Excerpts From New Brookings Institution Book on Schools

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Following are excerpts from Politics, Markets, and America's Schools, by John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe and to be published by the Brookings Institution.

The American public school system is bureaucratic and political. This is a simple, accurate description that, in itself, carries no value judgment; for, despite the negative connotations so often attached to these characteristics, neither is intrinsically bad or undesirable. ...

Its bureaucracy problem is not that the system is bureaucratic at all, but that it is too heavily bureaucratic--too hierarchical, too rule-bound, too formalistic--to allow for the kind of autonomy and to promote the kind of professionalism schools need if they are to perform well. Its political problem is not that it is subject to any sort of democratic politics, but that the specific political institutions by which the schools are governed actively promote and protect this overbureaucratization. ...

[D]emocratic authorities (and their group supporters) are driven to bureaucratize the schools in response to two basic problems that plague their efforts to impose higher-order values on the schools: hierarchical control and political uncertainty. The former is a problem experienced in all large organizations. The people at the top cannot assume that the people at the bottom will do what they want them to do, so they resort to various bureaucratic means of engineering compliance. The political uncertainty problem, on the other hand, is a trademark of democratic politics. It arises because those in authority have uncertain future rights to gov8ern, and therefore must take steps to protect their favored policies from hierarchical control by opponents who may govern in the future.

These problems jointly determine how bureaucracy is put to use. Those in positions of authority have strong incentives to use bureaucracy as a means of exercising hierarchical control--but, because any control mechanisms they set up might fall into the wrong hands, they also have strong incentives to use bureaucracy as a means of protecting against hierarchical control. Bureaucracy is both a means of control and a means of protection.

All this promotes an admixture of organizational properties that lend distinctive structural form to American public education--a form that, were it not for politics, would be perplexing indeed. To put it most generally: schools and their personnel are granted a measure of discretion by technical necessity, but detailed formal specifications in legislative mandates and administrative regulations are voluminously imposed on all concerned, so that the schools' scope for discretionary action is sharply narrowed--and the discretion that remains is then insulated from political control through extensive reliance on civil service, tenure, (nominal) professionalism, and other structural means. Schools are thus subject to democratic control, but they are purposely made difficult to control. Schools are filled with "professionals," but their personnel are systematically and intentionally denied the discretion they need to act as professionals. Schools give the appearance of substantial autonomy, but what they have is in4sulation without discretion--which is really not autonomy at all. ...

Autonomy has the strongest influence on the overall quality of school organization of any factor that we examined. Bureaucracy is unambiguously bad for school organization. But bureaucracy is not the most fundamental impediment to more effective schools. That distinction belongs to direct democratic control.

Autonomy turns out to be heavily dependent on the institutional structure of school control. In the private sector, where schools are controlled by markets--indirectly and from the bottom up--autonomy is generally high. In the public sector, where schools are controlled by politics--directly and from the top down--autonomy is generally low. Under special circumstances--in small systems with good students--autonomy can be high in the public sector too. But the fact remains, institutions of democratic control work systematically and powerfully to discourage school autonomy and, in turn, school effectiveness. If public schools are ever to become substantially more effective, the institutions that control them must first be changed. ...

The most sensible approach to genuine educational reform is therefore to move toward a true institutional solution--a different set of institutional arrangements that is compatible with, and indeed actively promotes and nurtures, the kinds of schools people want. The market alternative then becomes particularly attractive, for it provides a setting in which these organizations can flourish and take root. ...

Without being too literal about it, we think reformers would do well to entertain the notion that choice is a panacea. This is our way of saying that choice is not like the other reforms and should not be combined with them as part of a reformist strategy for improving America's public schools. Choice is a self-contained reform with its own rationale and justification. It has the capacity all by itself to bring about the kind of transformation that, for years, reformers have been seeking to engineer in myriad other ways. Indeed, if choice is to work to greatest advantage, it must be adopted without these other reforms, since the latter are predicated on democratic control and are implemented by bureaucratic means. The whole point of a thoroughgoing system of choice is to free the schools from these disabling constraints by sweeping away the old institutions and replacing them with new ones. Taken seriously, choice is not a system-preserving reform. It is a revolutionary reform that introduces a new system of public education. ...

What we propose ... is that state leaders create a new system of public education with the following properties.

The Supply of Public Schools

The state will have the responsibility for setting criteria that define what constitutes a "public school" under the new system. These criteria should be quite minimal, roughly corresponding to the criteria many states now employ in accrediting private schools--graduation requirements, health and safety requirements, and teacher certification requirements.

Any group or organization that applies to the state and meets these minimal criteria must then be chartered as a public school and granted the right to accept students and receive public money.

Existing private schools will of course be among those eligible to participate. Their participation should be encouraged since they constitute a ready supply of often-effective schools. (Our own preference would be to include religious schools as well, as long as their sectarian functions can be kept clearly separate from their educational functions.) Any private schools that do participate will thereby become public schools, as such schools are defined under the new system.

District governments can continue running their present schools, assuming the latter meet state criteria. They have authority, however, only over their own schools and not over any of the others that may be chartered by the state.

The Funding of Public Education

The state will set up a Choice Office in each district, which, among other things, will maintain a record of all school-age children and the level of funding--the "scholarship" amounts--associated with each child. Schools will be compensated directly by this office based on the specific children they enroll. Public money will flow from funding sources (federal, state, and district governments) to the Choice Office and then to schools. At no point will it go to parents or students.

As it does now, the state will have the right to specify how much, or by what formula, each district must contribute for each child. Our own preference is for an equalization approach that requires wealthier districts to contribute more per child than poor districts do and that guarantees students in all districts an adequate financial foundation. The state's contribution can then be calibrated to bring total spending per child up to whatever dollar amount seems desirable; under an equalization scheme, this would mean a larger state contribution in poor districts than in wealthy ones.

While it is important to give parents and students as much flexibility as possible, we think it is unwise to allow them to supplement their scholarship amounts with personal funds. Such "add-ons" threaten to produce too many disparities and inequalities within the public system, and many citizens would regard them as unfair and burdensome.

Complete equalization, on the other hand, strikes us as too stifling and restrictive. A reasonable trade-off, we believe, is to allow for collective add-ons (much as the current system does). The citizens of each district can be given the freedom to decide whether they want to spend more per child than the state requires them to spend. They can then determine how important education is to them and how much they are willing to tax themselves for it. This means that children from different districts will often have different-sized scholarships.

Scholarships may also vary within any given district, and we strongly think that they should. Some students have very special educational needs--arising from economic deprivation, physical handicaps, language difficulties, emotional problems, and other disadvantages--that can only be met effectively through specialized programs that are costly to provide. State and federal programs already appropriate public money to address these problems. Our suggestion is that these funds should take the form of add-ons to student scholarships. At-risk students would then be empowered with bigger scholarships than the others, making them attractive clients to all schools (and stimulating the emergence of new specialty schools).

The state must pay to support its own Choice Office in each district. Districts may retain as much of their current governing apparatus as they wish--superintendents, school boards, central offices, and all their staff. But they have to pay for them entirely out of the revenue they derive from the scholarships of those children who voluntarily choose to attend district-run schools. Aside from the governance of these schools (which no one need attend), districts will be little more than taxing authorities that allow citizens to make a collective determination as to how large their children's scholarships will be.

Each student will be free to attend any public school in the state, regardless of district, with the relevant scholarship--consisting of federal, state, and local contributions--flowing to the school of choice. In practice, of course, most students will probably choose schools in reasonable proximity to their homes. But districts will have no claim on their own residents.

To the extent that tax revenues allow, every effort will be made to provide transportation for students that need it. This is important in helping to open up as many alternatives as possible to all students, especially the poor and those located in rural areas.

To assist parents and students in choosing among schools, the state will provide a Parent Information Center within its local Choice Office. This Center will collect comprehensive information on each school in the district, and its parent liaisons will meet personally with parents in helping them judge which schools best meet their children's needs. The emphasis here will be on personal contact and involvement. Parents will be required to visit the center at least once, and encouraged to do so often. Meetings will be arranged at all schools so that parents can see first-hand what their choices are.

The applications process will be handled in simple fashion by the Parent Information Center. Once parents and students decide which schools they prefer, they will fill out applications to each, with parent liaisons available to give advice and assistance (including filling out the applications themselves, if necessary). All applications will be submitted to the Center, which in turn will send them out to the schools.

Schools will make their own admissions decisions, subject only to nondiscrimination requirements. This is absolutely crucial. Schools must be able to define their own missions and build their own programs in their own ways, and they cannot do this if their student population is thrust upon them by outsiders. They must be free to admit as many or as few students as they want, based on whatever criteria they think relevant--intelligence, interest, motivation, behavior, special needs--and they must be free to exercise their own, informal judgments about individual applicants.

Schools will set their own "tuitions." They may choose to do this explicitly--say, by publicly announcing the minimum scholarship they are willing to accept. They may also do it implicitly by allowing anyone to apply for admission and simply making selections, knowing in advance what each applicant's scholarship amount is. In either case, schools are free to admit students with different-sized scholarships, and they are free to keep the entire scholarship that accompanies each student they have admitted: This gives all schools incentives to attract students with special needs, since these children will have the largest scholarships. It also gives schools incentives to attract students from districts with high base-level scholarships. But no school need restrict itself to students with special needs, nor to students from a single district.

The applications process must take place within a framework that guarantees each student a school, as well as a fair shot at getting into the schools he or she most wants. It is important, however, that such a framework impose only the most minimal restrictions on the schools. We suggest something like the following. The Parent Information Center has the responsibility for seeing that parents and students are informed, that they have visited the schools that interest them, and that all applications are submitted by a given date. Schools will then be required to make their admissions decisions within a set time, and students who are accepted into one or more schools will be required to select one as their final choice. Students who are not accepted anywhere, as well as schools that have yet to attract as many students as they want, will participate in a second round of applications, which will work the same way. After this second round, some students may remain without schools (although, judging from the East Harlem experience, probably very few). At this point, parent liaisons will take informal action to try to match up these students with appropriate schools. If any students still remain, a special safety-net procedure will be invoked to ensure that each is assigned to a specific school.

Schools must also be free to expel students or deny them readmission when, based on their own experience and standards, they believe the situation warrants it (as long as they are not "arbitrary and capricious"). This is essential if schools are to define and control their own organizations, and it gives students a strong incentive to live up to their side of the educational "contract."

Governance and OrganizationOf the Public Schools

Each school must be granted sole authority to determine its own governing structure. It may be run entirely by teachers or even a union. It may vest all power in a principal. It may be built around committees that guarantee representation to the principal, teachers, parents, students, and members of the community. Or it may do something completely different. The state must refrain from imposing any structures or rules that specify how authority is to be exercised within the school. This is meant to include the district-run schools: the state must not impose any governing apparatus on them either. These schools, however, are subordinate units within district government--they are already embedded in a larger organization--and it is the district authorities, not the schools, that have the legal right to determine how they will be governed.

More generally, the state will do nothing to tell the schools how they must be internally organized to do their work. There will be no requirements for career ladders, advisory committees, textbook selection, in-service training, preparation time, homework, or anything else. The schools will be organized and operated as they see fit.

Statewide tenure laws will be eliminated, allowing each school to decide for itself whether or not to adopt a tenure policy and what the specifics of that policy will be. This is essential if schools are to have the flexibility they need in building a well-functioning team. Some schools may not offer tenure at all, relying on pay and working conditions to attract the kinds of teachers they want, while others may offer tenure as a supplementary means of compensating and retaining their best teachers. Teachers, meantime, may demand tenure in their negotiations (individual or collective) with schools--and, as in private colleges and universities, the best teachers are well positioned to get it (since they can take their valued services elsewhere). District governments may continue to offer districtwide tenure, along with transfer rights and seniority preference and whatever other personnel policies they have adopted in the past. But these policies apply only to district-run schools and the teachers who work in them.

Teachers will continue to have a right to join unions and engage in collective bargaining, but the legally prescribed bargaining unit will be the individual school or--as in the case of the district government--the larger organization that runs the school. If teachers in a given school want to join a union or, having done so, want to exact financial or structural concessions, that is up to them. But they will not be allowed to commit other teachers and other schools to the same things, and they must suffer the consequences if their victories put them at a competitive disadvantage in supplying quality education. Similarly, if teachers at district-run schools want to remain unionized, their unions may continue to bargain centrally for all of them. But their decisions will not apply to any other public schools in the district.

The state will continue to certify teachers, but requirements will be minimal--corresponding to those that, in many states, have historically been applied to private schools. In our view, individuals should be certified to teach if they have a bachelor's degree and if their personal history reveals no obvious problems. The question of whether they are truly good teachers will be determined in practice, as schools determine whom to hire, observe their own teachers in action over an extended period of time, and make decisions about merit, promotion, and dismissal. The schools may, as a matter of strategy, choose to pay attention to certain formal indicators of past or future performance, among them: a master's degree, completion of a voluntary teacher certification program at an education school, or voluntary certification by a national board. Some schools may choose to require one or more of these, or perhaps to reward them in various ways. But that is up to the schools--which will be able to look anywhere for good teachers in a now much larger and more dynamic market.

The state will hold the schools accountable for meeting procedural requirements. It will ensure that schools continue to meet the criteria presumed by their charters, that they adhere to nondiscrimination laws in admissions and other matters, and that they collect and make available to the public--via the Parent Information Center--certain types of information: on their mission, their staff and course offerings, parent and student satisfaction, staff opinions, standardized test scores (which we would make optional), and anything else that would promote informed choice among parents and students.

The state will not, on the other hand, hold the schools accountable for student achievement or other dimensions that call for assessments of the quality of school performance. When it comes to performance, schools are held accountable from below, by parents and students who directly experience their services and are free to choose. The state plays a crucial supporting role here in monitoring the full and honest disclosure of information by the school--but it is only a supporting role.

Vol. 09, Issue 37

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