School & District Management

Pushing the Envelope of What Makes a Public School

By Lynn Olson — September 10, 1997 4 min read

Paul T. Hill has been a thorn in the side of the education establishment for years. Whether it’s his research on decentralization, his studies of school choice, or his proposal that local boards farm out the operation of their schools to independent providers, Mr. Hill like to challenge Americans’ notions of what makes a public school public.

A political scientist by training, the 54-year-old scholar has become convinced that marginal, inside-the-system solutions to improving education won’t work. Four years ago, he created the Center for Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington to look for answers that will bring about real change.

“The good thing about American public education is that the people in it regard themselves as all part of the same profession and the same community,” he says. “The bad part is that the modus operandi is ‘I don’t profoundly threaten your self-interest and you don’t threaten mine.’ I think, fundamentally, that’s why it has to be an outsider’s agenda.”

‘Contract Schools’

His most recent book, Reinventing Public Education: How Contracting Can Transform America’s Schools, written with Lawrence C. Pierce and James W. Guthrie, proposes that school boards turn over the day-to-day operation of schools to independent providers, rather than having the government run schools directly. Any school supported with public money and operated under a legal agreement with a school board would, by definition, be a public school.

The idea is that every public school would have such an agreement. The “contract” would define each school’s mission, its guarantee of public funding, and how it would be held accountable for results. The goal is to create the kind of simpler, more focused schools that Mr. Hill studied in the Roman Catholic sector while he was a researcher with the RAND Corp.

Mr. Hill envisions a sea of contract schools, each with its own mission, its own budget and staffing, and its own approach to instruction. Parent would be free to choose from among them.

Theodore R. Sizer, a professor of education emeritus at Brown University, describes the book’s idea as “quiet, thorough, and constructive.”

Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University and a nonresident senior fellow in governmental studies at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, calls Mr. Hill “one of the most thoughtful policy analysts in education.”

“I think his great strength is that he’s generally recognized as fair-minded,” she says. “And people from different ends of the political spectrum listen to him.”

Before founding the center, Mr. Hill spent 17 years as a senior social scientist at RAND, where he studied site-based management, effective high schools, and business-led education reforms. He also contributed to studies of defense research, development, and acquisition.

A Self-Critic

Mr. Hill formed the center, housed in the graduate school of public affairs at the University of Washington in Seattle, based on the assumption that he could be his own best critic.

“I wanted both to make a strong statement of an idea--the contracting idea,” he said, “and not become a complete, unbending advocate.”

One of the primary missions of the center, which receives financial support from businesses and private foundations, is to explore the implications of “contract schools” for parental choice, teacher-labor markets, and school accountability.

The center also works with other groups-such as the Brooking Institution; the RAND Corp.; Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn.; and the University of Chicago--to explore new ideas about the way public schools are governed. And it conducts research on school reform projects in Washington state and in Seattle.

‘Zone of Wishful Thinking’

One of the center’s most recent ventures is a study of “cause and effect in education reform,” sponsored by the Brookings Institution, where Mr. Hill is a nonresident senior fellow.

After examining idea such as higher academic standards, charter schools, vouchers, decentralization, and contract schools, Mr. Hill concluded that they all harbor a “zone of wishful thinking.”

In other words, they all assume some things will happen to affect students and schools that the change itself will not cause. In the case of decentralization, reformer assumed that by shifting power to individual schools, parents and teacher could reach a consensus about how to improve learning.

“And the formation of that consensus, in more cases than not,” Mr. Hill says, “turned out to be highly problematical.”

With Brookings’ sponsorship, the center now hopes to develop “hybrid models” of reform that combine solid ideas about instruction with new model of school governance.

Mr. Hill also has a five-year grant from the Spencer Foundation to explore whether distinctive schools increase social divisions--a common criticism, for example, of charter schools. He hopes to address the charge that schools with a focused mission somehow undercut the common purpose of education in a democracy.

In collaboration with Vanderbilt University, the center also has begun a project to examine what makes schools productive.

Besides Mr. Hill, the center’s staff includes three research assistants and Mr. Pierce, a former dean of education at Louisiana State University.

“What I like about Paul is that he thinks pretty broadly about what the implications of governance structures are for what can happen in schools,” says Susan F. Lusi, the director of policy for the Annenberg Institute for School Reform at Brown University. “He’s really thinking about supporting schools as a whole and helping schools to become whole and healthy organizations.”

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A version of this article appeared in the September 10, 1997 edition of Education Week as Pushing the Envelope of What Makes a Public School


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