Children as Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform

reviewed by Sandra Vergari - 2003

coverTitle: Children as Pawns: The Politics of Educational Reform
Author(s): Timothy A. Hacsi
Publisher: Harvard University Press, Cambridge
ISBN: 0674007441 , Pages: 261, Year: 2002
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Despite its provocative title, this book focuses largely on reviewing research rather than on political dynamics.  The book would have been more useful for readers with an interest in education politics and policy if its analytical focus had been on how politics have shaped education policy, as suggested by the book’s title.  Policymakers are discussed only occasionally, and Hacsi does not frame his discussion with findings and insights from the research literatures on public policy, the politics of education, or the politics of research.  Four of the five policy chapters emphasize mass media reports, yet Hacsi does not discuss how and why mass media coverage matters for education policy.


The book discusses evaluation research on five controversial education issues:  Head Start, bilingual education, class size, social promotion, and school finance.  For each of the five issues, Hacsi provides helpful background information and discussion of policy change over time.  At the outset of each chapter, Hacsi presents two quotes that express opposing viewpoints on the education issue addressed in the chapter.  These quotes provide effective illustrations of one of Hacsi’s key themes:  that advocates and opponents of a policy inevitably claim that the research evidence is on their side.


While neglecting politics, the introductory chapter includes useful discussion of the history of evaluation and evaluation methods.  Oddly, Hacsi casually dismisses qualitative evaluations.  While noting that many of the evaluation questions that he finds “most interesting require a qualitative approach ... [Q]ualitative evaluations, for all the important things they can tell various stakeholders, generally do not provide the kind of information that school districts, states, and the federal government should use when making decisions” (p. 17).  Qualitative education research has deservedly been the subject of a fair amount of criticism.  However, just as there are numerous flawed qualitative studies in the annals of education research, so too, are there poor and shallow attempts at quantitative research. In the concluding chapter, Hacsi briefly revisits the issue of qualitative versus quantitative methodologies.  What is missing is a straightforward, comparative analysis of the major strengths and weaknesses of qualitative and quantitative evaluations.  Hacsi does not consider the complementary features of the two approaches and the value of using both approaches to address a research question.


In Chapter One, on Head Start, Hacsi discusses the political implications of Head Start being a program that serves the poor.  He emphasizes that it is difficult to assess this longstanding federal program because stakeholders disagree on indicators of success or failure.  In Chapter Two, Hacsi aptly conveys the political and technical complexity of bilingual education policy.  A strength of this chapter is his discussion of the federal role and local control issues.


In Chapter Three, on class size reduction (CSR), Hacsi explains that such policy is expensive and potentially difficult to implement.  Several sections of this chapter would have been more convincing if Hacsi had provided supporting evidence for various assertions.  For instance, he asserts that, in California, there was “pressure from parents statewide” for CSR, but does not cite polling data or other evidence of such pressure (p. 128).  He notes that CSR “helped to drive Governor Wilson’s approval ratings to their highest point” in 1997, but does not offer evidence of a causal relationship (p. 131).  He avows that “parents, teachers, administrators, and politicians…agreed that the [California] program was a success, and newspapers were full of statements to that effect.”  Yet the only support Hacsi offers for this broad assertion is a quote from a first grade teacher in the L. A. Times who was “thrilled with the results” of having smaller classes (p. 132). 


In Chapter Four, Hacsi discusses social promotion research and concludes that retention hurts students and makes dropouts more likely. Hacsi notes that this is a case where “popular, seemingly commonsense arguments can overwhelm research evidence.” As in Chapter Three, Hacsi does not provide evidence to back up several of his own assertions.  For instance, he states that social promotion prevents “classrooms where ten-year-olds and thirteen-year-olds sit side be side – a situation that teachers, parents, and children themselves all prefer to avoid” (p. 145).  Yet he does not offer any evidence that all members of all of these groups are opposed to multi-age classrooms.  Similarly, he does not offer evidence for a “surge of public concern” about social promotion in the mid-1990s (p. 157).


In Chapter Five, on school finance, Hacsi focuses heavily on New Jersey and devotes a paragraph to Ohio, but does not explain the relative significance of these states in terms of politics or research.  He includes three sentences on Michigan’s historic 1994 school finance reform and ignores the rich politics at the heart of this case.  In contrast to the previous four chapters, mention of mass media reports is conspicuously absent from this chapter.  The chapter focuses on the judiciary but does not discuss how courts have or have not used research evidence, nor does Hacsi examine the politics of legislative responses to court actions. Hacsi states that money is a “necessary component of any true education reform, especially when it comes to our most troubled schools” (p. 203).  The definition of a “true education reform” and a convincing case as to why money is necessarily the answer are not provided.  Missing from this chapter are discussions of the politics of taxation and redistribution, and of accountability for school spending.  Hacsi’s discussion of the debate between school finance researchers Eric Hanushek and Rob Greenwald, Larry Hedges, and Richard Laine is one of the more thought-provoking sections of the book.


In the conclusion chapter, Hacsi offers the following observations on the five issues: 


  1. Head Start needs to be improved and provided to every eligible child. 
  2. Since there is not strong evidence that particular bilingual education programs work better than others, the focus should be on ensuring program and teacher quality. 
  3. Smaller class sizes should be provided to disadvantaged children in the first few grades, and decisionmakers should ensure that good teachers are in the smaller classrooms. 
  4. There is no simple solution to the problem of social promotion; several interrelated reforms are necessary.  If high stakes tests guide student retention decisions, high dropout rates are likely to be the outcome. 
  5. Evidence that money matters is “very persuasive” yet we do not know the best ways to spend education dollars (pp. 207-08). 
  6. Teacher quality matters.


Hacsi concludes with several additional observations: 


  1. Federal and state officials should sponsor large experiments and disseminate evidence on education issues.
  2. While evidence about what works is usually not a key factor influencing policy, evaluation can sometimes have “a powerful influence on policy decisions” (p. 209).  The book’s value would have been enhanced considerably had the author provided careful discussion and analysis of this key proposition. 
  3.  “There is little solid evidence that high stakes testing will have positive results,” and there is “no evidence” on which to base the belief that testing will make schools, teachers, and students try harder (p. 210).  Hacsi does not address possible counterarguments here.  He seems convinced that the evidence is on his side. 
  4. Even if the results of voucher studies initiated in the 1990s “seem compelling, they will not say anything about why children benefited from private schools, or what public schools might do to improve; they will be useless as guides to public policy” (p. 210).  It is unclear as to why Hacsi is confident that the studies’ findings will be useless. 
  5. Due to factors such as “generally limited size and relative lack of funding” the school district is not a very “promising locale for ambitious experiments designed to produce evidence of interest to the entire nation” (p. 210).  Hacsi asserts that a study in Los Angeles “would tell us little about the effects of a reform on rural children” (p. 212). His dismissal of school districts as fruitful sites for research is puzzling; and, depending on the study, findings from L.A. might actually be relevant to a rural district. 
  6. Finally, we will never have absolute knowledge.  Acting on incomplete knowledge is “better than acting on what ‘feels right’ or is politically popular” (p. 214).


While this timely book does not discuss the circumstances or details of how policymakers have treated “children as pawns,” it should be useful for readers with an interest in one or more of the five policy areas that Hacsi addresses.  The book highlights many of the key points of debate and informs readers about major research projects in each area.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 105 Number 4, 2003, p. 564-567 ID Number: 10964, Date Accessed: 5/17/2022 4:08:43 PM

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