Today, American education is being reinvented. The assumptions that have governed their structures and power relationships for more than a century are being replaced. This reinvention is spawning all sorts of new approaches to schools and hybrid arrangements that blur the line that has long separated public and private schools. For example, the best of what has been called charter schools possess elements of today’s public and private systems. Furthermore, this new model is not unbridled, laissez-faire, free-market. The public maintains its interest in providing educational services paid for with public funds. Public authorities continue to set standards for educational achievement, especially student achievement standards, of all schools receiving public funds and monitor whether these standards are met.
– Shift of power from producers to consumers. Public education has long been manufacturer-oriented. The primary beneficiaries of this model are the school and its employees, not its clients. Bureaucrats, pundits, and special interests control the system and make decisions under a public school monopoly.
New studies show that students want higher standards of behavior and achievement, and nearly six out of 10 parents with children attending public schools would send their children to private schools if they could afford it, which analysts interpreted as “a public ready to leak”. .”
– Emphasis on results. The second principle driving the reinvention is the primacy of what children learn and how well they learn it, not what rules schools follow, how they are run, the (worthy) intentions of educators, or how much they spend. Administrators should monitor the academic achievements of education, leaving it to individual schools to decide how to achieve them, including yearly calendar, daily schedules, staffing arrangements, student grouping, budget decisions, and so on.
– Responsibility. Schools need to establish responsibilities and create an evaluation system that measures performance. An accountability system begins with a clear set of learning standards or expectations. There are two types of standards. Content standards define the skills and knowledge students should achieve at various stages, what they should know and do. Performance standards, sometimes called performance levels, specify an expected level of proficiency, what is good enough to move from one stage to the next.
Students should only be promoted and graduate when they have achieved specific standards; universities should admit students only when they meet university-level entry standards; and employers should review the transcripts and use them in their hiring decisions. Likewise, teachers, principals and other responsible adults should be rewarded for success, penalized for failure, and fired if they or their schools cannot get the job done.
– Choice of school. Also driving the reinvention of American education is the idea that schools can be different from one another rather than identical and that families should be free to choose from a variety of educational opportunities and contexts. Schools should meet the diverse needs of families and children, not bureaucrats, state and local regulations, or union contracts. Several current proposals would allow nongovernment schools and home schoolers to receive money under choice plans: tax credits, tax-free K-12 education savings accounts, publicly (and privately) funded scholarships, and others. Because these scholarship dollars would be an aid to families, not schools, they could be used in any legally operating public, private, or religious school.
– Professionalism. The reinvention model argues that those who work in schools should be treated like and behave like professionals. This means deregulating schools, freeing them from bureaucratic control and micromanagement, and allowing individual schools, educators and parents broad freedom of decision-making on matters such as instructional loads and methods, staffing and resource allocation.
– The educational profession itself should be deregulated. Recruiting educators for the reinvented public school shouldn’t be limited to graduates of teacher or administrator training programs. Teachers’ unions may be an obstacle to such reforms, but they too have shown some signs of hope.
This new vision of American education is spreading rapidly, redefining public education and blurring the line between public and private schools. It is creating a radically new education system in which families choose from a continuum of learning opportunities and plans, with public money following the child to their chosen school. As the lines blur and private and public schools become more similar to (and different from today’s schools), private schools will change as well. Private schools’ growing opposition to vouchers suggests that some would rather maintain their independence than participate in an obfuscation that tends to bring considerably more scrutiny from others. States, however, already have the authority to regulate private schools; therefore reinvention is unlikely to destroy its autonomy. The new model allows them to remain “private” in several important ways: they are autonomous, free from most regulations, able to hire whoever they want, in control of their resumes, and frequented by young people whose parents choose them.
The central principle organizing the academic program of most parochial schools is a core curriculum for all students, regardless of background and future educational plans. Electives are limited, and required courses predominate.
Students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds respond well to the challenge. The focused core curriculum of a parochial school improves student achievement, particularly among underprivileged students, and protects against the academic fads that sweep through the education world with such depressing frequency. The schools of the future will require more basic academic courses from their students, especially those who are socially and economically disadvantaged.
Such a structure requires strong community organization. Parish educators see teaching as a vocation, a ministry of service. Schools foster personal interactions and shared experiences among those who work, attend and support them. Numerous activities bring staff, students and supporters together, including athletic events, fundraisers, rallies, school plays, alumni gatherings, retreats, and various forms of religious rituals and prayers. Academically, the core curriculum fulfills this unifying role. These foster a commonality of purpose that supports the school’s mission.
Parochial schools are typically less constrained by centrally controlled bureaucracies than public schools. Almost all important decisions are made at the school, under the guidance of the principal. This allows a school to develop a distinctive character and a sensitivity to the unique needs of students and families.
This market responsiveness is moderated by the core beliefs and values that permeate the school. The unique educational philosophy of a parochial school affirms the existence of fundamental truths and includes a special respect, based on religion, for the dignity of every person and the sacredness of the human community. This perspective determines not only what students know, but also the morality they will follow and the moral community created by the school.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the public and private realms is this explicit moral education, character development, and, in religious schools, religious instruction (although public schools have become more attentive to these issues in recent years).
Charter schools – (mostly) independent public schools of choice responsible for student learning outcomes – include a serious attempt by the public sector to reinvent education along these lines and give public schools full autonomy. Unfortunately, not all charter school laws are created equal – some show the facade of freedom but not the reality. Policy makers must resist the temptation to lock charter operators into the current web of state statutes, rules, collective bargaining agreements and the like.
As charter schools demonstrate, a public school is coming to mean any school that is willing to embrace high standards, enroll students without discrimination, and be accountable for its achievements, regardless of who owns or operates it. Public money follows the child into these schools and what unites them is a compulsory set of academic achievements limited to a basic list of widely accepted knowledge and skills.
America’s “public” schools of the future won’t look, feel, or act like “government.” But they are clearly bigger than the individual or the family. In this sense, they satisfy the classic definition of a “broker” institution. They are, in fact, examples of what contemporary analysts call “civil society”. They are voluntary institutions, neither compulsory nor monopolistic. They are more responsive to their communities than the schools created by large public bureaucracies.
Schools, of course, should play a vital role in this process, but today’s conventional public schools are hampered by bureaucratic constraints against religious education. Of course, in a pluralistic society there are inevitably different ideas about what this means. Unfortunately, America’s current public education system cannot accommodate such variety. Therefore, if we want to revitalize our communities, if we want to rebuild the social capital of our families and our neighborhoods, if we want to educate our young people, especially the most disadvantaged ones, we must allow families much more choice in school, and with it a flowering of variety, pluralism and freedom. Outdated laws and attitudes that favor the status quo are the only real limit to the future of American education.