The Marketplace Of Ideas

August 01, 1990 3 min read

It is one of the more insidious dangers of this age of mass media and instant communication that we quickly become inured to problems that do not immediately affect us in our day-to-day lives. If continuous and prolonged media coverage of problems does not breed acceptance in us, it at least creates a kind of passivity, a sense of detachment. Constantly faced with a numbing array of crises, our collective concentration span is short. Understandably so. How can one sustain concern, let alone outrage, over the endless litany of ills that seem beyond the influence of ordinary people--savings and loan scandals, ozone depletion, AIDS, sidewalk drug sales, homelessness, mounting national deficits, even, perhaps, a foundering educational system? So, in writing about a new book on the problems of public education-- Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools by John Chubb and Terry Moe--we risk evoking in our readers the response of “Oh no, not another report on school reform!’' And in devoting six pages of unadorned text to some complex ideas, we risk losing readers. The editor of another national magazine for teachers, for example, eschews such risks--perhaps because she seems to think that real teachers need not concern themselves with the larger educational issues. In an editor’s note in her magazine several months ago, she made disparaging reference to “reform initiatives,’' then cited an article in that issue on a teaching unit on mice. She concluded her column with a one-question “test’’ for her readers: “What subjects do you think are among the most important in elementary education today? a) mice, b) frogs, c) bears, d) reform initiatives. If you answered a, b, or c, congratulations! You’re undoubtedly a teacher in the truest sense of the word.’' Why, we wonder, shouldn’t teachers teach about mice in their classrooms and still be interested in the national debate over the quality and direction of our schools? They should. But the fact is, a fair number of teachers and administrators we have talked with over the years believe that much of the ferment in education during the 1980s was a lot of “sound and fury, signifying nothing.’' What policymakers say and do, they argue, doesn’t really have anything to do with what goes on in the classroom. Chubb and Moe make a strong case to the contrary. Indeed, after studying schools for nearly a decade, they have amassed convincing evidence that the democratic (and political) agencies that govern public education are, in fact, the cause of what they call the present “education crisis.’' The decisions made by state and district officials, they insist, have everything to do with what goes on in local schools. And our public schools, they claim, are not likely to be successful until they are freed from bureaucratic control and turned over to teachers and principals. When we scheduled this month’s cover story back in early spring, we did not know that this new book was about to be published. Our objective in writing about Debbie Baker, a teacher at Bear Creek High School, and Anne Strobridge, a teacher at Colorado Academy, was to look at the differences between teaching in public and private schools. We decided to substitute the article on Chubb and Moe’s book for a feature story originally scheduled for events that might affect them and their schools. When both stories were written and in hand, we realized that, in some ways, Baker and Strobridge are very specific human examples of the academic thesis that Chubb and Moe present in their book. In order to assess the influence of politics and markets on the nation’s schools, the two researchers compared public and private schools--how they are organized and governed, and how they perform in terms of student achievement. Every working day of their lives, Baker and Strobridge teach in the different worlds that Chubb and Moe analyze. The issue is not whether private schools are better than public schools or vice versa. The point is not whether one agrees or disagrees with the radical conclusions and recommendations in this new book. The all-important task of informing young minds. That’s what the school reform debate is about. And Chubb and Moe’s ideas will become part of it and may influence the opinions of policymakers and the public. It is a debate that eventually affect teachers--whether they participate in it or not, whether they like it or not. Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1990 edition of Teacher as The Marketplace Of Ideas