Kathleen O'Toole, News Service (650) 725-1939; e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org
Hoover launches K-12 school reform task force
Let's say for a moment you are superintendent of schools in a conservative state, who hopes to improve public schools by introducing more private competition. You pick up the newspaper one morning and discover the owner of a topless bar has just been approved to open a charter school with some public funding.
Lisa Keegan, Arizona's reform-minded superintendent of schools, told this embarrassing but true story at a gathering of education reformers at the Hoover Institution on Sept. 15. A committed advocate of public funding for charter schools and of holding public schools to tougher standards, Keegan wanted to impress upon other reformers the difficulty of their task. The bar owner's approval lasted only a few days, she said, but the incident showed her that "if we open our public schools to the market, we can expect chaos at first."
Perhaps because school reform is so difficult, the Hoover Institution has launched a five-year Task Force on K-12 Education, an effort funded by the Koret Foundation. By bringing 12 prominent, conservative voices for school reform together, the organizers hope the scholars can accomplish more than they could separately, said Hoover Director John Raisian. He chaired the task force's first meeting, a two-day affair in which members divided up responsibilities for researching and writing a book. They then presented an outline to about 100 others interested in reform, including Keegan, former Calif. Gov. Pete Wilson and activists in school voucher programs in other states and cities.
The task force includes E. Donald Hirsch Jr. of the University of Virginia, who is well known for his writing on "cultural literacy." Hirsch contended that K-12 schools have moved away from content-based curricula. "The public generally assumes that if you go to school in the second grade, you get a second grade curriculum. Even some superintendents and principals think this is occurring, but it's not. The reason it's not done in places very well is because of the stress on pedagogy; content is left to its own devices, the interests of the teacher."
The problem is rooted in teacher colleges and education schools that replaced "normal schools" for training teachers early in the century, according to another task force member, Diane Ravitch, a professor at New York University and an assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration. In the 1920s through 1940s, she said, education professors urged schools to centralize administration, reduce the involvement of lay people in the schools and reduce academic content for all but a few who would go to college. "These institutions, now entrusted to raise academic standards, are the same institutions that led the fight against the academic curriculum, saying that large numbers of kids were incapable of learning."
Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas Fordham Foundation, stressed the importance of allowing alternative routes to becoming a teacher and measuring teachers' competency by measuring their students' progress. This contrasts sharply with proposals from the National Commission on Teaching in America's Future, an education group headed by Stanford education Professor Linda Darling-Hammond. The commission recommends a national accreditation board to bring more uniformity in teacher training and another board to certify exceptional teachers who would then evaluate other teachers. Finn, who was a founding partner in the Edison Project, a private company that has been hired by some school districts to run local schools, contended that "more professional regulation" will not solve either the teacher quantity or quality shortages of schools. Former Gov. Wilson chimed in that under the existing circumstances and the The commission's proposal, former Secretary of State George Shultz would not be allowed to teach foreign affairs in K-12 schools nor would Bill Walsh be allowed to teach football.
Hoover Research Fellow Bill Evers stressed the importance of having precise academic standards for students. Those who oppose standards because they would embarrass some schools and teachers, he said, "deliberately try to fuzz the wording" when they sit on state standard-setting committees. Evers is a member of the California Commission for the Establishment of Academic Content and Performance Standards.
Hoover Senior Fellow Terry Moe, who is also a Stanford professor of political science, stressed the difficult politics of school reform. Teachers unions have every incentive to influence local school board elections and legislators with their contributions, he said. They have a major influence on school policies but are hardly ever analyzed in educational research literature or educational reports, he said.
Moe, Finn and Keegan also stressed political difficulties in obtaining support for reforms within the two major political parties. Many uppermiddleclass Republicans do not want children from other neighborhoods having access to their schools, Finn and Keegan said. They often think they pay higher school taxes, Keegan said, but usually they pay lower tax rates because of the higher valuation of property in their school districts.
"Republicans are the ones who are ideologically most on board and eager to support vouchers, but they have constituents who are not supportive," Moe said. "The Democrats have constituents who want school choice, especially low-income minority parents in the inner city, but because of the unions, the Democrats will not do that."
Given those political problems, Hirsch suggested, reformers may be placing too much emphasis on vouchers or market competition to improve schools, when they could be stressing more direct methods to "get teachers who know their subjects and good curricula into the schools."
Other participants on the task force include John Chubb, executive vice president of the Edison Project; Eric Hanushek, professor of economics and public policy at the University of Rochester; Paul Hill, research professor at the University of Washington's Graduate School of Public Affairs; Caroline Hoxby, professor of economics at Harvard; Paul Peterson, professor of government at Harvard; and Herbert Walberg, research professor of education and psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
By Kathleen O'Toole