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December 1, 2000
Vol. 58
No. 4

Redefining Public Schools

High standards and school choice can help ensure that schools meet the needs of today's learners.

A sense of urgency about educational difficulties in the United States permeates conversations about education in the media, statehouse, community, and classroom. Everyone believes in the value of public education. No one buys the idea that because our schools face daunting challenges, the nation should scale back its ambitions for educating young people. But unless public schools become the architects of change, we fear they will become the victims of change.
Schools are challenged by an enrollment boom, limited institutional flexibility, new competition for students, eroding public trust, a graying teaching force, growing numbers of immigrant and poor children, and troubling evidence about institutional effectiveness. Reasonable people may argue about the causes of these challenges, but it is difficult to argue that schools don't have problems. And we have run out of easy solutions. Adding a program here, squeezing in more teachers there, increasing funding slightly—these and other strategies no longer work.
The challenges facing public schools are no longer technical issues about how to manage enrollment, allocate revenues, or even increase achievement. They are much more difficult problems—what Ronald Heifetz, director of the Leadership Education Project at Harvard University defines as "adaptive challenges"—about how to lead when conditions change, expectations remain high, cynicism grows, and options appear limited. We live in an age of transformational, not technical, change. Educational leadership, like educational institutions, must become transformational as well (Heifetz, 1994).
These thoughts have been foremost in our minds as we collaborated on a book, A Legacy of Learning: Your Stake in Standards and Public Schools (2000). We started with a survey of the landscape of school problems: What's wrong with our education system? Why can't we fix our schools? In the face of poor performance by U.S. students on international tests, how do we explain the Lake Wobegon effect—the phenomenon of state and local educators reporting that U.S. students are all above average? Why are we trailing 22 other industrialized nations in high school graduation rates? What can we do?
After three years of talking to educators, visiting schools, and reviewing literature, we weren't at all sure that conventional educators had the answers. Often, they weren't even asking the right questions. For the most part, their reform prescriptions simply fine-tuned failure, with modest changes in curriculum or exhortations for improvement that few take seriously. We have met the enemy and it is us: All of us support change as long as it is someone else changing.
Our children deserve a world-class education. We need to demand an end to public schools that provide a one-size-fits-all education and that assign students to schools depending on where they live. We need a new definition of what a public school is and a more open, democratic system that provides real choices to meet diverse student interests. We need public schools that truly belong to the public, and schools that citizens know, understand, and support.
Above all, we need to leave a legacy of learning for our children. Our legacy should be high standards, high expectations for student performance, and new kinds of public schools that are capable of continual self-renewal and confident enough to offer abundant options to students and families.

Economics, Democracy, and Education

Many educators think that questioning the performance of public education is somehow perverse. Right-minded people have convinced themselves that it's un-American to note that the average performance of our students is mediocre and that the educational status of inner-city students is appalling.
An economically strong nation depends on a strong educational system. Technology in industries from printing to automobile manufacturing turns around every two to three years. The half-life of today's engineering graduates is about five years—then they have to retool themselves.
We can already hear the cynics and revisionists: "How bad can our schools be if their graduates produced the Information Age?" The truth is that the workforce on which our economy depends is made up increasingly of college-educated people. Our competitive rebound has been driven by the U.S. higher education system, which is almost universally described in international circles as the envy of the world.
According to a 1995 report from the Business-Higher Education Forum, about a quarter or more of new hires in major companies are college graduates. And many of those without college degrees have completed several years of college.
But the problem is about more than jobs or training. The Business-Higher Education Forum study also shows that the fast-food industry hires more people annually than its total employment base. In other words, these jobs turn over quickly. A two-track economy exists in the United States. On one track, we find relatively stable, high-paying jobs for the well educated. On the other track, we find the low-tech, low-paying jobs, with little future and incredibly high turnover, that are available to the poorly educated. As a functioning democracy, the United States cannot stand by and consign one segment of its young people to that kind of future.
According to the Congressional Budget Office, the top one-fifth of households earns 50 percent of national earnings and the bottom two-fifths account for only 14 percent. In actual dollars, the average income of the top 20 percent of American households was $89,000 in recent years, and the bottom 20 percent had to get by on less than one-tenth of that amount, $8,202 annually (Phillips, 1990).
Although we may debate the social consequences of such inequities, there is little controversy about the connection to education. High school graduates enjoy incomes 50 percent higher than dropouts; college graduates earn incomes at least 75 percent higher than high school graduates. To be poorly educated is to run a substantial and growing risk of being poor; to be well educated is to have the world by the tail.

Good News, Bad News

For our country to function, our schools must work better than they have ever worked before. Yet we know that these vital institutions aren't working well enough. For example, the longer that U.S. students go to school through grade 12, the more poorly they perform when compared to both their contemporary peers abroad and to students of a generation ago. About one-quarter of our young people drop out of secondary school, yet 25 percent or more of those who do graduate can't meet today's demands for reading and writing.
The good news is that in some areas we are doing reasonably well. We can puff up our chests about student achievement in the elementary grades. According to several reports from the International Education Assessment (IEA), U.S. 4th graders rank second in the world in reading; either second or third in science, depending on how you read the results; and well above average in mathematics (National Center for Education Statistics, 1996a, 1996b, 1997, 1998). We also find pockets of excellence at all grade levels—for example, in promising new models, such as those underwritten by New American Schools. We need to celebrate these successes and build on them.
But at the secondary level, we are just about last in the world in mathematics and science achievement. A recent analysis of data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) indicates that only two-thirds of our graduates appear to have mastered the essentials they need in mathematics and science. When 17-year-olds are compared to their peers of the 1970s, two-thirds of the reading and math improvement recorded for 9-year-olds over that time span has disappeared (Loveless, 2000).
Are these results good enough? Can this society prosper if it continues to miseducate at least one-third of its graduates? If citizens, parents, and community leaders don't take action, our children are going to face tough consequences in the future.

The New Leadership

This is where leadership enters the picture. Leaders don't recycle the same old excuses. They look at the facts anew.
About 20 years ago, corporate leaders in the United States were being pelted by a comparable litany of complaints about corporate performance. Yet within a generation, such companies as Ford, Motorola, and Xerox had been transformed. What lay behind these transformations?
All of these turnarounds conformed to a common script—the lessons of institutional failure. These companies didn't quite go through a 12-step program, but it was pretty close. Most of them were in a state of denial about their corporate health. Many of them were busy prescribing Band-Aids and aspirins for their aches and pains when they needed bypass surgery.
  • First, they acknowledged that they were skidding toward disaster. They looked reality squarely in the face.
  • Second, they admitted that they had ignored quality. This disregard of quality, based on a belief that neither employees nor customers cared about it, had been their biggest mistake.
  • Third, they realized that they were out of touch with their customers. They took for granted that the customers all wanted the same thing. They thought they understood what the customers needed better than the customers themselves did. They took past success as a given for the future. If it ain't broke, business leaders used to tell each other sagely, don't fix it.
  • Fourth, they forgot one of the most important lessons they had learned in grade school: Teamwork is important. Most of us learn early in life that everyone has to work together. But many business leaders hadn't listened to what some of the best people in their own organizations were telling them.
  • Fifth, they recognized that they had underestimated the competition. They had persuaded themselves that the competitors weren't very good—in fact they were probably just lucky and enjoyed benefits that U.S. corporations didn't have—and then those competitors really started eating U.S. corporations for lunch.
The mistakes these U.S. corporations made are still being played out daily in our nation's schools. The secret to the turnaround at Ford, Motorola, Xerox, and other U.S. companies was that captains of industry began paying attention to these five lessons—then business took care of itself. School leaders might be advised to ponder these lessons. In truth, educational leaders might decide that they need to address the concern first framed in the 1930s by Robert Maynard Hutchins, president of the University of Chicago: "Perhaps the greatest idea America has given to the world," said Hutchins, "is the idea of education for all. The world is entitled to know whether this idea means that everybody can be educated, or that everybody must go to school."
It is time to take seriously the question Hutchins raises. Everybody can be educated. Our children can't all learn the same thing, but they can all learn to meet high and demanding standards. By everybody we mean the range of typical students found nationwide—every young person who is not so disabled by severe handicaps that his or her capacity to learn is compromised.
Everybody can learn. That's the talk we talk, but it's not the walk we walk. In fact, we have established an educational system that simply requires that everyone go to school. Educators in the United States need to act in support of their beliefs. It's remarkable, but true—our society can't even agree on what a high school graduate, an 8th grader, or a 4th grader should know and be able to do.
Then society needs to transform what it means by the term public school. We believe the public school should be any nonprofit entity willing to be accountable for educating our children. By doing so, those organizations are acting in the public interest. With that definition in place, we should hardwire innovation into the system and then inject as much choice into it as it can stand.
Finally, we need to face up to how most of us have contributed to the current state of public education. As citizens—parents, community members, business leaders, university officials, educators, and public servants—we don't always support learning, either. It's time we changed our ways.

Will It Work?

Will a new system, one emphasizing common standards and, in particular, greater school choice, work? Only time will tell. But it seems to work reasonably well everywhere else it has been tried. For decades, citizens of Australia, Belgium, Canada, France, Great Britain, Ireland, Germany, and the Netherlands have taken for granted greater flexibility and choice among publicly funded schools.
An examination of school choice in six nations concluded that parents everywhere want to be able to choose their children's schools, that publicly supported choice is often a matter of fairness (because the well-to-do already enjoy it), and that minority parents have the greatest stake in publicly funded educational alternatives (Glenn, 1989). This third claim is receiving increased attention in the United States as school choice emerges as a civil rights issue (Wilgoren, 2000).
Another conclusion of the six-nation study is noteworthy: Choice increases societal support for schools by reducing the level of conflict over the purposes and control of schools. Choice is a safety valve on both sides of the political spectrum. Paradoxically, by minimizing conflict over the nature of education offered at individual schools, choice increases societal support for public schools generally.
Choice also works in the United States. Districts that have tried choice—Moses Lake, Washington; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Harlem, New York—and the commonwealth of Massachusetts have made it work.
In Moses Lake, as the former school superintendent Ben Edlund told us in a 1994 conversation,All 13 schools are essentially "charter" or "contract" schools. The long and short of it is that we got efficiency, effectiveness, innovation, and vastly improved school performance.
Research on Milwaukee's Partners to Advance Values in Education (PAVE) program, which provides scholarship assistance to low-income families, reveals extremely promising findings—including remarkable parental involvement and satisfaction and high levels of student achievement.
In Harlem, New York's District 4, former deputy superintendent Seymour "Sy" Fliegel encouraged families to choose the schools their children would attend. District 4 went from dead last among New York City School districts (32nd out of 32 districts) to 15th. Reading scores soared, violence and absenteeism plummeted, and District 4's students were accepted to college in record numbers (Fliegel & MacGuire, 1993).
In Massachusetts, a research team from Harvard University and George Mason University recommended expanding the state's interdistrict choice program to all districts so that more low-income parents might be aware of their options.

Transformational Leadership

What happened in Moses Lake, Milwaukee, and Harlem can happen anywhere if we can find the leadership required to innovate, insist on standards, and persevere in the face of challenges.
In the midst of today's adaptive challenges, transformative leadership can make something happen for our schools—and the parents and students who depend on them.

Business-Higher Education Forum. (1995). Higher education and work readiness: The view from the corporation. Washington, DC: Author.

Fliegel, S., & MacGuire, J. (1993). Miracle in East Harlem: The fight for choice in public education. New York: Times Books.

Glenn, C. L. (1989). Choice of schools in six nations. Washington, DC: U.S. Department of Education.

Heifetz, R. A. (1994). Leadership without easy answers. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press.

Loveless, T. (2000). The Brown Center report on American education 2000: How well are American students learning? Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1996a). Pursuing excellence: A study of U.S. eighth-grade mathematics and science teaching, learning, curriculum, and achievement in international context. (NCES No. 97–198). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Center for Education Statistics.(1996b). Reading literacy in the United States: Findings from the IEA reading literacy study. (NCES No. 96–258). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1997). Pursuing excellence: A study of U.S. fourth-grade mathematics and science teaching, learning, curriculum, and achievement in international context. (NCES No. 97–255). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

National Center for Education Statistics. (1998). Pursuing excellence: A study of U.S. twelfth-grade mathematics and science achievement in international context. (NCES No. 98–049). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Phillips, K. (1990). The politics of rich and poor: Wealth and the American experience. New York: Random House.

Wilgoren, J. (2000, October 9). Young blacks turn to school vouchers as civil rights issue. New York Times, p. 1.

James Harvey has contributed to Educational Leadership.

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