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 Title

Can the Schools Be Saved?

 Synopsis

A well-argued overview of American education system problems, and sensible solutions, which rings true for Canadian and other education systems as well. This 1996 essay remains almost entirely current and topical thanks to resistance to reforms in the education realm, and the glacial speed at which reforms proceed.

NOTE: This is the original manuscript. An extensively edited version appeared in Commentary Magazine in its September 1996 issue.

 Author

Chester E. Finn

 Author Notes

John M. Olin Fellow at the Manhattan Institute, President and Trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, Adjunct Fellow of the Hudson Institute, and Distinguished Visiting Fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution. Mr. Finn was also founding partner and senior scholar with the Edison Project. He is on leave from the faculty of Vanderbilt University where he has been Professor of Education and Public Policy since 1981. Author of The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide From Pre-School Through Eighth Grade (1999, The Free Press, with former U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett) and many other books and articles..

Books by Chester E. Finn
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Choice in Schooling: A Case for Tuition Vouchers
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The Educated Child: A Parent's Guide
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We Must Take Charge!: Our Schools & Our Future
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 Essay - 9/1/1996

Some 45 million young people, three-fifths of all Americans under the age of 19, will enroll this fall in the 85,000 institutions we know as public schools. U.S. public education is a vast enterprise, employing almost five million women and men and costing taxpayers more than a quarter trillion annually.

An immense edifice, indeed, and one we have long taken for granted. Like the Berlin Wall a decade ago, however, it is not so stable or secure as it seems. Though its facade still appears formidable, inner rot has weakened it to the point that many have begun to doubt its durability and to pose the most fundamental questions: Does public education still occupy a legitimate place in America. Are our much-troubled schools worth saving? Can they be saved?

Indicators of the gravity of public education's present condition take two forms: widely-publicized evidence of weak academic achievement, violence and related problems within the enterprise itself; and subtler but palpable shifts in people's attitudes toward the schools.

The objective data are by now so familiar as scarcely to bear repeating. A sampler might include:

  • Six out of seven eighth graders were not "proficient" in U.S. history in 1994, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), while 39 percent were unaware of even the most basic aspects of their nation's past. Even more alarming, 57 percent of high school seniors registered "below basic" in history. These ill-informed young people are now voters.
  • Test results in geography are better but far from satisfactory. Three-quarters of four 1994 seniors were less than "proficient" in this subject; thirty percent did not possess even rudimentary understanding.
  • As for reading, that most basic of academic skills, NAEP data indicate that two out of five fourth graders--including about two-thirds of Black and Hispanic youngsters--can scarcely read at all, a deficit that is extremely difficult to correct later. Among 1994 high school seniors, just 36 percent were "proficient" readers.
  • On a spring 1996 survey for USA Today, 30 percent of secondary students admitted to cheating on school papers or tests within the past year. Sixteen percent had been involved in school fights. Forty-three percent reported attending vandalism-plagued schools.
  • In a study prepared for the recent education "summit" of governors and business leaders, twenty percent of employers acknowledged providing remedial training programs for their employees. Nynex recently tested 60,000 applicants in order to fill 3000 jobs.
  • Almost half the entering freshmen in the California State University system in 1994 needed remedial instruction in reading or math or both--the fifth straight year of an increase in this proportion.
  • When the Roper Center surveyed college seniors this past spring, it found that fewer than half know how many U.S. Senators there are, just one in five knows who wrote The Republic, only one in four can identify Nazi Germany's two major World War II allies, and barely half can name any four countries in Africa.

At least as significant as the "hard" evidence of educational inadequacy, especially because it is a newer development, is the souring of attitudes toward, and the ebbing of people's confidence in, the public schools.

  • The Public Agenda Foundation's 1995 survey found that "72% of respondents voiced concern about drugs and violence in local schools, 61% said low standards were a problem, 60% complained about lack of attention to basics". In the analysts' words, "American support for public education is fragile and porous."
  • More people are simply going elsewhere. Private school enrollments, though still below their "market share" of the 1960's and early 1970's, have risen faster than public for the past five years. Even the Catholic schools have arrested their long-term slippage. Home schooling is also on the upswing.
  • Interpreting the Public Agenda findings in his own words, teachers' union president Albert Shanker recently wrote that "Time is running out on public education....The dissatisfaction that people feel is very basic."
  • In his perceptive little book, Is There a Public for Public Schools?, Kettering Foundation president (and former H.E.W. secretary and university president) David Mathews reports that "Americans today seem to be halfway out the schoolhouse door".
  • At the March "summit" sponsored by I.B.M. and the National Governors Association, the assembled business and state executives agreed that the primary/secondary education system is broken. They were joined in this view by none other than President Clinton, who--in a well-received address that Ronald Reagan could comfortably have given--acknowledged that most U.S. schools and students "still are not meeting the standards that are necessary and adequate to the challenges of today".
  • Several prominent education groups, including the National PTA, have launched a series of community meetings around the country to rally enthusiasm for public education. The reason, reports Education Daily, is that "taxpayers' support for schools is waning".

The sources of this upwelling disaffection are several. Weak achievement in basic skills and knowledge, even among those who complete twelve or thirteen years of school, surely heads the list, together with disorder, indiscipline, drugs and other forms of behavioral decay. This much we have known at least since the nation was declared "at risk" thirteen years ago by the National Commission on Excellence in Education. (It is well to recall that June's high school graduates were only in pre-school at the time.)

Of late, however, these well-documented inadequacies have been joined by a sense that, besides failing to solve the problems laid at their doorstep and fulfill their traditional responsibilities, our public schools are themselves becoming seedbeds of social dysfunction. Not the least of these threats is disintegration of the civic culture itself, a process aggravated by the schools' willful rejection of their most fundamental mission: the induction of the young into society's norms and traditions. I refer, of course, to the embrace by public education's intellectual and managerial leaders of advanced multiculturalism, bilingualism and other practices whereby the schools join the universities in emphasizing that which divides rather than that which unites us as Americans.


How can such decay have eaten so deeply into an institution as revered and depended-upon as American public education? We begin that exploration by recalling where the enterprise came from and what its creators intended.

The principle behind public education runs deep into the mists of the earliest societies, to the recognition that the young of any community need training and socializing before they can be trusted to join adult society without wrecking it. Such training benefits the individuals, of course, by enabling them to come in from the forest, keep company with others, earn a living, procreate and live as part of something greater than themselves. Thus economists say that education is partly a "private good". But socializing the young also creates public benefit--without it the entire community would soon falter--and therefore has a claim on "the village's" resources and attention.

In colonial times, American communities discharged this responsibility in various ways. Churches sponsored schools for their congregants--and colleges for their future clergymen. Farmers paid with bushels of grain for someone to teach their children. "Dame schools" conducted by educated women afforded the rudiments of literacy to other people's children.

The nation's founders were clear that more general provision of education was necessary for a stable democracy. Though reserving responsibility for this to the states--the word "education" appears nowhere in the U.S. Constitution--the writings of Jefferson, for example, are full of references to the incompatibility of ignorance and freedom and to "enlighten[ing] the people generally [so that] tyranny and oppressions of body and mind will vanish...."

By Horace Mann's day, the project had become more explicit: universal schooling with an eye both to social mobility (equipping the poor as well as the rich with skills that would enable all to succeed and prosper without permanent caste divisions) and to civic formation, the assimilation of immigrants and the maintenance of national unity. Thus Mann conceived of education as "the great equalizer of the conditions of men--the balance-wheel of the social machinery", and warned that "the extinction of human intelligence would plunge the race at once into the weakness and helplessness of barbarism." Thus our emerging idea of public education contained, from the outset, both a utilitarian mission that emphasized economic productivity and a civic purpose that stressed socialization and acculturation.

Toward these ends, government gradually but inexorably became involved with the delivery of education. The Northwest Ordinance set aside a section of land for schools in every township. New England led the way in creating free "common" schools that were open to all. By the 1840's, Massachusetts, under Mann's leadership (and borrowing heavily from the Prussian model), had established the elements of a universal system of government-financed and government-run "public" elementary schools. By the 1850s, after heated religious battles, New York City had a semblance of public schooling (though the citywide system as we know it dates only to 1896). And as newer territories joined the union, their constitutions all embraced a state obligation to furnish education to the citizenry. Arkansas called for "a general, suitable and efficient system of free schools, whereby all persons...may receive gratuitous instruction". California simply required its legislature to "encourage by all suitable means the promotion of intellectual, scientific, moral and agricultural improvement".

The resulting public education system bore the earmarks of late Nineteenth century reformism: a commitment to uniformity (in both its delivery of services and the content of its curriculum), a belief in scientific expertise and professionalism, suspicion of politics, and a fierce conviction that assimilation--of children, immigrants, Catholics, ex-slaves--into the American civic culture was good for the recipients as well as the nation. (Disagreeing, the Catholic church began to create its own network of non-governmental parochial schools.)

But the Nineteenth century model did not endure unchanged. Successive waves of reform washed over our public schools long before today's "excellence movement". Seven of them left enough debris to deserve mention:

First, romantic progressivism, with its Rousseauian notions of "natural" learning, introduced into the doctrine and practice of education the conviction that classroom activity should center on the interests and proclivities of youngsters rather than the mature judgments of adults about what is worth learning. The school would adjust to the child's contours instead of molding him to society's norms. The teacher would "facilitate" the child's development rather than steering his academic achievement. Helping him adjust to life was the purpose of school, after all, not learning the periodic table of the elements or the rivers of South America.

Progressivism has its virtues, especially when contrasted to the rote memorization of Mr. Gradgrind's classroom. Children learn best when their minds are engaged, the material is interesting and the teacher is encouraging. But progressivism is hard to reconcile with externally-set standards and hostile to vigorous, teacher-led instruction--the very things that disadvantaged children especially need.

Second, the fin de siècle civil service reform movement removed public schooling even farther from conventional political controls and priorities. Education was judged too sensitive for patronage-crazed machine bosses and ward heelers to have any influence over. So separate governance structures were created: elected or appointed boards that were meant to consist of eminent, public-spirited citizens, and that entrusted their executive duties to duly-certified professionals. This put the public schools beyond easy reach of mayors and city councils, of governors and legislatures--and sealed off the policy arena from ordinary political forces. It seemed like a plus at the time; few people want aldermen designing the science curriculum or county commissioners' cousins hired as high school principals. But it also created an anaerobic political environment in which the self-serving practices of educators would thrive and interest-group deal-making would flourish, the more so as the eminent and the public-spirited concluded that service on the school board held few charms for them.

By the 1920's, progressivism was joined and extended by the "mental hygiene" movement, whose thrust, the psychiatrist Yale Kramer writes, "was to transform the goals of the public school from education to therapy. The schools were to produce not informed and skilled students but students with healthy personalities." Thus no punishment, no confining rows of desks, no wearying homework, no prescribed program of study--and, in due course, no discipline, little respect for authority and an amplitude of "self-esteem" resting atop a minimum of real accomplishment.

Fourth, at about the same time, the disciples of Frederick Taylor launched themselves at the public education system, which in short order found itself subjected to the precepts of "scientific management": credentialed expertise, disinterested professionalism, orderly management and uniform treatment. At Columbia's Teachers College, George Strayer inaugurated the formal training of school administrators. As small school systems were consolidated by the thousands, villages and towns lost direct control of their children's schools. Only state-licensed teachers could be hired. Principals and superintendents needed their own certificates. Colleges of education gained a stranglehold on entry into the profession. And the priorities of parents and communities receded beneath the theories and dogmas of education professors.

The fifth wave to break on public education's shores, beginning in the 1950's, came from Washington as the federal government intruded itself into the country's schools, first in the name of racial desegregation and scientific research, next on behalf of the poor and the handicapped, then to feed an army of ravenous victim groups and special interests. Many of the problems that Uncle Sam tackled were genuine, beginning with the shame of the "dual" school system. But the programs never stopped, even when their purposes blurred, and the interests that battened on them mounted immense lobbying and political action efforts, inexorably to be joined by even more eager sippers at the federal trough. Though Uncle Sam never provided more than a trickle of dollars, he wrapped the schools in red tape and nationalized many of their policy disputes. Thus dawned thousand-page federal education statutes and a 5000-person federal Education Department that purports to manage hundreds of distinct programs, each with its stakeholders, state and local bureaucratic counterparts and regulatory idiosyncrasies.

Sixth, the 1960's began the conversion of teachers' professional organizations into the two giant unions we know today as the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers. (Their ongoing merger talks may yet produce a single behemoth.) As with most union movements, workers with bona fide grievances--wretched pay, bans on female teachers marrying, race-based hiring--joined together to redress these wrongs and win better terms of employment. As time passed, however, their organizations also made it nearly impossible to fire incompetent teachers, their strikes shut down whole school systems to secure higher wages and shorter hours for themselves, they pushed all manner of policy and management decisions onto the bargaining table, they became huge contributors to the political campaigns of their friends, and they came to exercise a virtual veto over every proposal to reform public education.

Seventh and most recently, the combined onslaught of multiculturalism, deconstructionism and relativism has left curricular havoc in its wake, all but obliterating the civic-culture mission of public education in favor of bilingualism, individual expressionism, revisionist history and separatist literature. The primal basis of societal responsibility for education is the induction of the young into adult culture. But today's ethnically-whipsawed and politically-correct public schools largely eschew the challenge of cultural transmission, assimilation and cohesion. Though that task defines the singular mission of public education, it is precisely this mission that U.S. public schools now strenuously reject.


Like a raft jostled in the rapids by the torrent propelling it forward, the principle of public education was battered and scarred by its passage through these waves, and much litter was taken aboard. The result is today's public school reality, a vast bureaucratic monopoly of government-run institutions, buttressed by mandatory attendance laws and compulsory taxation and dominated by the interests of its own employees, managers and vendors, which accumulated vast political power to advance those interests via the government school systems that they, rather than their putative beneficiaries, now substantially control. (Consider, for example, tenure laws for teachers, assuring even weak ones lifetime employment, and the involuntary assignment of pupils to particular schools, ensuring that even bad schools have pupils--and that youngsters assigned to such schools have no recourse.)

Armored by their own jargon, credentials and pseudo-professional expertise, walled off from conventional political leadership, shielded from any real competition, yet hostile to their own primal mission, the public schools of our time are practically immune to the wishes and worries of their clients. They are also hugely expensive. (Education and Medicaid now vie to consume the largest share of every state's budget.) This is no formula for long-term public loyalty.

Yet for all the changes that have been pressed on them, in important ways today's public schools still resemble those of fifty or a hundred years ago. Like so many other government monopolies--and despite their pedagogical and cultural "progressivism"--these are stodgy institutions that can absorb immense pressure without truly modernizing their practices. Far from evoking the "good old days", that means many of our schools are antiquated institutions with crumbling buildings (especially in the big cities), industrial-era staffing patterns (and industrial-style unions), primitive technology, obsolete instructional materials, agrarian calendars and listless students. After all, little is expected of these young people while in school, much of their class day is spent in boring pursuits, and nearly everything that interests them happens elsewhere.


In the face of this glum evidence, the country has not been idle. Since being warned in 1983 of the "rising tide of mediocrity" washing over our education system, school reform has turned into a growth industry in its own right, complete with myriad experts, generous federal and foundation grants, innumerable conferences, journals, books and studies, and signs of activity in many parts of the land.

The reforms undertaken thus far fall into four broad genres.

By far the most common is piecemeal tinkering with the countless gears and levers of the existing machinery: upgrading teacher training programs, stiffening graduation requirements, installing technology, revamping the first grade reading program, shrinking class size, adding a period to the school day, and on through hundreds of variations. Like the blind men's elephant, each such reform scheme assumes that the part of the system nearest to it is the essence of the entire enterprise and overhauling that part will boost the productivity of the whole.

Many of these changes are worth making. It's criminal that most schools still lack modern information-and-communication technology, for example, and there is ample evidence that tougher graduation requirements cause more students to take academically-challenging courses. But such changes do not fundamentally alter the dysfunctions of a complex system or let oxygen and sunlight disinfect the anaerobic festering within that system. Hence many who had long insisted that incremental change would fix American education no longer believe this. Computer pioneer Steve Jobs, for example, wrote earlier this year that

I used to think that technology could help education. I've probably spearheaded giving away more computer equipment to schools than anybody else on the planet. But I've had to come to the inevitable conclusion that the problem is not one that technology can hope to solve… It's a political problem… The problems are unions… The problem is bureaucracy.

The second genre of education renewal, known within the field as "systemic" reform, tries to deal more comprehensively with this intricate machine by aligning its academic standards, curriculum, textbooks, tests and teacher training with one another. This strategy underlies President Clinton's controversial "Goals 2000" program (recently amended into near-triviality) and the efforts by many educators, business leaders and governors to impose standards-based change on entire states and communities. This was the theme of the recent "summit", and there is much to be said for the theory. In practice, however, the standards are easily hijacked by leftist ideologues--viz. the recent uproars over national history standards and "outcomes-based" education--and the "alignment" effort requires ever more bureaucratic regulation of schools and top-down control of classrooms.

The third genre concentrates on individual schools rather than sprawling systems. It would devolve management authority to them, empower their principals, experiment with new governance arrangements (such as Chicago's "local school councils" and the fast-spreading "charter" school idea), and devise novel designs for school structure and curriculum, such as those sponsored by the New American Schools Development Corporation, the Edison Project and Theodore Sizer's Coalition of Essential Schools. Here, again, the concept makes considerable sense. But seldom is much real power (e.g. the right to hire and fire teachers) actually devolved; the innovative governance schemes often deteriorate into bickering or paralysis; and the proportion of educators with fresh ideas and the courage to take risks is far too small for this to be a reliable reform strategy for a country with tens of thousands of schools. I once remarked to Sizer that he was trying to clean out the Augean stables with an ice cream scoop. He did not disagree.

The fourth genre is more radical, better termed abandonment than reform. Voucher advocates promise that the private school marketplace will rise to the challenge of educating young America. A new organization called the "Separation of School & State Alliance" agitates for a complete end to "government compelled attendance, financing, curriculum, testing, credentializing, and accreditation". Wall Street firms hold conferences for investors in the "education industry" (which already has its own business newsletter) and corporations contemplate ambitious schemes for privatizing education, much like commercial security services in neighborhoods weary of inadequate police protection.

This approach, too, has much appeal, particularly when it comes to innovation, flexibility and efficiency. But it invites the creation of separatist schools that reject the American civic culture even more forcefully than conventional public schools; assumes a level of entrepreneurship that our private schools--most of which would rather lengthen their waiting list than open a second site--have rarely shown; and faces intense political opposition from church-state wall-builders, anti-profit-motive activists and the entire public education establishment. Nor is it yet clear that running good schools will yield a market-competitive return to private investors while providing solid skills and knowledge to hard-to-educate kids.


If public education is broken, as seems clear, yet the repair strategies undertaken thus far show limited promise of repairing (or replacing) it, one must somberly ask whether the situation is hopeless. Can we still conceive of rekindling its flame without either the sorry reality of today's schools or the defects of familiar reform schemes? I will venture a cautious yes, although only a fool would discount the political and inertial obstacles to translating any such concept into altered practice, and nobody should exaggerate the schools' capacity to restore a civic culture that has deteriorated for reasons that have little to do with education per se.

Before venturing into the approach I favor, however, pause a moment longer on the principle of public education and why it is more needed in our time than in Horace Mann's.

Together with home and church (and now, we must add, the media) school is what shapes today's children into tomorrow's adults. Those are the major institutions for socializing, acculturating and imparting values, norms and lore as well as specific skills and knowledge.

Only that last part--the utilitarian, skill-based mission of schooling--has energized most reform efforts of the past decade. That is what has mobilized corporate chieftains and legislators as well as many conscientious educators. Hence we have been striving to improve our public schools mainly in order to strengthen our economic competitiveness.

Yet the utilitarian argument for reviving public education is less compelling than the claims of civic culture. We can imagine the three R's being satisfactorily imparted by a privatized system, by employers, or by software installed in one's home computer and linked to the Internet. Such skills are also amenable to some of the extant school reform schemes outlined previously, and there is some evidence that, at a rudimentary level, American schools are starting to show better results. (The basic literacy skills of U.S. students, for example, now surpass those of most other industrial countries.)

If weak skills were our only problem, in other words, we might reasonably keep fiddling with the schools we now have--or welcome schemes for jettisoning them in favor of the more efficient private marketplace. Yet our foremost need for schooling is not utilitarian or economic. It is cultural and civic. Simply put, the great project of public education in America is not the creation of skilled workers but the formation of Americans themselves.

In earlier days, we could count on parents and clergymen to do more of this than we can now assume. We surely cannot rely on the media and entertainment industries. (Indeed, acculturation entrusted to these would produce a totally dysfunctional--selfish, violent, uninhibited-- society.) Thus formal education--school--becomes even more important.

The very diversity, pluralism and hedonism of contemporary U.S. life argue for rekindling some kind of viable public education, precisely so we can hold firm to something in common as Americans, so our children can assimilate a body of knowledge and values, a set of shared customs and institutional arrangements without which we may come to resemble the former Yugoslavia or Soviet Union, victimized by what newspapers in India (which also faces these risks) call "fissiparous forces". Those who ask why today's schools cannot perform for today's immigrants the same role that the public schools of 1910 played for newcomers of that era are not naive nostalgists. Rather, they understand precisely why public education is still important.

E.D. Hirsch has it right when he observes that no society--and especially not ours, with its polyglot past and salad bowl demography--can even communicate with itself if its members possess no shared knowledge, no common language, no universally-honored norms and values. Distributing that common cultural property to all is the first purpose of schooling. Then-Secretary of Education William J. Bennett had it right in 1985 when he sketched a proper education for young Americans:

Every student should know how mountains are made, and that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. They should know who said "I am the state" and who said "I have a dream." They should know about subjects and predicates, about isosceles triangles and ellipses. They should know where the Amazon flows, and what the First Amendment means. They should know about the Donner party and slavery, and Shylock, Hercules, and Abigail Adams, where Ethiopia is, and why there is a Berlin Wall. They should know a little of how a poem works, how a plant works, and what it means to remark, "If wishes were horses, beggars would ride." They should know the place of the Milky Way and DNA in the unfolding of the universe. They should know something about the Constitutional Convention of 1787 and about the conventions of good behavior. They should know a little of what the Sistine Chapel looks like and what great music sounds like..... These are things we should want all our students to know.

If cultural transmission is the noblest work of public education, we must face the lamentable fact that today's staunchest defenders of public schools reject this mission out of hand. They may grudgingly accept the schools' utilitarian mandate (though their progressivism leads them to shun external standards for such skills), but they have scant interest in conveying to the next generation the best that has been thought and said and done by earlier generations. Far from transmitting the past, they often disparage it. They hold a utopian view of the school as an agent of social change. Far from expecting children to learn states and capitals in geography class, they would turn them into miniature enviro-activists. Even while scorning the literary canon because of its oppressive uniformity, they happily operate a uniform monopoly featuring uniform pedagogies and attitudes.

Retrieving the principle of public education, therefore, means recognizing that its apparent defenders are in fact its worst enemies. By rejecting the fundamental justification for public education, the custodians of today's schools demonstrate that they cannot be trusted with shaping tomorrow's.

Can they be circumnavigated? Can the principle of public education be given new breath without recreating the main flaws of the present system? Perhaps. But understand that this is not the same as "reforming" the schools--or abandoning their "public" aspect altogether. It is more like a revolution, a fresh start. It borrows from several of today's familiar reform schemes but is not identical to any. And it features a renewed civic purpose that none of them has embraced (along with the useful skills and knowledge that they--and most Americans--affirm).

A different kind of public education, the kind I judge worth having, will display these characteristics:

  • It recognizes that public education does not mean government-run schools. Society's obligation is to see that instruction is provided and learning occurs, not to operate a bureaucratic system of uniform institutions staffed by government employees.
  • These "reinvented" schools are open to all, financed by tax dollars and accountable to elected authorities as well as to their clients. Thus they are "public" in every significant sense of the term. But their management is "out-sourced", "chartered", "contracted" and "co-oped", shouldered by groups of parents or teachers, by private firms and non-profit organizations. Ending the bureaucratic monopoly also liberates thousands of capable, sensible educators to break with the orthodoxies of their profession and create schools that people might actually want to attend.
  • Eschewing the notion that one size fits all children, these schools take many forms, united only by a shared curricular core. Some offer traditional pedagogy while some are avant garde and high tech. Some operate on the 180-day calendar, others run year-round. People can freely choose among them and, if so inclined, choose again. Schools that nobody wants to attend either change or close. Nobody who is illiterate graduates. Nobody whose pupils remain illiterate keeps a job.
  • The schools purposefully transmit culture as well as skills. Their alumni know the three R's, but also about the Declaration of Independence, the Donner Party and the Amazon. Decisions about such content are not entrusted exclusively to experts and education professionals. Parents, business leaders, well-informed laymen and public officials play at least as large a role.
  • They are built around academic results rather than intentions, expenditures, attitudes and credentials. External exams assess whether and how well the curriculum is learned. Students, teachers and principals are all accountable for their own performance--and real consequences follow. Nobody graduates who is illiterate. Nobody keeps a job whose pupils are.

Key elements of such a radically different form of public education are visible today in the burgeoning "charter school" movement, with its several hundred largely-independent (and hugely varied) public schools in more than a dozen states. RAND analyst Paul Hill has carried the concept further with a well-formulated vision of entire school systems that don't actually run any schools but, rather, contract them all out. Even the mainstream Education Commission of the States recently published a blueprint for how such a system might operate.

Though these designs are light years from our accustomed notion of school "systems", they have parallels in other sectors. Ancient bureaucratic monopolies, with their uniform practices and command-and-control management structures, are dying in many parts of the private economy and weakening in some public ventures as well. Obliviousness to performance standards, quality control, productivity and customer satisfaction is passé. Consider what has happened to the auto industry, the changes under way in health care, even in the military. Observe the moves to replace public housing projects and government job-training schemes with voucher-like arrangements, and the contracting-out by municipalities of their refuse collection-and-disposal responsibilities. Old structures are crumbling as the assumptions that gave rise to them prove outmoded. Between the empowerment afforded to widely-dispersed "production units" by instant information and communications, and the emergence of organization theories that shrink middle management, out-source many functions, and hold each unit accountable for its performance (in return for the autonomy to organize and manage itself), new kinds of "systems" are cropping up all over.


The mechanical and operational elements of a reborn system of public education are easier to visualize than its curriculum. Where is that "core" actually to come from and how can we be sure that it fosters a common civic culture?

The short answer is that the people who set its standards, write its specifications and oversee its tests and accountability systems must be women and men who affirm that mission. Some will be educators. (Shanker would be fine, as would E.D. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, Ramon Cortines, Elizabeth Fox-Genovese and James Q. Wilson.) Some will be business leaders. (Alcoa's Paul O'Neill. David Kearns. I.B.M.'s Lew Gerstner.) Some will be public figures. (Lamar Alexander, Bill Cosby, David Brinkley, Vernon Jordan, Bill Bradley, George Will, William Raspberry, Bill Bennett and--finally!--Colin Powell.) They should form themselves into a "committee on the American curriculum". They should say what young Americans need to learn. They should, in effect, lay out a curriculum of national unity for the Twenty-first Century.

But only its vital core. We need no more phone-directory-size tomes. And it's vital that schools be free to differ in all respects save for that portion of their curriculum that Hirsch calls "core knowledge" and the utilitarian skills without which the economy will slow and no parent will think his child educated. The essentials to be learned from kindergarten through 12th grade ought to fit into a document the size of [a] magazine.

They would not have the force of law. Indeed, for this approach to have any prospect of succeeding, the core curriculum must not be written by elected officials but, rather, by people with intellectual and moral authority. But elected officials who agree with it can command its use in their community or state. Schools and teachers can make it the centerpiece of their instruction. Some test-makers will leap to develop suitable measures of student achievement. (The National Assessment of Educational Progress would likely incorporate it, too.) A few unconventional colleges would start teaching it to future teachers. I have not tried here to draw a full blueprint, only to sketch what is, at heart, a two-part proposal for reinventing American public education: development of a suitable core curriculum that emphasizes civic culture as much as skills, combined with a pluralistic and competitive set of schools akin to today's charter schools.

We dare not underestimate the political agony and wrenching institutional change associated with this, or the fierce resistance of the public school establishment to each of its elements. (The teachers' unions, for example, already do their considerable utmost to defeat today's tiny charter school and choice programs and to block modest outsourcing schemes.) But more and more governors and legislators seem ready to make such changes, as do a handful of mayors and many business leaders.

National leadership would be a boost, of course, and the presidential election could afford an opportunity to illuminate the problems with the old public education system and the potential of a new one. That's precisely what campaigns and elections should be about.

Unfortunately, neither candidate seems likely to rise to this level. Despite his recent reformist rhetoric (and much relevant experience while governor of Arkansas), Bill Clinton is deeply implicated in the interests that feed on today's public school system. As for Bob Dole, large ideas leading to revolutions in major enterprises do not seem to be his forte--or the basis of his political appeal.

Regardless of the upcoming election--and no matter who wins it--the existing structure of public schooling will continue to crumble. The rot is far-advanced. Changes have already begun. Alternatives are beginning to be visible. People unwilling to live any longer behind education's Berlin Wall are finding paths around and under it.

The way to save public education in the United States is not to try to prop up that tottering edifice--nor simply to await its collapse. The way to save it is to liberate it from the special interests that exploit it and from its false friends. That liberation must be coupled with a complete transformation of our concept of schools that serve the public and by a renewal of the civic mission that made public education valuable in the first place. So liberated, transformed and renewed, public education is worth saving. In truth, it's difficult to imagine an acceptable alternative.


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