So you want to fund education reform? Well, be prepared for confusion as you sort through the variety of options that face you and your philanthropic dollars. Should you fund the public school system or groups that seek to reform it? Charter schools or vouchers? Private scholarships or religious schools?
The best way to distinguish among these approaches is to develop a framework and a set of principles that can guide an effective giving strategy. A Primer on America’s Schools will help you do that.
This volume provides an overview on K-12 education—gathering basic facts and research about its essential features, identifying key problems that obstruct its performance, and offering perspectives on what’s needed for genuine reform. The contributors read like a “who’s who” of unconventional thinking on education reform: John Chubb, Williamson Evers, Chester E. Finn Jr., Eric Hanushek, Paul Hill, E. D. Hirsch, Caroline Hoxby, Terry Moe, Paul Peterson, Diane Ravitch, and Herbert Walberg.
What unites these writers is their belief in the twofold nature of America’s education problem, especially in urban school districts. The first problem is a crisis of quality: public schools simply are not adequately preparing young people for success in the 21st century worlds of work, family, and citizenship. The second problem is a crisis of social equity: those young people who most desperately need educational opportunity—minorities, the poor, and others—are trapped in the nation’s worst schools.
These writers don’t take as a given the traditional structure of the existing public school system and its basic institutional arrangements and ground rules. Typical of today’s government-run school system are centrally-run institutions managed by a superintendent and school board, staffed by public employees, and operated within a public sector bureaucracy that administers an arcane and bewilderingly complex set of regulations.
The authors argue for a fundamentally different approach. For example, several present a compelling case from the diverse perspectives of their various fields—including history and economics—that the incentive structure underlying public education must be changed to allow for greater choice and competition within the system.
The views they espouse, however, are not a unified statement or reform program. For example, historian Diane Ravitch’s essay on American public education reminds us that the nation has many different schooling traditions. Today’s uniform system of government-controlled public education, a late 19th century invention, is just one of these traditions. Homeschooling, alternative models of public education, and cooperation between the public and private sectors in educating America’s children are other, equally important models.
Another example is economist Caroline Hoxby’s discussion of how to support parental involvement in education—an idea that donors have poured money into with the hope of improving school performance. Her sophisticated and compelling analysis of the role of families in education demonstrates that the situation is more complex than commonly supposed.
One tradition of family involvement tries to improve school effects, expanding the school to include parents, often in the form of parent training, so that they become what Hoxby calls “extension students.” For example, Uncle Sam’s Title I program for at-risk students trains parents to become school aides, while other approaches bring parents into schools as mentors or to assist in different projects.
But another tradition wants to improve family effects by advancing the primacy of families as consumers of education. An example of this approach would be a charter school program in a school district. Charters give parents a choice of different public schools, thereby changing the incentive structure in public education and making it more likely that the desires of parents will be heard and met. In Hoxby’s words, “a reform that improved family effects by 5 percent would probably do more for students’ outcomes than a reform that improved school effects by 70 percent.”
Both of these essays—as well as the others in this volume—have important implications for how donors approach education reform. Rather than feeling compelled to give to public education as exemplified in today’s government-controlled structure, donors, for example, could begin to support programs that give money directly to families so that they can choose the school their children attend. Or they could provide financial assistance to efforts that create and support charter schools —independent public schools of choice that are chosen by both parents and teachers and that are accountable for educational results. These alternatives to direct support of the present system of public education may be a more effective way of reforming the system so that it achieves educational equity and improves educational quality.
Taken as a whole, this primer on America’s schools presents a strong case for concluding that the present school enterprise is not just doing poorly, but is incapable of doing much better because it’s intellectually misguided, ideologically wrong-headed, and organizationally dysfunctional. At day’s end, this radicalization of school reform—a fundamental questioning of the present system’s assumptions, institutional arrangements, and power relationships—defends the principle and function of public education while arguing for a top-to-bottom makeover of its ground rules and practices.
Bruno V. Manno is senior associate for education at the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a board member at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, and a contributing editor to Philanthropy.