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Books and Culture

Marcus A. Winters
The Optimist
Paul Peterson’s history of education reform looks to a promising future.
4 June 2010

Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning, by Paul E. Peterson (Belknap Press, 336 pp., $25.95)

Across the political spectrum, the need to reform American public education is no longer in dispute. Even teachers’ unions at least pay lip service to change, and debates about education policy now focus on where we should go from here. To answer that question, though, we must first understand where we started going wrong in the first place.

In Saving Schools, Harvard’s Paul Peterson tells us that America’s road to public-school ruin was, naturally, paved with good intentions. Peterson chronicles the history of America’s public schools through the lives of the six titans of education policy—Horace Mann, John Dewey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Shanker, William Bennett, and James Coleman. Each found that his noble efforts to save public schooling produced, at best, disappointing results and a legacy of government control that has done more harm than good.

Previous reform efforts have all been plagued by their tendency to consolidate power and decision-making. Mann designed his common schools as secular institutions run by a government monopoly. Dewey’s progressive vision of the professional teacher led to the dominance of education colleges and today’s useless certifications. King’s civil rights leadership gained legal access to all public schools for minority students, but a system that enrolls kids based on their address has tended to reinforce segregation. Shanker’s push to place power in the hands of classroom teachers eventually led to today’s onerous work rules and restrictions negotiated through collective-bargaining agreements. Bennett’s push for standards and test-based accountability tended to concentrate power with bureaucratic goal-setters.

Policies that consolidate power in few hands, Peterson believes, are bound to fail. Shifting school financing and decision-making from local school boards to state governments has cut ties between communities and schools. The result is ever more inefficient and unresponsive education policy, or what Peterson describes as “The Iron Law of Ever-Increasing Centralization—and Cost.” The two education reforms with the best chance of reversing the consolidation trend, he believes, are virtual education and school choice.

Peterson’s lion of school choice is sociologist James Coleman, whose reports in the 1970s and early 1980s showed that students benefited from a private-school education. Coleman’s work justified economist Milton Friedman’s argument that the government should focus on funding education, not providing it directly. While Coleman’s work was certainly groundbreaking, the reader is left wondering why Peterson didn’t make more of Friedman’s contributions. Friedman not only first popularized the idea of vouchers, but he then devoted his philanthropic foundation and many of his later years to encouraging states to adopt school-choice programs.

Perhaps Coleman serves as Peterson’s school-choice muse because his contribution was more empirical. That’s important, because school choice distinguishes itself from previous reforms in that it has been scientifically proven to help kids learn. Peterson provides a generally fair analysis of existing research, which tends to show positive results from such programs—though the gains are not as large as some had hoped.

Virtual education represents the choice model taken to another level, Peterson argues. Individual students receive customized educational services through a computer screen, with flesh-and-blood teachers available to help when necessary. He lauds the work of Julie Young, CEO of the Florida Virtual School, the only genuinely large-scale such program in the country so far. Peterson agrees with his longtime colleagues, John Chubb and Terry Moe, who argue in their recent book, Liberating Learning, that the virtual-education revolution is imminent. They might be overly optimistic. Certainly politicians are running out of taxpayer money to throw at schools, which will make cost-saving reforms like choice and efficient use of technology more appealing. But the continued obsession with expensive reforms like reducing class sizes shows that taxpayers are still willing to shovel more dollars into the existing system if they think it might do some good. And the bipartisan call for national standards makes further consolidation at least as likely in the short term as decentralization.

Peterson is at his best when he chronicles the history of the major ideas that have underpinned modern education reform. His biographical sketches of important reformers are less compelling, except when he details his own experience, which has been illustrative. As a young professor at the University of Chicago, Peterson saw firsthand how colleagues and the media disdained Coleman’s ideas. While working at the Brookings Institution, Peterson convinced Chubb and Moe to take on the issue of school choice. Their influential book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, helped jump-start the school-choice movement. Peterson himself conducted important empirical research on the academic effects of school vouchers. He offers a behind-the-scenes account of his work on school choice in Milwaukee and the venomous opposition it provoked from the academy and the press.

Over the course of his long career, Paul Peterson has made major contributions to the cause of education reform—and he’s had ample opportunity to become discouraged. Yet he believes that we will, in the not-too-distant future, renew American public education. Let’s hope he’s right.

Marcus A. Winters, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, conducts research and writes about education policy.

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