Support First Things by turning your adblocker off or by making a  donation. Thanks!

Does Money Matter?
Edited by Gary Burtless.
Brookings, 296 pages, $39.95

Catholic Education: Homeward Bound
By Kimberly Hahn and Mary Hasson.
Ignatius, 400 pages, $14.95.

Choosing Schools: Vouchers and American Education 
By Jerome J. Hanus and Peter W. Cookson Jr. 
American University Press, 179 pages, $39.50

The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them
By E. D. Hirsch Jr.
Doubleday, 317 pages, $24.95.

Holding Schools Accountable 
Edited by Helen F. Ladd.
Brookings, 382 pages, $42.95.

Break These Chains: The Battle for School Choice
By Daniel McGroarty.
Prima Publishing, 258 pages, $23.95.

Celebrating the Humanities 
Edited by Michael Nelson.
Vanderbilt University Press, 269 pages, $28.95.

Beyond the Classroom 
By Laurence Steinberg.
Simon & Schuster, 223 pages, $22.

We have come far since the early 1980s when A Nation at Risk, the warning sounded by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, was echoed by a dozen other reports and studies documenting the decrepitude of primary and secondary schooling in the United States and urging that something be done to restore its quality. This year’s bumper crop of education books attests not only to Americans’ continuing interest in these matters but also to a profound transformation in our understanding of what is wrong and what must be done differently. 

 Those who addressed this topic in 1983 generally assumed that we could solve the problem by raising standards for students and teachers, tempering our mania for equity with a concern for quality, and generally doing a better job of what we were already about. The popular reforms of the day included, for example, the National Commission’s recommendation that every high school require all its students to study the “new basics”: four years of English, three years of math, etc. 

It seemed plenty bold at the time, emerging as we were from the decay of the 1970s, to be urged to downplay that decade’s preoccupation with individual liberties and group rights, with counting-by-race and “doing your own thing,” with boosting pupil esteem and mocking authority, with multiculturalism and diversity. We had been overindulging in educational and cultural bonbons and the effects showed around our national waistline. The reformers’ insistence that we get ourselves into shape sounded severe but necessary. 

Yet few of that era’s prominent reformers seriously doubted that the public school “system” as we knew it was the proper vehicle for making those changes. They took for granted that the familiar machinery could produce better products if it were tuned up, adequately fueled, and properly directed. The requisite changes would be made by school boards and superintendents, principals and teachers, federal and state education departments, and would be “implemented” either in time-honored system-wide fashion or through equally familiar “pilot” and “demonstration” programs. 

 To be sure, restiveness could be detected in some precincts. Prominent “education governors” (including Arkansas’ Bill Clinton, Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, New Jersey’s Tom Kean, and South Carolina’s Richard Riley) took a more active role in school policy than had their predecessors, while Bill Bennett and a few colleagues (myself included) were voicing more heretical notions at the national level. But in most respects the “reforms” undertaken by American education in the 1980s happened within the familiar power relationships, structural arrangements, and long-established ground rules of the public school system as it had existed since the turn of the century. 

That is not to say they lacked variety and ambition. To mention just a few of the sometimes incompatible improvements we have tried: more demanding high school course requirements; minimum competency tests required for graduation; higher standards for teachers, usually involving tests that they must pass in order to get certified (or hired); the spread of “alternative certification” and other unconventional ways of bringing people into the classroom; all kinds of new approaches to pupil testing and assessment; state takeovers of failing school systems; merit pay for teachers; a thousand different prizes and recognitions for individuals and schools that do an exceptionally good job; myriad business and university partnerships with schools and school systems; innumerable variations on the theme of school restructuring and site-management; extended days and year-round schooling; “patented” programs named after such education holy men as Theodore Sizer, James Comer, Howard Gardner, and Henry Levin; and lots and lots of experiments with technology. 

Much was attempted. But a decade or so into most of these reforms, they haven’t wrought much by way of improved results. Most indicators of education quality are flat––or the gains are canceled by losses. On the 1996 report of the National Education Goals Panel, for example, which monitors progress toward the ambitious objectives set by President Bush and the governors in 1989, seven arrows point up, eight down, and twelve indicate no change. Many in the education establishment excuse the lack of progress by asserting that the reforms still haven’t had sufficient time to work, haven’t been adequately funded, haven’t been accompanied by enough “staff development,” have been undermined by complacent parents or retrograde political leaders, and so forth. Others explain that families are deteriorating, poverty is spreading, violence is worrying, morals are decaying––and it is not realistic to expect schools to do a better job until the whole society is overhauled. A few naysayers still insist that the “excellence movement” is itself unnecessary, that American schools are doing okay as is, and that the whole flap stems from a right-wing conspiracy to bring down public education. 

Outside the establishment’s citadels, however, an important breakthrough can be seen: widening awareness that the American educational system as we know it not only needs radical improvement but also needs its ground rules rewritten, its assumptions replaced, its structures overturned, and its power relationships transformed. In other words, the present school enterprise is doing poorly––and it is incapable of doing much better because it is intellectually misguided, ideologically wrongheaded, and organizationally dysfunctional. The spread of this awareness we might term the radicalization of American educational reform. 

The shift is visible both in “respectable” books about education and in the notably bolder reform schemes and strategies that are making their way across the land. We are, in fact, seeing signs of a whole new paradigm of education, one that welcomes decentralized control, entrepreneurial management, and grassroots initiatives. Under this approach––which some call “reinventing” public education––public officials establish standards, make assessments, and hold schools accountable for meeting performance goals, but do not themselves run the schools. 

The point deserves emphasis because it implies nothing less than the redefinition of what America means by “public school.” For well over a century we took for granted that the phrase refers to a school run by the government in uniform, bureaucratic fashion and staffed by civil servants, nearly all of whom (for the past two decades) are also members of militant public employee unions. Today, however, we are coming to understand that a school can be “public” so long as it is open to all comers, financed with tax dollars, and accountable to some duly constituted public authority for its results. It need not be micromanaged by platoons of assistant superintendents; it need not be bent to the thousand clauses of teachers union contracts; and its teachers need not receive a government paycheck. It can, instead, be run by a committee of parents, a team of teachers, the local Boys & Girls Club, or even a profit-seeking firm. 

In this second paradigm, education may be delivered through largely independent “charter” schools; “opt out” schools (as they say in England) that secede from their local education agencies and run themselves with what amounts to a block grant of funds; “home-schooling,” whereby American parents are now teaching more than half a million youngsters around their own kitchen tables; “contract schools,” in which a performance contract is negotiated between private educational managers (such as the Edison Project) and a public agency; and “choice programs” in which students use scholarships or vouchers to attend the schools of their choice, increasingly now including private and parochial as well as a proliferating array of public schools. The “reinvention” paradigm welcomes diverse schools organized and run by diverse entities. It takes for granted that students and families differ, too, and accordingly must be free to match themselves to the schools that suit them best. It requires less bureaucracy and fewer regulations because it rejects the proposition that schools must be centrally managed according to a single formula. 

This new paradigm is in fierce competition with the older, more centralized, and top-down strategy that supporters (including the Clinton Administration) call “systemic reform.” That’s today’s fancy term for keeping power where it has always been and trying to make the old machinery turn faster.

The two approaches overlap in part. Many supporters of the new paradigm also insist on externally prescribed standards and tests; they would, in effect, loosen up the means of education while maintaining some commonality with respect to its ends and the “accountability” mechanisms by which its performance is tracked. Conversely, some devotees of “systemic reform” are open to greater variety among schools and some decentralization of management. Thus President Clinton, for example, favors a tripling of the number of charter schools from the present five hundred. 

The difference between the two strategies, however, remains profound: new paradigm people have great confidence in consumers, markets, and competition, and little faith in the instrumentalities of government, at least when it comes to improving education. They are educational Jeffersonians. “Systemic reformers,” by contrast, are Hamiltonians, certain that strong central control of key decisions is vital if the enterprise is to succeed. Many “systemic” reformers also have close professional or political ties to the great vested interests of the education establishment, such as the two national teachers unions. 

Thus the overlap fades as we move from quasi-governmental reform strategies, such as charter schools, toward the management of schools by private entrepreneurs and, especially, toward vouchers (the use of public funds to enable youngsters to attend private and parochial schools). That––as Daniel McGroarty illustrates in Break These Chains, his splendid account of voucher politics in Milwaukee––is a line that virtually none of the systemic reformers will cross and that their establishment allies will defend to the death. They are apt these days to tolerate limited school choice within the traditional public sector––magnet schools, for example, or the right of youngsters to attend public schools in other districts––but certainly not the kind that extends to private schools. 

They are not happy with strong charter laws, either, the kind––such as Arizona’s––that permit the full array of diverse organizations (including profit-seeking firms and former private schools) to establish charter schools pretty much as they see fit, to employ pretty much whomever they wish to teach in those schools, and to deploy their resources pretty much as they think best. That is much too loose for buttoned-up systemic planners and much too upsetting to established interests. They prefer the tamer sort of charter law––Rhode Island’s won kudos in a recent report by the American Federation of Teachers––that restricts the number of schools and subjects them to many of the rules and procedures of conventional public schools, particularly in the area of personnel. 

It is hardly surprising that the reforms the establishment finds most palatable are those that actually change very little. Rhode Island may have a charter law that the teachers union admires––but it does not have any charter schools. In Arizona, by contrast, more than 150 of these schools have rapidly sprung up, now enrolling 2 percent of the state’s students. (Two percent may not sound like much, but a statewide shift of this magnitude from one kind of school to another within two years is in fact truly remarkable for the sluggish behemoth of U.S. public education.) 

The demand is certainly present. Most charter schools have waiting lists. State charter programs are bumping against the numerical caps that legislators in many jurisdictions imposed as part of political deals struck with teachers unions and school board associations. Voucher programs––both the publicly financed kind now operating in Milwaukee and Cleveland and the privately funded variety found in several dozen communities––are virtually all oversubscribed. Unbar the gates that trap Americans in mediocre schools and significant numbers of them will stream out. What is more, those availing themselves of such opportunities are families ill-served by conventional schools. Whereas critics predicted that charter schools would “cream” the ablest, most fortunate, and best-parented kids, early evidence indicates that the opposite is happening. Several colleagues and I gathered data on 8,400 students attending thirty-four charter schools in 1995-96, a reasonable cross section of that year’s charter universe. It turns out that 63 percent of them were nonwhite, more than half were poor enough to qualify for federally subsidized lunches, 19 percent had limited proficiency in English, and almost one in five had disabilities that affected their education. Four percent were former dropouts. 

Far from enrolling the “best and brightest” or “richest and whitest,” charter schools are attracting kids in acute need of alternatives, youngsters who were ill-served by regular schools and failed to thrive therein. We came to think of their students as “square peg” youngsters who do not fit into the round holes of conventional public (or private) schools. 

Such a pupil population does not make it easy for teachers and administrators. One Arizona charter principal compared his school’s admissions process to “the Mariel boat-lift: We got a lot of good ones but also a few crazies.” One public school superintendent in Colorado observed that his schools were “much more tranquil now” because “the charter school rounded up all the troublemakers.” 

Despite this early evidence of their responsiveness to some of the neediest children in the land, charter schools still have dogged enemies in the education establishment. These foes have striven with fair success in most jurisdictions to keep charter schools few and weak: restricting their numbers, cramping their autonomy, and limiting their funds. That is why many state laws still make it difficult to launch viable charter schools. And those schools that do manage to get launched, far from being handed a bucket of public funds to do whatever they like with little or no accountability (as critics also allege), continue to be burdened by myriad rules and procedures. Nor are they fully funded. Most lack access to capital dollars and start-up moneys, and many are given less than their full share of operating funds or are forced to hand substantial chunks of their budgets back to the local district as rent or overhead. The upshot is that the majority of charter schools must make do with less money than standard public schools, while being expected to produce above-standard results. 

Most charter foes are predictably to be found within the school establishment and on the political left. But some opponents are located on the right, people who believe that any “public” school, however nominally independent, is inevitably tainted by association with government and that any reform of the public education system, however superficially appealing, will only slow the quest for “true choice.” 

Yet the charter movement is spreading at a fast clip––with enabling laws passed by more than half the states––while the campaign for publicly funded vouchers is limping. A cloud of constitutional uncertainty still hangs over it, as state courts in Wisconsin and Ohio have reached opposite conclusions about the inclusion of parochial schools. While there is some reason to think a bare majority of present members of the U.S. Supreme Court would read the First Amendment to allow a well-crafted voucher program, a half century of Establishment Clause jurisprudence is so tangled and inconsistent that no one can be certain. 

Four years of voucher experience in Milwaukee (in secular private schools) have also begun to yield enough data to give social scientists something to argue about with respect to the program’s educational results. Early findings by the University of Wisconsin’s John Witte indicated that voucher recipients and their parents were more content but that pupil achievement had not risen. More recent scholarship by Harvard’s Paul Peterson and others indicates that, once a child has been in his voucher school more than two years, his test scores rise faster than those of similar children who remain in conventional public schools. 

Ambiguous conclusions characterize several of the recent works of scholarship that try, with mixed success, to illuminate the performance of conventional public schools and the results of today’s bolder reforms. Representative of the genre are a pair of Brookings volumes, each a collection of essays by various academics. Holding Schools Accountable, for example, edited by Duke economist Helen F. Ladd, is generally a cautious work, with every author’s assertion offset by a commenter’s hesitations, yet it breaks some new ground, especially in Caroline Minter Hoxby’s essay on the effects of private school vouchers on schools and students. There, after a complex econometric analysis, we learn that a thousand dollar voucher would “increase private school access across both well-educated and more poorly educated families” and would produce a “disproportionate inducement for African-American students” to attend private schools. Moreover, the likely economic effects of such a program indicate that “it may be practicable for vouchers to discipline ‘bad’ public schools without disciplining their students.” 

Economists also dominate Does Money Matter ?, subtitled “the effect of school resources on student achievement and adult success.” Its seven chapters (including one by editor Gary Burtless and one by Rochester’s Eric Hanushek) include much data and some fancy analysis, about half focused on the relationship between school resources and pupil achievement, the other half on the relationship between those resources and adult job market success. Like many such collections, there is no one conclusion. Trying to reconcile the disparate findings, Burtless finds that “on balance, the case for additional school resources is far from overwhelming....Increased spending on school inputs without any change in the current arrangements for managing schools offers little promise of improving either student performance or adult earnings.” For the Brookings Institution, that comes pretty close to a strong indictment of the system as we know it. 

Temple University psychologist Laurence Steinberg levels his indictment in a different direction in the pages of Beyond the Classroom. He contends that the crisis in student achievement is due principally to a widespread decline in children’s interest in education and their motivation to achieve in school. It is a problem of attitude and effort, especially among adolescents, whose peer culture sometimes frowns on academic prowess and whose parents are apt to be less involved with their schooling than that of their younger siblings. Steinberg is properly critical of “disengaged” parents––as many as a third of all parents, he estimates––who may want their kids to do well but lack the tools to help them. 

This analysis leads Steinberg to view today’s education-reform debates through a different lens. Of school choice, for example, he observes that the reason private schools rack up superior test scores may have more to do with the different peer group that families thereby obtain for their youngsters than with anything done by teachers and schools. “In all likelihood,” he writes, “students who attend private and parochial schools are exposed to a higher proportion of peers with high educational aspirations and good study habits, and this exposure positively affects their own behavior, entirely independent of the instructional climate of the school.... When parents are choosing a school, they... are also choosing classmates––and potential friends––for their child.” 

Jerome Hanus and Peter Cookson are collectively ambivalent about school choice but each is blessedly clear about his own views. Choosing Schools: Vouchers and American Education is part of a useful American University-sponsored series of pro-con debates about policy controversies. Here Hanus takes the affirmative, arguing that “school choice is in the best tradition of American freedom,” while Cookson finds in vouchers a death sentence for public education. Little new ground is broken, but a reader coming fresh to this dispute will find the book a welcome primer. 

Oddly, the greatest treasure under this sea of books is also the coolest toward school choice. Nor is it written by a social scientist. E. D. Hirsch, Jr. is an English professor at the University of Virginia whose early work was devoted to the likes of Wordsworth and Blake and to titles such as Validity in Interpretation. For the past decade, however, he has been one of America’s most influential and controversial school reformers. His popular 1987 book, Cultural Literacy, rocked the education world with the insight that youngsters need to acquire actual knowledge in school, not just “cognitive skills,” if they are to be able to make any sense out of their world and if the American population is to retain a capacity to communicate across group divisions. Critics leaped to say Hirsch’s notions reeked of “canonical knowledge,” dull lists, and “dead white European males,” and should be rejected for their political incorrectness and the violence they would do to tender minds that should instead be allowed to open like flowers. (Michael Nelson’s quirky book, Celebrating the Humanities, a fifty-year account of one small college’s splendid core humanities course, addresses similar debates at the postsecondary level.) 

Hirsch has spent most of the intervening years introducing the “core knowledge” program to hundreds of U.S. schools, including many of the new charter schools. And now he has written today’s most important education book, a superb explication and analysis of the misguided ideas and ill-founded research that dominate U.S. education. The chief culprit, which Hirsch terms “romantic progressivism,” turns out to be supported by no serious research or evaluation, though it is deeply ingrained in the philosophy and ideology of the education profession. Hirsch is a gentle fellow, but in The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them he gores a number of sacred oxen (e.g., Howard Gardner’s celebrated theory of “multiple intelligences” and the belief that “standardized” tests cannot be good tests) and offers a thoroughly researched and well-founded set of alternatives. 

Yet he is cool toward such “new paradigm” reforms as charter schools and vouchers on the grounds that today’s education consumers do not possess nearly enough information about school performance to make sound choices. Nor does he find today’s schools different enough from one another to give consumers much to select among. Not many parents can make a “discerning choice” so long as nearly every school that presents itself to them espouses “the same concern for ‘the individual child and his or her needs,’ for ‘critical thinking,’ ‘self-esteem,’ ‘joy in learning,’ ‘respect for others’; and the same pledge by the school staff to use the latest research-based pedagogical methods, such as ‘site-based decision-making,’ ‘cooperative learning,’ ‘child-centered pedagogy.’” 

In Hirsch’s view, we can fiddle with education policies until we exhaust ourselves, but we will never get “the schools we need,” at least not on a large scale, until “the current intellectual monopoly is broken.” 

He’s probably right about scale. Bullish as I am about charter schools, for example, and marvelous as the teaching-and-learning I’ve observed in most, five hundred such institutions is a minuscule portion of America’s 83,000 schools. The youngsters who today benefit from vouchers can be counted in the thousands, while their public school classmates number in the tens of millions. And the enemies of such “new paradigm” reforms can be counted upon to continue doing their considerable utmost to keep these innovations within tight bounds. 

Yet––at least on bright days––I sense that it is only a matter of time. To be sure, the old edifice of public education is large, but it is growing shaky. Today that shakiness is more intellectual than political. The teachers unions still wield great clout in many statehouses and––especially when they team up with school boards and superintendents––they can still limit the impact of reforms they dislike. Yet they are starting to find themselves playing more defense than offense in the policy arena. More remarkably, they seem to be losing the war of ideas. No longer, for instance, is school choice a fringe notion, consumer-responsiveness a heresy, or accountability a curse-word. The big question about vouchers nowadays is not whether there will be any but what state will next enact such a program. The major issues surrounding charter schools have to do not with their existence but with their numbers and the extent of their autonomy. I find it significant that today few in the education establishment openly reject the charter concept. As happened a few years back with welfare reform, just about everyone now claims to favor the basic notion while continuing to quarrel over the details of policy and program. 

As we know, those details matter plenty. Get them wrong and you wind up with no real reform. Still, the fact that the debate has shifted from debates over lofty principle to negotiations over wonkish program parameters suggests that an important corner has been turned. The “era of big government” may be nearing its end in education, too. Some of the private sector’s successful innovations––slimming middle management, turning each unit into a “profit center,” decentralizing management decisions while demanding bottom-line accountability, expanding consumer options, redesigning products when customers demand change––are creeping into the public sector, even into the well-fortified precincts of primary and secondary schooling. 

That movement is slow, yes, but perceptible, and it is hard to imagine it being reversed. What is more, the policy frontier keeps getting pushed back. The prospect of vouchers has, to many legislators, made charter schools seem far more palatable. The spread of public-school choice plans has caused the private-and-parochial variety to look to some like a difference in degree, not in kind. The widening of home schooling has recast the meaning of “school” itself, further blurred by the appearance in several places of “virtual” charter schools that serve home-taught students and their parents via electronic links, distance learning, and computers, with the youngsters themselves seldom or never turning up in person at the charter school in which they are registered (and which the state is paying for). 

These virtual schools are not even the new paradigm’s outer limit-a place that may begin to be approached by Kimberly Hahn and Mary Hasson in Catholic Education , their handbook for Catholic home-schoolers. This deeply religious tome suggests that even some parochial schools (and teachers) no longer do an adequate job of transmitting the Faith and that parents may therefore have to shoulder this burden directly. 

Their emphasis on religion usefully reminds us that academic achievement is not the whole education story, nor are superior test scores the only hallmark of a school that parents may choose for their daughters and sons. Today in many communities––especially inner cities––a caring parent would have ample reasons to select a private or charter or privately managed school (or to teach his children at home) even if there were no evidence of better academic performance. Safety, character development, moral formation, discipline, protection from drugs and too––early sex and anti-intellectual peer pressures––these are at least as important to most parents as verbal and math achievement. They should be as important to educators and policymakers, too. The best news about American education today is the evidence that this is beginning to happen. 

Chester E. Finn Jr. is John M. Olin Fellow in the Washington office of the Hudson Institute and President of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation. From 1985 to 1988 he served as Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education.

00 Days
00 Hours
00 Minutes
00 Seconds
Dear Reader,

Your charitable support for First Things is urgently needed before the clock above hits zero.

First Things is proud to be a reader-supported enterprise, and the Spring Campaign is one of only two major reader giving drives each year. It ends on June 30 at 11:59 p.m.

Your gift will fortify First Things to speak boldly on behalf of religious voices in the public square ahead of a pivotal season for our nation and the church.

Please give now.

Make My Gift