A Primer on America's Schools
reviewed by Jonathon Gillette - 2003
A Primer on America’s Schools is the centerpiece outcome of the Hoover Institute’s “Initiative on American Public Education.” As stated by John Raisian in the Foreword, the Initiative was launched “with the overall goal of presenting pertinent facts surrounding the current debate, contributing to the debate as a constructive commentator, and generating new ideas related to educational reform.” To reach that goal, the Institute formed what became known as the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. A Primer is a collection of essays from eleven of the task force members.
All eleven are familiar to most students of educational policy and their chapters address topics that each has long championed. The book begins with Diane Ravitch exploring educational history and ends with Paul Hill’s examination of what makes a school public. In between are contributions from John Chubb on the educational system as a whole, Herbert Walberg on achievement patterns, Eric Hanushek on school finance and achievement, Caroline Hoxby on families and school reform, Chester Finn on teacher preparation and retention, Terry Moe on unions, E.D. Hirsch on the curriculum, Williamson Evers on standards and accountability and Paul Peterson on choice in public education.
The purpose of this book and the selection of its title are outlined early in the introduction authored by Terry Moe. He writes, “Any effort to think seriously about school reform must begin at the beginning, by simply describing and assessing the current state of American education … This is mainly an effort to set out the facts of American education in a clear, simple, straightforward way, and to offer insight and perspective on what they mean”(p.xxi). A secondary goal is to “encourage a stronger connection between policymaking and good social science”(p. xx).
This is not, however, a “Joe Friday” pledge of “Just the facts, ma’am”. Moe continues in the introduction, “They [the contributors to the book] also do more, of course, than simply report the facts. All experts do … For the challenge they face is not simply to collect a mass of evidence, but also to make sense of it by offering coherent, supportable interpretations of its meaning and consequences”(p. xxii). Now the stage is set. This is “a” primer, not “the” primer, and the reader should expect to gain insight into American education as seen by these particular authors. It is an attempt to state the basics, make meaning of their consequences and stay somewhat simple.
Teachers face this challenge every day. It is, in fact, the heart of their work. Much time is spent framing lessons and creating ways for students to gain insight without lowering expectations. Unfortunately many of the chapters teach their subject poorly. While there is variation between chapters, most act as overeager teachers by issuing interpretations as they lay out evidence. Most chapters do not even do justice to previous work.
The book starts with a chapter by Diane Ravitch titled “American Traditions of Education.” Here she takes the reader on a quick tour of educational history and most particularly of how the common school movement of the mid-nineteenth century trumped a variety of competing forms of schooling. Her goal is to stretch memory beyond the present “one best system.” She begins by noting an historical error written as an inscription on a New York University building cornerstone. But she commits the same error of “presentism” by describing the academies of the 1850s as “much like charter schools in the 1990s” (p. 6) ignoring significant shifts in historical context.
The second chapter by John Chubb on “The System” attempts to guide the reader through the elements of the system as a whole, making the argument that “the system must be well understood” (p. 18). He also notes the “inordinate number of rules and regulations” (p. 16). Yet he virtually ignores the role of the states in his analysis, the source of a great deal of the regulatory environment. Instead, he divides the whole into three “fundamental principles”: local control, federalism and professionalism. It is the principle of federalism that to Chubb is the driving force of uniformity in education, or the “grammar of schooling,” to use Tyack and Cuban’s term (1995). This not only ignores history (e.g. Tyack 1974, Cremin 1964) but the rich developments in institution theory, which sees school uniformity as one example of organizational isomorphism. Would Chubb make a similar claim that federalism is responsible for the uniformity of organizational shape in the auto industry (see Dimaggio and Powell 1983, Rowan and Miskell 2000, Hanson 2001)? There are useful parts of this chapter such as the discussion of the shifts in local control. But Chubb overstates, as when he calls local control a “powerful myth” (p. 23). One only needs to look at issues of desegregation to note the resilience of local control and its ability to guard boundaries (McDermott 1999). Chubb’s insistence on extreme generalization does not allow for a mix of effectiveness and ineffectiveness.
In the third chapter Walberg examines achievement and refers to the U.S. Department of Education data that indicates a stagnation of achievement across the 80’s and 90’s. He then points to the persistence of an achievement disparity between low and high poverty schools. No matter what your ideology, these are important numbers and cannot be wished away. But Walberg too cannot resist jumping from there to quick interpretive strikes. He notes the huge increase in expenditure since 1920 and, with no unpacking or explanation that would contextualize this increaseand with no supporting evidence, he states that this gap is due to ineffective federal programs, and indifferent big-city systems, which “have gained a well-known and often deserved image of failure” (p. 51). He does eventually discuss a “value-added” analysis – although I am not sure that if you do not already know what it is, the explanation makes sense. Finally he does address scholars who have understood the numbers differently but frames them as “defenders of the status quo” (p. 64). So while there are parts of this chapter that could be of use to any student seeking to peal back the contradictory claims about overall academic achievement, the unsubstantiated sidebars derail its coherence.
Hanushek, in the next chapter, follows a similar path. Writing about the relationship between resources and achievement he weighs in with his chart on the increase in real spending per pupil from 1890 to 1990. And the visual is impressive – low in 1890 and high in 1990. But from there he does little to strengthen the importance of these numbers. He spends less than a paragraph setting a contextual comparison for these figures with a brief reference to health care costs during this time. Further, even though there are many interesting parts of the chapter about what might be behind overall growth and inequities in funding within and especially across states, his iterative mantra is that the increases in spending have not improved achievement, a conclusion he makes with little to no supporting discussion. Here the simple approach becomes simplistic. Why not at least set out some of the parameters of studies that looked at connections between revenues and achievement so the reader could at least discern how it is that one tests for this linkage?
Carolyn Hoxby titles her chapter “If Families Matter Most, Where Do Schools Come In?” She presents research that demonstrates the powerful effects of family on achievement as a reinforcement to the notion that the relationship between the school and family is important. Wanting to move beyond the framework of “school versus family,” which she attributes to Coleman, she advocates reforms that augment the family influence, namely choice. She does a fairly good job of controlling the jargon of an economist, only occasionally slipping into sentences like “parents should begin comparing schools on the basis of their value added for cost” (p. 121). She also keeps random opinions to a minimum.
Finn’s chapter “Getting Better Teachers – and Treating Them Right” is one of the better-written chapters and reflects some effort at presenting a case he has made often in a simpler and clearer format. It can serve as a short, stand alone position paper for breaking down the current system of teacher preparation and for allowing more alternative ways to enter teaching. The argument still suffers from depending on a shared cultural view that teaching requires few skills and from a plethora of terms that are highly pejorative: “Mickey Mouse courses”(p. 129) and “bizarre practices of the teaching field” (p.131).
Moe’s chapter, “Teachers Unions and the Public School” is also an unfortunate mix. He makes important observations about the structural elements of teacher unions. The system is designed in a way that allows unions to exercise two different forms of influence: collective bargaining and political action. Given the nature of most school boards and the electoral process surrounding member selection, unions can influence issues from two different and distinct vantage points. Moe gives a nod to the variance of local political conditions even as he seeks to identify main patterns of local elections that he feels strengthen the union’s position. But the level of generalization leaves one gasping. He implies that unions themselves have clear and unified internal agendas and that they are monolithic in their defense of the system and their stand against the interests of children. The message that unions are bad, in the way, and problematic is clear. That unions represent one choice of how people have responded to the dilemmas of this kind of work, or that there are some overlapping interests with children or families, does not emerge.
Peterson’s chapter on “Choice in American Education” is a useful introduction to the expanding options of choice. It is a clear, straightforward account of the various choice offerings: charters, vouchers, magnets, even private and parochial schools. He also reminds us that school choice by residential selection is highly inegalitarian. The chapter has a particular interpretive framework: to increase choice by breaking down current educational arrangements, rather than, say, zoning barriers.
The chapters by E.D. Hirsh on “Curriculum and Competence” and by Williamson Evers on “Standards and Accountability” cover familiar ground. Hirsch argues that “it is impossible to bring all children to competence without conveying needed knowledge to them through a coherent, cumulative curriculum.”(p. 185). If you thought this was possible, his goal is to disabuse you of that notion. Evers attempts to describe the political conflict over standards and accountability as a battle between progressives versus traditionalists and reminds us that the outcome of this political conflict is represented in the variety of state implemented systems.
The final essay by Paul Hill examines the downside of the current system of guaranteed schooling. He posits a scenario of a parent locked into a failing school and asks whether she is serving either private or public interests by keeping the child where she is failing. While he stretches the point that moving the child to a private option serves the public good, his portrait is a vivid and important one for all who contemplate our current state of affairs. It is critical not to blame parents who choose the interests of their children, even if they participate in ventures that may put the system at risk. What is most interesting in this chapter is Hill’s assertion that “Schools have limited supplies of things parents want-access to the best teachers, the most prestigious programs, competent instruction in science and mathematics…” (p. 296). Yet none of his solutions address increasing the supply.
I am sure my own experiences and perspectives influence my review. As a current director of a teacher preparation program I am a member of the educational establishment. I have spent the whole of my adult life working in some way with public school systems: as a teacher, an administrator, as a researcher, as a senior member of a national reform organization, and now as a person who prepares future teachers. I come to the issues of education from a very different philosophical framework than the authors of A Primer and view their assumptions with skepticism and suspicion. As I read, I could think of a number of counter points, research they ignored, or stands that I saw as unsubstantiated. I was re-enacting the larger policy debate and making this review another round in that war.
What strikes me as fundamentally wrong with A Primer and even some of my responses to the book – even beyond the fact that few of these chapters are even good representations of the authors’ work – is that we argue over high levels of generalizations such as do finance and achievement correlate, and whether the unions control the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. But what if we were to find ourselves confronting a particular problem, in a particular district? Would we always be on different sides? In many places the context of the schooling, its structure and organizational form, is a major impediment to the sophisticated practice of teaching. We need more talented people to teach, especially in challenging settings. In some settings union work rules truly disadvantage students, while in other places union activism is the only reason students have any chance for achievement. This level of “policy talk” may do well for political campaigning and it even may bring to bear large national forces in a local debate in ways that shift power balances and media coverage. But what seems to be more and more true is that a priori positions for or against at the most macro level hinder micro level families, professionals and political activists from finding new and effective ways to support learning, especially the learning of the most disadvantaged.
In the end A Primer does not meet the goals it had set for itself. Better writing, better lesson plans for teaching their content in a simple, rather than a simplistic, way would have made an enormous difference. But ultimately this book challenges us to question the value of broad, general statements, even when there are some facts that can be gathered in support.
McDermott, K. (1999). Controlling public education. University of Kansas Press
Cremin, L. (1964). The transformation of the school. New York: Vintage Books.
DiMaggio, P.J. and Powell, W.W. (1983). The iron cage revisited: Institutional isomorphism and collective rationality in organizational fields. American Sociological Review, 48, 147-160
Hanson, M. (2001). Institutional theory and educational change. Educational Administration Quarterly, 37, 637-661.
Rowan, B. and Miskel, C. (2000). Institutional theory and the study of educational organizations. In J. Murphy and K. S. Louis (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Educational Administration, (pp. 359-383). San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
Tyack, D. (1974). The one best system. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Tyack, D. and Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering toward utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.