Outside Looking In
Paul 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, Hill likes to challenge America's 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 bigger answers that will bring 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 explains. "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."
His most recent book, Reinventing Public Education: How Contracting Can Transform America's Schools, written with Lawrence Pierce and James Guthrie, proposes that any school supported with public funds and operated under a legal agreement with a local school board be, by definition, a public school. Their idea is that every public school would have such a "contract." This 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 Hill studied in the Catholic sector while he was a researcher with the RAND Corp. He envisions a landscape filled with contract schools, each with its own mission, its own budget and staffing, and its own approach to instruction. Parents would be free to choose among all of them.
Theodore Sizer, a professor of education emeritus at Brown University, describes the book's ideas as "quiet, thorough, and constructive."
Diane Ravitch, a senior research scholar at New York University, calls Hill "one of the most thoughtful policy analysts in education." She says, "His great strength is that he's generally recognized as fair-minded. And people from different ends of the political spectrum listen to him."
Before founding the center, Hill spent 17 years as a senior social scientist at RAND, where he conducted studies on site-based management, effective high schools, and business-led education reforms. He formed the center, housed in the graduate school of public affairs at the University of Washington, in the hopes that he could be his own best critic. "I wanted both to make a strong statement of an idea--the contracting idea," he says, "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, the teacher job market, and school accountability.
The center also works with other groups--such as the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank; the RAND Corp.; Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee; 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.
One of its most recent ventures is a study of cause and effect in education reform. The research is sponsored by Brookings, where Hill is a nonresident senior fellow. After examining reform ideas such as standards, charter schools, vouchers, decentralization, and contract schools, Hill concluded that they all harbor a "zone of wishful thinking." In other words, each reform makes assumptions about its effects on students and schools that are not always realized. In the case of decentralization, reformers assumed that by placing power in individual schools, parents and teachers could reach a consensus about how to improve learning. "The formation of that consensus, in more cases than not," Hill asserts, "turned out to be highly problematical."
With Brookings' backing, the center now hopes to develop "hybrid models" of reform that combine solid ideas about instruction with new models of school governance. Hill also has a five-year grant from the Spencer Foundation to explore whether schools with a distinctive mission or focus--Afrocentric or Roman Catholic schools, for example--increase societal divisions, a common criticism of charter schools. He hopes to address the concern that schools with a mission somehow undercut the common purpose of education in a democracy.
"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 Lusi, 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."