Peter Schrag

Peter Schrag, a longtime education writer and editor, is the author of Paradise Lost: California's Experience, America's Future and most recently, California: America's High-Stakes Experiment. He is a former editorial page editor of the Sacramento Bee.

Recent Articles

The Burden of Western History

There have been revisionist histories of America and the American West at least since the middle of the sixteenth century, when the priest-historian Bartolomé de las Casas accused his fellow Spaniards of the mass murder, essentially the genocide, of millions of Native Americans. In 1879, even as Manifest Destiny and the dream of the open West dominated popular mythology, Henry George warned of the monopolization of western land and concentration of ownership in what Huck Finn was shortly to call "the territory." In 1950 the great literary historian Henry Nash Smith identified the central contradiction in the American agrarian tradition and the romance of the American West: If nature and the frontier were perfection, what became of civilization and progress? "A system which revolved about a half-mystical conception of nature and held up as an ideal a rudimentary type of agriculture," he wrote, "was powerless to confront issues...

Smells Like School Spirit

"N o other people," wrote Henry Steele Commager, the most widely read American historian of the generation following World War II, "ever demanded so much of schools and of education as have the American. None other was ever so well served by its schools and its educators." A lot of us, bombarded by the educational controversies and the ongoing schools-are-failing rhetoric of the past two decades, may now find Commager's words a little quaint--even preposterous--either because he was writing about some long-gone golden age or because he got carried away by his own celebratory fervor. The four-part PBS documentary School: The Story of American Public Education, which will air September 3 and 4, is an ambitious attempt to show Americans how accurate Commager's assessment was and still is. No institution--certainly no cultural institution--is more pervasive, more deeply embedded in the history and hopes of our democracy, or more central to our debates about that democracy than public...

The Great School Sell-Off

L ong before Bill Clinton appeared on the presidential horizon, he had, as governor of Arkansas, established himself as one of a half-dozen national leaders in the public school reform movement of the 1980s. The movement was determinedly bipartisan, pragmatic, and nonideological. In addition to Clinton, it included Republican governors Thomas Kean of New Jersey and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, as well as independent Califormnia State School Superintendent Bill Honig. These reformers sought, and generally achieved, tougher graduation requirements; more rigorous curricula and textbooks; competency tests for both students and teachers; merit pay or other incentives for outstanding teachers; longer school days and school years; and better funding for K-12 schools almost everywhere. But before the decade was over, a combination of recession, budget cuts, impatience, and political expediency helped start a deep and very ideological current running in the opposite direction-- a retreat from...

The New School Wars: How Outcome-Based Education Blew Up

It seemed like a conservative idea; then progressive educators got hold of it. Now a firestorm has erupted that could jeopardize the effort to raise national curriculum standards.

W hen the Bush administration first embraced it five years ago, the idea seemed like good conservative education theory and the most promising device around to improve academic standards in American schools. The "it" was "outcome-based education," and OBE was going to help make Bush the "education president." At its core was a fundamental shift in education policy from a focus on inputs--hours spent in class, years of schooling completed, courses taken, dollars spent--to the definition and measurement of academic outcomes. OBE fit perfectly with the increasingly fashionable idea of school decentralization. The state would promulgate guidelines and develop assessments for what students should know and do; the local school would determine how to reach those goals. The standards and assessments, moreover, were to be "criterion referenced," meaning they would be based on what students had to know in the real world (thus presumably closing the gap with the Germans and the Japanese), not...

"F" Is for Fizzle: The Faltering School Privatization Movement

Entrepreneurs promised they could rescue public schools and turn a profit too. Reality intruded.

O nly a few years ago, privatization was the shiniest comet in the firmament of public school reform. Chris Whittle, Pied Piper of Channel One, the highly profitable in-school commercial television program, was vowing to open 200 new for-profit schools by 1996 and at least 1,000 by the beginning of the next century, schools that would outperform public schools and redefine our whole framework of education. In 1993 initiatives for school vouchers were on the ballot in California and Colorado. That same year, a Minneapolis-based firm called Education Alternatives, Inc. (EAI) seemed to come from nowhere to land a $180 million five-year contract to run nine of Baltimore's public schools. Two years later, in 1995, EAI signed a deal of even greater potential to manage the whole Hartford, Connecticut system, a district enrolling some 24,000 students in 32 schools and spending $171 million a year. After voucher-touting Republicans took over the House of Representatives (and thus the purse...

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