Experienced Educator Offers Insights on Reform

Published January 1, 2007

The Deserved Collapse of Public Schools: An Insider’s Solution for Reforming Education
Richard G. Neal
Bloomington, IN: Author House, 2006
302 pages, paperback, ISBN: 1-4259-2492-1

Veteran school reform adherents and activists are well aware of the serious structural flaws in the nation’s public education system.

They might find Richard Neal’s digest of schoolhouse ills and proposed remedies to be another useful reference tool on the bookshelf.

However, rather than let The Deserved Collapse of Public Schools sit and accumulate dust, the well-traveled reformer may best be served by lending his copy to someone less familiar with the cause of school choice.

Much of Neal’s early published writings focused on education labor relations and contract negotiations, but The Deserved Collapse of Public Schools follows as a broadly themed companion to the 2005 guide Escape to Learning: An Educator’s Answer to the Public School Crisis.

Exposing Myths and Failures

In his latest, the author exposes a series of unacceptable failures that he argues are predominant in the American education system. Among these are student achievement rates that show no improvement, a large number of dropouts undercounted by self-serving gatherers of statistics, and systemic problems with campus violence in which administrators have expelled more common sense than incorrigible pupils.

Neal’s suggested approaches to correcting the course of public education tend to be more pragmatic than doctrinaire. For example, he emphasizes the value of vouchers to aid the established trends of homeschooling and online education as a means of rousing officials’ awareness of the need to fix the school system. “Rejection is powerful proof of failure,” he writes.

In the latter half of his book, the former educator ambitiously takes on the “education establishment” for perpetuating myths about class size and school funding, for promoting the harmful effects of controlled teacher certification, and for expanding school district bureaucracies–increasingly operating farther away from the children in need as distant administrators make decisions that will affect the children throughout their lives.

To find deeper insights into these problems, the reader should peruse Dr. Jay Greene’s book, Education Myths.

Finding Alternatives

Neal urges readers to draw freely from a vast arsenal of reform ideas to hasten the current education monopoly’s collapse, but he does not seek to embrace every popular anti-establishment idea.

While he assails the uniform teacher salary schedule for undervaluing good teaching and wasting taxpayer money, Neal also says reformers will have to settle for something less than strict merit pay.

As more attainable alternatives, he favors differentiating instructional salaries based on specialty, rewarding experienced teachers who serve as mentors, and offering performance bonuses.

Addressing Immigration

Intrepidly but inconclusively, the author spends an entire chapter addressing the effects of uncontrolled immigration on public schools. He says the rapid change in demographics not only has fueled the inordinately rising costs that accompany student population growth, but also has diverted needed resources and attention from native, English-speaking students.

Crowded buildings, cultural conflicts, new diseases, and increased gang violence are other problems Neal identifies that unchecked immigration has brought to public schools.

The author challenges the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court decision Plyler v. Doe, which afforded public education as a right for illegal alien children, but he implicitly recognizes the case’s fruits are here to stay.

Left unexamined are specific ways in which market-based reforms could resolve the burgeoning immigration crisis.

Moving Past Density

Unfortunately, many of the book’s solution-oriented passages are filled too tightly with condensed presentations of facts and observations. The flow of argument within chapters is not always clear and logical. The presence of long, bulleted lists may prompt the reader to skim rather than be overwhelmed, and numerous typographical errors throughout the manuscript provide unwanted distractions.

Nevertheless, a little persistence will move the reader past some of the more tedious sections and into the book’s comprehensive and practical substance.

Through Neal’s book the novice can make initial acquaintances with important academic researchers such as Greene, Caroline Hoxby, Eric Hanushek, and Michael Podgursky. Those already familiar with education policy reform issues may find an opportunity to refresh and review their arguments.

The book offers few if any new insights into the raging debates surrounding school choice and other market-oriented education reforms. But the author does introduce the reader to research and analysis on a substantial breadth of topics while interjecting useful personal anecdotes into the discussion.

Valuing Personal Experience

What gives Neal’s text its greatest value and authenticity is his vast and varied experience within the public school monopoly. He has intimately observed the education system from many different perspectives as a classroom teacher, counselor, principal, central administrator, and school board negotiator, to name a few.

The argument best enhanced by the author’s personal experiences is his point that the public schools’ universal emphasis on college preparation is counterproductive. Merely raising academic standards across the board likely will push more pupils out the schoolhouse door prematurely, Neal observes.

This reviewer has heard this argument in several conversations with current classroom teachers, and it is one that meshes with economic realities. Not every student desires a college education, and the needs of the workforce often don’t call for it.

System Failing Customers

Neal also points out that the education system holds back some of the brightest and best students. Remediation rates in the nation’s colleges and universities are unacceptably high, he notes.

Neal contends the education establishment has failed its customers on a large scale, a notion close to the hearts of many veteran reformers.

They may be too busy to engage The Deserved Collapse of Public Schools on their own, at least not from cover to cover. Yet the experienced and knowledgeable advocate should consider sharing this book with a friend, for the layman who reads Richard Neal’s densely constructed effort with patience and care might soon join him with passion and conviction in the cause of school choice and education reform.

Ben DeGrow ([email protected]) is a policy analyst for the Independence Institute, a free-market think tank in Golden, Colorado.