Efforts to Reinvent US Education Rate a 'B'

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This article is an excerpt from the Hudson Institute's ''Education Reform 1994-1995: A report from the Educational Excellence Network to its Education Policy Committee and the American People.''

TWO distinct ways of conceiving education reform - two ''paradigms,'' some would say - have emerged in the United States in recent years, and the differences between them are growing sharper (actually a bit too sharp for us). One, commonly termed ''systemic reform,'' operates on the assumption that reform efforts should be led by government and imposed from the top down. Its advocates believe that state (or federal) authorities must set standards not only for student learning, but also for much else, including teacher training, assessment, textbooks, school resources, and ''best practices.'' Though undertaken in pursuit of higher standards and better results, ''systemic reform'' relies on uniform strategies to ensure that inputs everywhere are equal and all schools undertake similar activities. Its mechanism for making this happen, of course, is government resources and bureaucratic regulation. Much of Goals 2000 embodies this paradigm.

The second education reform paradigm welcomes decentralized control, entrepreneurial management, and grass-roots initiatives, within a framework of publicly defined standards of accountability. Under this approach, public officials establish standards, make assessments, and hold schools accountable for meeting performance goals, but do not themselves run the schools. Public officials also retain the power to cancel charters and school-management contracts on grounds of persistently poor performance, but they do not directly supervise or control the means by which schools pursue those ends. We think of this as ''reinventing'' public education because in this approach schools may be run by diverse providers, not just by government agencies, although all providers must continue to be accountable to the public as long as public funds are involved.

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Standards and diverse schools

In this paradigm, education may be delivered through charter schools (chartered by public authorities such as a state, city, or local school district); ''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; ''contract schools'' (in which a performance contract is negotiated between educational managers and a public agency); and choice programs (in which students use scholarships or vouchers to attend the schools of their choice). In all such situations, the continuing responsibility of public authorities is to establish standards for educational and fiscal performance and monitor progress in relation to those standards. (Those who reject this degree of public accountability may, of course, turn to wholly private schools or home schooling.)

The ''reinvention'' paradigm welcomes diverse strategies and dissimilar schools organized and run by various entities (teacher cooperatives, parent associations, private corporations, religious and community-based organizations). It takes for granted that students and families should be free to match themselves to the schools that suit them best. It requires little bureaucracy because it rejects the proposition that schools must be centrally managed according to a single formula.

We strongly favor the ''reinvention'' paradigm, provided that it contains one key element borrowed from the ''systemic'' approach: standards and accountability. It is our conviction that only with clear, high standards for performance is there a real prospect for accountability, both through the marketplace (i.e., the ability of families to make informed choices among schools) and to whatever public body authorizes the schools to operate. These standards need not be national, they need not be highly detailed, they should not prescribe pedagogy or resource use, and they need not cover the entire curriculum. (Indeed, schools' ability to add their own features to the ''core'' described in the standards is part of what will make them different from one another.) But only when such standards are in place - and accompanied by good tests and a steady flow of performance information - can parents make informed choices among schools and can public authorities determine which schools deserve to retain their ''charters'' (or contracts, accreditation, etc.)

These two approaches are now competing with each other, not only in Washington but also in the states. ''Systematic'' reform remains the favored strategy of the Clinton administration and of some educators (especially in state departments of education and teacher unions), but the ''reinvention'' alternative is preferred in many other quarters - including many elected officials, business leaders, and parents, as well as teachers and principals who welcome the possibility of breaking free from the stifling grip of central-office bureaucracy. The reinvention impulse has even reached Capitol Hill, where the past year saw stirrings of the first major push in memory to ''devolve'' previously centralized activities from Washington to states, communities, and families and to lift restrictions from the use of federal aid. This impulse arises partly from the quest for better education, but even more from reactions against the regulatory burden of federal regulations and unfunded mandates.

Making room for reform

This is the motive behind recent congressional activity concerning ''block grants'' in fields from welfare and school lunches to job training and education aid. To be sure, turning categorical programs into block grants and devolving control to states and communities will not automatically foster reform via reinvention. Indeed, it is possible that recipients will not do much of anything. But doing away with ''Washington-knows-best'' approaches and removing strings from federal dollars at least permits reform-minded states and communities to experiment with new strategies for education and other public services - and removes the crutch of blaming Uncle Sam when results do not improve.

The federal government is so hamstrung by special interest groups that getting it out of the way of change-minded states and communities may be the most that can be expected from Washington on the ''reinvention'' front. Certainly all efforts by Uncle Sam to foster such reforms directly have proven halfhearted at best and fraudulent at worst. The so-called ''Improving America's Schools Act'' of 1994, for example, banned any use of federal dollars for privately managed public schools and created a school ''choice'' program so laden with preconditions and constraints that it must be termed phony, enabling members of Congress to say they ''voted for school choice'' while ensuring that there would not actually be any. Even serious test-based accountability was discouraged by explicit prohibitions in the Goals 2000 legislation on the use of federal funds for this purpose. Those who believe that such alternatives to the status quo are the main hope for serious educational improvement are learning that Washington is the wrong place to look for anything but their palest versions.

Indeed, both the reinvention strategy and the standards and accountability strategy were seriously undermined by the 103rd Congress. But much is happening elsewhere in the nation under the ''reinvention'' banner. That is why we have given this area an overall ''B'' grade for 1994-95 - the highest mark on this year's report card.

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