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Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform

reviewed by Theodore Kowalski - May 26, 2011

coverTitle: Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform
Author(s): Frederick M. Hess and Bruno V. Manno (eds.)
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 1934742074, Pages: 288, Year: 2011
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Customized Schooling is an anthology that includes an introduction, 10 chapters, and a conclusion. The book’s core contention is that students, treated as customers, should have options outside of the “whole school” model—the traditional approach of a student taking courses only at the school in which he or she is officially enrolled. The type of customization put forward in this book is fundamentally a boutique curricular configuration. It gives parents the option of selecting educational service providers (including specialty providers such as entrepreneurs), instructional formats (including online and independent studies), and even instructors.  

Presented as a prudent reform, the case for customization as public policy is based on several contentions. The following five are the most noteworthy.

1. Traditional public and private schools have been and remain mired in a one-size-fits-all mentality. Although the model is accepted by most families, many students and parents are nevertheless dissatisfied with some of its elements. Therefore, parents should have greater discretion to make decisions about education service providers.

2. Schooling should be flexible so that adaptation can be made to individual student needs and interests.

3. In order to provide parents meaningful choices, the supply of schools needs to be diversified, especially by permitting specialty providers to compete with traditional schools.

4. The feasibility of customized schooling has been enhanced by entrepreneurship and technology; for example, online courses make customization a practical model.

5. Customization must be supported by an effective funding program. The recommended solution is individual student accounts (analogous to an individual bank account) funded by state governments. Assets in the funds could be used for both public and private service providers.

The most appealing and defensible aspect of customization clearly is individualization. Educators have long recognized that tailoring instruction to a student’s specific needs is advantageous. The extent to which schooling can and should be individualized, however, is debatable.  

The variety of individualization recommended in this book depends on three core strategies: school choice, vouchers, and state deregulation. Expressly, school choice allows parents to pick service providers, instructional formats, and instructors; the state-funded student accounts are a derivative of unrestricted vouchers (i.e., vouchers that can be used to pay public or private service providers); opening the door to nontraditional providers and allowing them to receive public funding is an expression of state deregulation. Each of these core strategies has been and remains controversial and divisive.

Would-be reformers have had a proclivity to resurrect previously unproductive initiatives, especially when those initiatives are nested in personal assumptions about education. Convinced their ideas are valid, they rename the plan and concentrate on perfecting its application. Arguably, the core strategies advocated in this book exemplify this tendency. Authors in several chapters acknowledge that past experiments with choice, vouchers, and deregulation did not live up to their promise, but only because of the way they were implemented. In the case of school choice and vouchers, for example, previous disappointments (e.g., the failure to elevate school performance under these strategies) are attributed to parents not having access to essential data. In the case of state deregulation, previous disappointments (e.g., the failure of alternative service providers to improve under-performing schools) are attributed to the failure to pursue reforms outside a one-size-fits-all mentality. Since customization depends on these core strategies, the authors understandably had to address the cogent question: Why will this time be different? Their answer is reframing. Specifically, they contend that choice must be reframed as “informed choice;” that is, parents must have access to essential data. Since vouchers and choice are intertwined strategies, informed choice by implication reframes vouchers. With respect to deregulation they believe that customization de facto requires providers to move beyond the whole school approach—thus, eliminating the problem that inhibited nontraditional providers previously. Unfortunately, no empirical data is provided to support these claims.

As a contribution to extant literature on school reform, Customized Schooling has several positive features. Most notably, the editors and other contributing authors present an organized and clearly-stated case for their reform model. Anecdotal evidence is provided in several chapters indicating that the authors are aware of experiments involving aspects of this concept. Most notably, the book’s value relates to the persisting interest in choice, vouchers, and deregulation. Although public interest in these strategies has waxed and waned over the past 5 or 6 decades, the current level of attention is relatively high. For supporters, this book provides a line of attack; for detractors, it describes efforts to make these strategies public policy under the cover of individualized instruction.

One of the book’s weaknesses is its restrictive view of schooling. The authors address the subject solely from economic and political perspectives; as a result, they fail to consider societal interests. Since their inception, public schools have served both individuals and society. By institutionalizing customization, standardization is restricted if not eliminated. Citizens who view schooling largely through a social lens, and this includes most educators, almost certainly will oppose the proposed radical change. In their eyes, citizenship, fraternity, and community building also are important objectives that should be retained.

A second concern entails the probable effects of moving public schools from the public-sector economy to the marketplace. Essential social services, such as the military, police protection, and schooling, have been deemed too essential to be subjected to whims of individual consumers. Basing schooling on consumerism is a precarious decision, but especially so in a democratic, capitalistic society; yet, the likely drawbacks are never mentioned.

In closing, Customized Schooling is a book that should appeal to a wide audience. Like most books, it has strengths and weaknesses. On the positive side it addresses a critical problem, the lack of individualized instruction in schools. Moreover, the contributing authors provided scholarly perspectives in relation to responding to the dilemma and the co-editors integrated the contributions into a coherent reform proposal. On the negative side, the underlying strategies for implementing customization are not supported by empirical evidence. This omission is striking since previous experiments with choice, vouchers, and deregulation have not been highly successful, at least not with respect to elevating student learning in under-performing schools. The book also fails to provide an objective analysis of the social consequences of customization; specifically, neither the social purposes of schooling nor the repercussions of eliminating standardization are analyzed objectively.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: May 26, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16426, Date Accessed: 12/6/2021 7:05:15 PM

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About the Author
  • Theodore Kowalski
    University of Dayton
    E-mail Author
    THEODORE J. KOWALSKI is professor and the Kuntz Family Endowed Chair in Educational Administration at the University of Dayton. He is a former superintendent and college of education dean. He is editor of the Journal of School Public Relations and serves on the editorial boards of several other professional journals including Educational Administration Quarterly and the AASA Journal of Scholarship and Practice. He recently received the 2011 Distinguished Service Award from the American Association of School Administrators in recognition of his research and scholarly books.
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