Public Schools: An Ideal at Risk

Works Discussed in this Essay:

Spinning Wheels: The Politics of Urban School Reform, by Frederick M. Hess. Brookings Institution Press, 228 pages, $16.95.

The Tracking Wars: State Reform Meets School Policy, by Tom Loveless. Brookings Institution Press, 194 pages, $16.95.

The Schools Our Children Deserve: Moving beyond Traditional Classrooms and "Tougher Standards", by Alfie Kohn. Houghton Mifflin Company, 344 pages, $24.00.

The Students Are Watching: Schools and the Moral Contract, by Theodore R. Sizer and Nancy Faust Sizer. Beacon Press, 133 pages, $21.00.

Pity the U.S. public school. It is the last social institution left standing that mediates the entrance of most Americans into the lives of their communities and American society in general. A responsibility once shared on a much broader scale with churches, political parties, voluntary associations, and labor unions has now devolved almost entirely upon our schools.

The public school is responsible for all children who appear at its door: from families kicked off the welfare rolls, from homes with teenage moms or dads, from homes with parents who work two or three jobs, and from homes of the comfortable, the educated, the read-to.

"Survival for them is so concrete," Principal Ofelia Gaona once told me, as she drove me through Texas border colonias in which her students lived without running water. "They have to learn how to survive. 'Do we have enough food? Do we have a place to stay?' Then they come to school. School is such an abstract place. It's so abstract--carrying a number in mathematics. Yet they have to do the same as the children in town. We can't treat them differently, because we would be damning them for life."

While there are no standards governing the lives of the children going in--let's say for health care or housing or family income--there are all kinds of standards for measuring schools and schoolchildren coming out.

And so school remains the standard of public life, lodged in the ground on the battlefield of the political economy, buffeted by the shrapnel of political, economic, and cultural wars. Amid these wars, schools occupy the public's attention in times of economic threat and in times of prosperity.

The economic roller-coaster ride of the late 1970s and early 1980s precipitated the 1983 assessment of American public schools and colleges, "A Nation at Risk." Threatened from within by a "rising tide of mediocrity," the report warned, "our once unchallenged preeminence in commerce, industry, science, and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world... . What was unimaginable a generation ago has begun to occur--others are matching and surpas-sing our educational attainments."

Now, having dispensed with international military threats while striving to maintain hegemony in a global economy, and in the midst of a long, uninterrupted period of prosperity for some, and still uncertain about the ramifications of the brave new world of technology, a nation again turns its lonely eyes to schools. Schools have become a buzzing political playground. Going Tip O'Neill one better, former Texas House Speaker Gib Lewis once observed, "All politics is local; and school politics is localer." (Mr. Lewis is a product of Texas public schools.) But maybe it's getting less local all the time: National politicians, the courts, and state governments are moving in.

In the current political battles for the soul of public schooling, more than in any previous recent battle, a key component is whether there is a continuing commitment by the public to maintain education funding in its current form. Everyone with a stake is keeping score. This is, after all, the Information Age. Parents want to be sure their children are learning enough, compared to children in other schools, and in other school districts, and in other states and countries. Local taxpayers who finance school districts through their property taxes want to know if their money is being wasted, and school districts want to prove it is not. State legislatures want to justify the money they are authorizing for public education, even if it is a pittance. "Accountability" is on every tongue, even as the buzzards marketing the next new innovation, putting together a string of strip-mall private schools or contracting with school districts to manage charter schools, circle the body.

We've seen waves of reforms from the education left and right--back to basics, cultural literacy, tougher standards, and standardized tests, on the one hand, and cooperative learning, authentic assessment, exploratory learning, and whole language on the other. And have schools improved? As with most complex political issues, it is easy to talk about schooling, but it is more difficult to change education for the better.

According to Frederick Hess in Spinning Wheels, part of the difficulty of improving schools lies with one of the most political aspects of the contemporary school district--the tenure of the school superintendent. Of the 53 districts Hess studied, the mean superintendency tenure was 3.8 years, with 40 percent at the time of the study having served two years or less. The short career-life expectancy of superintendents creates a meat grinder for school policy on a continuing basis. Hess believes that the policy churn operating in many, if not most, U.S. school districts is counterproductive because successive waves of reform become little more than symbolic gestures, rather than substantive action, and are used as short-term expedients rather than long-term processes to affect teaching and learning.

Hess argues that it has become incumbent upon nearly every new superintendent, particularly one coming from outside the district, to recognize publicly what is wrong with a district and promise change. Superintendency becomes a political campaign. "For superintendents," writes Hess, "doing too much is far safer than doing too little. Inaction is the worst possible sin for a public official facing a crisis." Each new superintendent arrives with a set of reforms "to ease political tensions and address political demands."

After all, this is the country described by de Tocqueville as "a land of wonders in which everything is in constant motion and every change seems an improvement." If Taylorism and the Ford assembly line were models for schools earlier this century, corporations looking for quick upsurges in quarterly earnings at the expense of long-term investment are models for many school districts today. We are in the era of venture superintendents, looking to show a quick return on a school board's investment.

Hess studies the forces at play in a school district to try to determine the drivers of reform. He looks at the kinds of districts that want reform and those that resist it. School districts with a vibrant local economy, for instance, have more time to focus on education reform than does a district battling high unemployment and a crumbling infrastructure. Larger districts tend to opt for more symbolic action. Troubled school districts are more likely to want new initiatives, but districts with large numbers of educated parents who are satisfied with their school systems also push for reform. School districts are operating between the rock of state legislatures wanting achievement on standardized tests and the hard place of parents wanting more options.

The reason many of these reforms don't cause much of a ripple is, then, predictable. Hess says it is because they are rarely designed for the long haul, allowed to work for five or 10 years, bought into by teachers, and measured on a regular and sensible basis. He believes stability and long-term superintendencies would be an answer, but the market for change rarely lets them happen.

Tom Loveless, in The Tracking Wars, takes a closer look at the implementation of a single reform--the uprising against school tracking among Massachusetts and California policy makers. While Loveless clearly supports continued tracking--grouping students by ability--his mission was to determine if state policy eliminating tracking actually "had an impact on increasing the number of untracked schools." What he found, not surprisingly to anyone who has watched state policy work its way down through a bureaucracy, is that "reforms designed from above and handed down to implementers are molded to fit local conditions."

Loveless found that institutional, organizational, technical, and political factors influenced policy implementation. While the state exerts some influence, factors such as whether a school serves a dense, urban community, its socioeconomic level, its size, and its relationship to a central administration are more influential because they govern the local educators' adaptation of the proposed reform. "Teachers pick and choose reforms," writes Loveless, "separating the ones deserving their energy and enthusiasm from those they will ignore or de-emphasize... . At every level of the educational system, policy from above is digested and recast in terms agreeable to the educator's own objectives and the demands of the local environment."

So, as California and Massachusetts pushed schools to end tracking, those schools that tended to agree embraced the reform, at least on a limited basis. Those schools whose educators disagreed with state policy either ignored the reform or undertook it grudgingly and, in a limited way, waited for it to wither and die.

Is this the fate of all school reform? Loveless suggests the possibility that school reforms work best when initi-ated in school systems and not by state policy wonks. He asks, "What if principals, teachers, and parents know what they are doing, know what is best for their particular schools when they decide policy?"

Does it make sense, then, to talk about any kinds of large-scale policy changes in American public schools? Don't get Alfie Kohn started. The former teacher is an indefatigable crusa-der in the John Dewey tradition, who advocates for students as actors in the construction of their own learning rather than as acquirers of knowledge. Kohn calls for an end to standards and large-scale testing. Describing the learning process, he writes, "We make sense of things and then remake sense of things."

Kohn is convinced that--despite the rhetoric of reform focusing on multiple intelligences, shared and experiential learning, and alternative assessment that has crept into education jargon, and despite claims by education traditionalists that such reforms have taken over our school systems--our schools still operate much as they have for decades. "Back to basics?" he writes. "When did we leave? We used to copy facts from the World Book; today, our kids download them from the Web."

He agrees with the authors of "A Nation at Risk" that "some U.S. schools are in real trouble by any measure." But, Kohn argues, a large part of that trou-ble is generated by the fact that schools "are typically underfunded, and their students may worry more about surviving to adulthood than passing an exam." He doesn't think the answer is to be found in standardized tests, which concentrate on the ability to demonstrate skills in a few limited areas rather than on nurturing the development of a complex understanding of a complex world. Public education, currently measured--and, therefore, dictated--in most states by standardized tests, creates a "quiz show view of intelligence."

Not only might these tests be measuring the wrong things, Kohn contends, but the concentration on preparation for these tests by many, if not most, public schools skews the education of our children, leaving no time for deeper learning, ignoring open-ended questions and skirting complexity. Perhaps worst of all, such narrow focus can kill the natural curiosity and love of learning that most children bring to school when they first arrive.

Kohn, who has been a favorite target for abuse by education traditionalists, believes the key to successful schools is small classes with large blocks of time and, maybe even more important, small schools in which children will not get lost. Very reasonable, on its face. But this is a radical proposal, given the reluctance of state legislatures to put more money into public education. It is much cheaper to run kids through the factory of high school than to provide a place for belonging, which, Theodore and Nancy Sizer believe, "is something every adolescent should expect from school." "It seems morally questionable not to act on it," says Kohn.

"People teach," the Sizers write in The Students Are Watching, "but the institutions which people build also teach." So students learn what a school values by observing the way it organizes school time, the relationships among the people in that school, the rules, the routines, the expectations, the opportunities given students to have a hand in governing their own lives.

And they learn whether society values their education, if there is equity among schools, if schools have adequate resources, if words and actions of policy makers agree. "The students watch our toleration [of inadequate schools]," write the Sizers. "They must wonder about our priorities and our consistency."

What are we teaching our children? That we know smaller classes and smaller schools are vitally important to education, but we don't have the political will to fund them? That such luxuries are reserved for high-dollar private schools and are the chief draw for families with money? That we will continue changing pedagogical horses and directions in midstream in order to navigate political currents? That new standardized tests are designed to create a baseline of failure over which schools are expected to improve during the tenure of current state officeholders? That we are testing to see what students don't know and not what they can do? That we are looking for proficiency in a limited set of skills rather than asking what students do and don't understand? Are we telling our low-income children that they are responsible for making up the disparities between themselves and children with computers and college-educated parents? That we will punish students and schools who fail rather than provide more resources to shore them up?

In October, IBM's Louis Gerstner told a governors' meeting on education to hang tough despite the demoralization of their schools. "We understand the pain," he said. "And we're going to have to deal with it. But we're not going to deal with it by backing off."

Kohn believes the loss of faith in American schools generated by "A Nation at Risk" and the standardized testing that followed have had an insidious impact on student learning, and that they have played a large role in setting the stage for the privatization of American education. The growing income gap not only makes life harder for low-income kids, but an everincreasing number of affluent families find themselves with enough cash to consider private schools for the first time. The public consensus to fund public schools weakens. Public schools face diminishing resources and become less able to meet the needs of their students, particularly in the form of smaller schools and smaller classes. Public disaffection with public schools grows.

Every year, dozens of serious books tell us what is wrong with our schools and how they can be fixed. But most of these books are crammed within the phone booth that is current public education policy and funding. Books by Brookings Institution policy analysts stand cheek-by-jowl with books by radical reformers. Some of the writers reviewed here would not want to be caught in the same phone booth with the others. Yet each writer, within the confines of his or her own argument, is absolutely right. School districts do need stable, long-term governance to achieve long-lasting improvement. The most effective reforms are those that begin in the classroom and the school. Students learn best in small classrooms in small schools in which students are full partners in the construction of their own learning. Schools should be restructured to show children they are valued.

So if we know all this, why aren't all our nation's students engaged in vibrant learning environments in small classes in small schools driven by the needs of children and the understanding of local teachers and principals? Because our political will is driven by market powers that are doing very well with a work force turned out by a school system that still operates as a meritocracy with limited means of access. At the same time, the people who do the most voting and campaign contributing seem increasingly reluctant to have their taxes raised to educate other people's children. The grander notion that education is the great equalizer and the flower of American democracy still gets lip service but is not a major factor when public education budgets are debated.

As economist James K. Galbraith has pointed out in Created Unequal: The Crisis in American Pay, "As polarization of wages, incomes, and wealth develops, the common interests and common social programs of a society fall into decline." Rather than having what Kohn calls "the schools our children deserve," we are saddled with the schools our economy dictates. Galbraith contends that our schools currently produce all the highly educated and skilled workers our economy requires while not "overeducating" too many others who will be stuck in the low-wage jobs of our increasingly polarized economy.

Such conscious intent may not be so obvious in the mind of a Texas legislator who, blessed with a large budget surplus this past session, put a little extra into teacher salaries, as his governor called for, but did not pour a more sizable portion of the surplus into public education funding, following again his governor's counsel. That legislator is usually more intent on walking the tightrope between the high public interest in education--as shown in current polls--and corporate and individual taxpayer unhappiness with increased public spending. Any calls for more writers, more thinkers, more humanists, more artists, more economists, or more Lani Guiniers get lost in the legislative din. Former Texas Lieutenant Governor Bill Hobby once wondered aloud how people know we won't solve the problems of public education by throwing money at it. "We've never tried it," he said.

In truth, our schools are incrementally better for large groups of children. As Richard Rothstein has noted [see "Controversy: School Vouchers," TAP online at], achievement scores for African-American students have improved dramatically, particularly in the face of growing economic disadvantage. But as the great divide between the affluent in this country and everyone else widens, the prospects for these children do not improve substantially.

The growing disparities among our children are not so much addressed through the opportunities offered by public schools, as the mythology of American education would have you believe, as they are mirrored by the growing disparities among our schools. Until we set higher standards for school funding, for living wages, and for social services designed to redistribute income; until we create decent housing and provide for adequate health care and day care; and until we create vast job opportunity for those with none, standards for learning for large numbers of children will be unreachable and irrelevant. And our schools, as the last large mediating institutions in our society, will continue to mediate inequality. ยค