ordinarily, such sweeping assertions are dismissed out of hand by the education community. But because Chubb and Moe are respected scholars without ties to special interests, and because many of their conclusions are firmly grounded in hard research data, people are listening.

Chubb knows the book will heat up the debate over America’s schools and make some people angry in the process. But he’s quick to point out that there are no villains in their analysis--no individuals or groups who are intentionally undermining education.

The overriding problem, he says, is the system itself. According to Chubb, the current structure for governing the public schools has spawned a deadening bureaucracy that treats teachers as mindless civil servants, stifles autonomy, and suppresses student achievement.

And the great irony, he adds, is that the government institutions responsible for education--namely, state education agencies, school boards, and district administrators--cannot solve the problem because they are the problem. The 36-year-old scholar wants to put schools forever out of the reach of these politicians and bureaucrats--a move lots of teachers would probably applaud. But his approach will undoubtedly raise cries of protest because he wants to let parents and students choose their schools. And he wants a system in which any organization--including a private school--could become part of the public-education enterprise and receive public funds.

Following its release, Chubb and Moe’s book quickly stirred up a hornet’s nest among educators. Fans described it as “dynamite,’' an analytical “tour de force’’ that could shape the debate about school reform for years to come. But foes--many of whom have a lot to lose under the plan--called it a “suicide machine,’' a naive and dangerous solution to America’s educational problems.

One reason Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools has drawn so much national attention is that it comes out of the Brookings Institution--a prominent liberal think tank more noted for its studies of arms control than of schooling. Until now school choice programs have largely been associated with political conservatives.

But while it would not be obvious from the press coverage, most of the book is not about choice. Chubb and Moe set out to discover why some schools are successful in raising student achievement while others are not. Their conclusions are based on the most extensive survey of students in existence, High School and Beyond, an ongoing, federal study begun in 1980 to provide information about U.S. high schools and their students. The researchers’ analysis includes data gathered from approximately 500 public and private schools and from more than 20,000 students, teachers, and principals.

CHUBB AND MOE BEGAN their journey in the early 1980s. With funds from the U.S. Education Department, they designed a questionnaire for the survey that asked principals and teachers about the control and organization of their schools. The data were collected in 1984 and for the next several years, the researchers crunched the numbers and probed the information looking for patterns and cor- relations. Their 300-page book emerged from a small mountain of computer printouts, some of which are still crammed underneath Chubb’s desk at Brookings.

Although drawings by the oldest of his three children--ages 9, 5, and 5 months--hang on the door to his office, this is clearly a room devoted to business. Boxes of papers, still unpacked from his move to Brookings six years ago, tower near the entrance. Bookshelves rise toward the ceiling. Sitting at his desk amid this orderly chaos, Chubb projects a sense of adolescent exuberance and absolute confidence in his work. And no wonder.

Even critics of the book’s recommendations acknowledge the soundness of its findings and analysis. In their effort to define what makes an effective school, Chubb and Moe examined the factors that traditionally have been thought to affect student achievement: innate student ability, family background and parental involvement, the size of the school and the socioeconomic status of its student body, and per-pupil expenditures. But they also looked at how schools were organized and governed, scrutinizing such characteristics as leadership, goals, the roles and relationships of principals and teachers, and the expectations for students.

They studied public schools and private schools--the “politics’’ and “markets,’' respectively, that give the book its name.

Perhaps their most encouraging finding is that well-organized, well-run schools can make a significant difference for students, “regardless of their ability and background.’'

“If you’re in a good school, rather than a bad school, you really can learn a great deal more,’' says Chubb, leaning forward for emphasis. His research shows that students in effective schools gain more than a year of achievement during the course of their high school career compared with students in ineffective ones.

In fact, school organization is so potent that it exceeds the influence of either family or friends in its effects on student achievement. And it has twice the impact of the socioeconomic status of the student body as a whole.

“All things being equal,’' the researchers conclude, “a student in an effectively organized school should achieve at least a half year more than a student in an ineffectively organized school over the last two years of high school. If that difference can be extrapolated to the normal four-year high school experience, an effectively organized school may increase the achievement of its students by more than one full year.’'

In short, says Chubb, what really separates good schools from bad is their organization. Effective schools in both the public and private sectors are characterized by strong leadership, clear goals, ambitious academic programs, teamwork, and teacher professionalism.

TEACHERS IN THE EFFECTIVE schools, Chubb says, were “treated like professionals.’' They were given more freedom, involved in more decisions, able to form a cohesive team, and respected for their opinions.

Principals in these schools were more likely to judge their teachers as excellent. The teachers spent more time meeting with one another to coordinate instruction. They regarded one another as more helpful with their classroom problems. They worked more assiduously to align their courses. And they were more knowledgeable about one another’s classes.

In ineffective schools, Chubb says, “teachers behaved like, and were treated like, common civil servants.’'

Such research confirms the work of many previous scholars, who have identified the organizational characteristics associated with effective schools. But when Chubb and Moe plumbed the data even further, they came up with an extremely disquieting conclusion: Most of the efforts to improve student performance to date have been headed in the wrong direction.

“The past decade has been the most ambitious period of school reform in the nation’s history,’' says Chubb, waving his pencil to make the point. “But evidence of school improvement--in test scores and dropout rates-- is almost impossible to find.’' That is so, he maintains, despite massive increases in spending and the dedicated, aggressive efforts of reformers.

The problem, according to Chubb and Moe’s analysis, is that student achievement is not significantly influenced by any of the factors that reformers have worked hardest to improve, including more spending per pupil, higher teacher salaries, smaller class sizes, or stiffer graduation requirements. In fact, they argue, many of these reforms have inundated schools with new rules and regulations that only make it harder for them to become effective. That’s because the primary predictor of whether a school is effective or not is autonomy: Good schools have the freedom to do what they want without much interference from above.

“The reason that school autonomy is crucial,’' Chubb explains, “is that the sorts of qualities that we find to be very important within schools...are simply very, very unlikely to develop in a bureaucratic setting where decisions are being made by and large by people outside of the school.’'

Their research found that effective schools experience 20 percent to 50 percent less interference from superintendents and districtlevel administrators than ineffective schools do in matters ranging from curriculum and instruction to the hiring and firing of teachers.

Chubb, who meets frequently with teachers, says they “tend to be very sympathetic’’ to such findings. Many public school educators report feeling hampered and harried by top-down mandates and detailed prescriptions about how to do their jobs.

In contrast, the researchers found, private schools are subject to much less bureaucratic interference than public ones. Thus they are far, far more likely to be effective. Their setting is usually more collegial, and teachers tend to have more autonomy and to be treated like professionals. The only public schools likely to enjoy the same measure of freedom as private schools are those located in suburban settings that serve high-achieving students and welleducated parents.

“The kinds of qualities that contemporary school reformers would like public schools to develop,’' Chubb and Moe assert, “private schools have developed without external reform at all.’'

The problem, the two men purport, is politics--or, rather, the current democratic system of school governance. And it is ruining the nation’s schools. That’s a sobering conclusion from individuals who have spent most of their adult lives studying how government institutions function.

CHUBB AND MOE MET IN THE 1970s as graduate students at the University of Minnesota. They had adjoining offices at Stanford University, where they both taught political science, and moved East together in 1984 to work as senior fellows at the Brookings Institution in Washington. In 1986 Moe returned to Stanford to resume teaching.

Although both men attended public schools as children and have been doing research on schools for nearly a decade, they remain outsiders to the education establishment. Neither is an educator by training.

“We’re political scientists,’' says Moe. “And for us, schools are interesting because they’re so political and because they are really part of the public bureaucracy. That’s the way we approach it. And that’s the way we’ve always thought of it.’'

Last year, however, Chubb came very close to leaving his ivory tower for the grittier world of politics. The man who says he’s “voted Democratic more often than Republican’’ almost joined the Bush Administration to become the President’s education adviser. The plan went awry when U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos learned of Chubb’s imminent appointment through a story in Education Week.

Chubb, with characteristic candor, had told the paper that his new role would be to advise the president, represent his views, and provide a “counterpoint to the views of the [Education] department.’'

Cavazos was so outraged that the job offer was promptly withdrawn. President Bush’s domestic-policy adviser subsequently said the Brookings scholar had either been misquoted or mistaken about the position.

It was, perhaps, a tempest in a teapot, but it helped prepare Chubb for the storm he is now stirring on the national education scene.

Despite his abortive romance with the Bush Administration, Chubb shares with the White House an almost burning belief in choice as the solution to America’s educational ailments. But he is a fairly recent convert to that position. When he and Moe began their research, they had no policy prescriptions in mind. In fact, Chubb was dubious that schools governed by politics and those governed by market forces would differ very much.

“It was strictly through looking at the data, comparing good schools and bad schools, comparing public schools and private schools, that I became convinced I was wrong,’' Chubb now says. “My view on this, in general, turned about 180 degrees.’'

As Chubb and Moe see it, the power to make decisions about public schools is constantly up for grabs among individuals and groups representing a diverse array of social interests. The “winners’’ in these battles--through their elected and appointed leaders--have the legal right to impose their policy decisions on everyone else.

Although parents, students, and teachers are part of the broad constituency that governs the public schools, they have no special right to “win’’ in the fight for public authority since that right belongs to whichever interest group or political constituency proves strongest.

This constant battle results in bureaucracy for two reasons. First, the “winners’’ need to ensure that those lower down in the system will carry out their policies, whether they agree with them or not. So they pass rules and regulations to ensure compliance. Second, because those in control know they may not keep their positions forever, they try to make their policies permanent through legislative and regulatory mandates.

Although public schools and teachers are granted some discretion out of necessity, their autonomy is sharply limited. Moreover, to insulate even that limited discretion from political intrusion requires civil-service laws, tenure, and other regulatory safeguards that actually serve to increase bureaucracy still further. “If society wants to prescribe everything that schools do, then this is the price you pay,’' Chubb asserts. “You’re going to have a system that’s very bureaucratic. You’re going to have a system where the best people don’t want to work, where you’re not going to get good leaders, and so forth.’' Maybe that’s what society wants, he adds. “We’s not worth the price.’'

In contrast, the researchers contend, private schools tend to develop fewer bureaucratic constraints precisely because they are not subject to political battles, changes in elected leadership, and the conflicting demands of multiple layers of government. While public schools are responsive to a distant bureaucracy, private schools are responsive to students and parents, who are free to take their business and go elsewhere.

The political scientists’ solution is to govern public schools more like private ones by injecting a hefty dose of market competition.

Chubb has spent the past two years traveling around the nation bouncing his ideas off audiences. His speaking engagements have ranged from appearances before teachers and school administrators to lectures for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and private meetings with high-powered corporate executives.

Although Moe contributed equally to the study, he is much less in the limelight. The 41-year-old Californian has chosen to spend most of his time at home at Stanford researching and teaching.

Meanwhile, Chubb clearly relishes an audience. With his blue eyes, wavy brown hair, and politician’s grin he could be mistaken for a member of the far-flung Kennedy clan. As a speaker, he is a pro. He barely looks at his notes. He waves his hands emphatically to underscore a point. His outfits look tailormade for Capitol Hill. That bright, confident demeanor, combined with his Ivy League looks, makes his message hard to ignore.

“John is charming and aggressive,’' says Sy Fliegel, Gilder Education Fellow at the Manhattan Institute in New York City and former director of alternative education for District 4 in East Harlem. “Then again, sometimes he’s aggressive and less charming. It all depends on who you are in the audience.’'

So far Chubb has definitely not managed to charm leaders of the national teachers unions, who are referring to his and Moe’s proposal as a thinly veiled “voucher plan’’ that is not supported by their research.

UNDER THE SYSTEM PRoposed in the book, statewide tenure laws would be eliminated, and collective bargaining in most cases would be carried out at the school, rather than the district, level-- and even then, only if teachers wanted it. Keith Geiger, president of the National Education Association, calls the plan “imprudent and impractical.’'

But Moe claims a new system of democratic control is essential and logical--and just as legitimate as the present one. “Over the years, people have come to define democracy in public education in terms of school boards and superintendents and central-office bureaucracies and the kinds of institutions that we have had for decades and decades,’' he says. “But there’s just nothing to that definition. It’s entirely unwarranted. There are lots of ways to organize education democratically.’'

Under his and Chubb’s proposal, states would set new, minimal criteria for what constitutes a “public school’'--criteria roughly equivalent to the standards that private schools must now meet. Any group or organization that applied to the state and met those criteria--including existing public and private schools--would be chartered as a public school and granted the right to accept students and receive public funds.

Each school would be free to govern itself as it wanted; specify its own goals, programs, and methods; select its own student body (subject to nondiscrimination laws); and hire and fire its own teachers.

Students and parents could choose from among any public school in their state, aided by a state-operated “choice office’’ in each district. A special safety-net procedure would ensure that each student was assigned to a specific school.

Public money from federal, state, and local sources would flow from the choice offices directly to the schools. The funds would take the form of scholarships that would follow each student. At no point would money go to individual families. As it does now, the state could specify a minimum amount that each district contributes per child and provide for some kind of equalization formula. Add-ons to student scholarships from state and federal resources would provide more money for children with the greatest needs--such as those with physical handicaps, language problems, and other disadvantages.

Although district governments would be free to run their present schools, they would have to vie with these new competitors for students. And they would have authority only over their own schools and not over any of the others chartered by the state. The district’s only other role would be as a taxing authority that allowed citizens to determine their contribution to their children’s scholarships.

States would no longer hold schools accountable for student achievement on the basis of standardized tests or for any other assessments of quality. Instead, schools would be held accountable by parents and students who directly receive a school’s services and are free to leave schools they disliked. Although individual schools could choose to use standardized tests, they would not have to do so. The state’s role would be to monitor the full and honest disclosure of information by schools, ensure that schools met the requirements of their initial charter, pay to support the choice office in each district, and assist in funding and transportation.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, calls the book’s analysis of the bureaucratic constraints facing public education “devastating.’' But like Geiger of the NEA, he believes its solution is “very flawed.’' What Chubb and Moe propose is “essentially a type of voucher plan,’' he says. “And I think that has substantial weaknesses, mostly because--as we see now with savingsand-loan associations--when you get substantial deregulation there are unanticipated consequences.’'

Shanker insists that choice is not the only mechanism for introducing much-needed incentives into the public schools. “You can have a range of awards and punishments based on educational outcomes’’ that would be more likely to focus innovations on improved student learning, he says.

Indeed, it is hard to overestimate the political opposition that Chubb and Moe may encounter. For years, “freedom of choice’’ was the rallying cry of white Southerners fleeing integrated schools. And many of those images linger. Similarly, “voucher plans’’ have long been viewed mainly as a recipe for allowing parents to send their children to private schools at public expense.

Along with its answers, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools raises some troubling questions:

Would Americans accept the tremendous educational diversity that a national choice system could bring? Or would they insist that all students learn certain core precepts in common? As Shanker points out, market schools would have no obligation to teach the democratic goals and values that Americans have always counted on their schools to teach.

Would allowing religious schools to become chartered as public schools--even when the money follows individual students-- violate the constitutional separation of church and state?

Would most parents care enough about the differences in schools to make an effort to find the best one for their children? Or would they just send their children to the closest school?

Are market incentives alone as powerful as Chubb and Moe insist? Or is something more needed to force schools to boost student learning? S INCE BROOKINGS UNVEILED the book on June 8, criticisms have been mounting. At the forum held in Washington to celebrate its release, several educators warned that if schools were allowed to set their own admissions standards few would accept students with disciplinary or academic problems. Others wondered whether parents would make decisions based on the educational quality of schools, rather than the performance of their sports teams or their physical facilities.

In addition, critics have raised a number of logistical questions about the book’s recommendations. Gary Watts, senior director of the NEA’s center for innovation in education, says “the practicalities of trashing the current system and installing a new one are absolutely mindboggling. The lawsuits alone could keep an army of lawyers busy for years.’'

Chubb admits that much of the evidence in support of their proposal has to be hypothetical. “Until a system such as the one we would recommend has been implemented, there can be no certainty,’' he says. “But there is considerable certainty about the failure of the system that’s out there now, and we offer lots of evidence for that.’'

“On average,’' he contends, “American education, to put it kindly, is mediocre, and many, many of our schools are simply dreadful.’' While he applauds recent efforts to “professionalize’’ teaching and to move more decisionmaking down to the school site, he is pessimistic that such approaches will work. As long as states and districts maintain ultimate authority over education, he asserts, they will be pressured by political-interest groups to reassert that authority and resume top-down control. “You cannot count on the people who have built up the bureaucracy over the last 75 years to dismantle it,’' he says.

But whether everyone agrees with their vision or not, it is clear that Chubb and Moe have struck a chord. “We’ve both written a lot about a variety of things,’' says Chubb, “but no one ever paid any attention to us until we began writing about this.’'

Across the nation, support for choice has been growing--and not only among political conservatives. More than half the states have passed or are examining some type of limited choice proposal. The foot is very much in the door.

But what Chubb and Moe propose is far more sweeping than any choice plan to date. Most importantly, they argue that asking parents to choose among existing public schools is no choice at all. “That’s sort of Soviet-style choice,’' Chubb maintains. They want “perestroika.’'

Until teachers, principals, parents, and students are able to create schools spontaneously and freely to meet their own needs--to open up, in essence, the supply side of the educational marketplace--choice is a charade, the political scientists argue. A true choice system has to give parents something to choose from.

“In saying that choice is a panacea, we’re trying to get across the point that choice should be seen as a fundamentally different reform than all of the others,’' Chubb says. “It fundamentally changes the system of public education, changes the incentives for everybody, and makes possible the things that reformers would like to see happen.’'

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as Prescription For A Revolution


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