Reformers, Make No Small Plans

Published January 1, 1997

More than fifty books, three hundred articles, and dozens of awards and prizes for his scholarship have made Dr. Herbert J. Walberg an internationally recognized expert in the field of education. He is one of three U.S. members of the International Academy of Education. He chaired a scientific advisory group for the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, overseeing its project on international educational indicators. For the U.S. Department of Education, he has carried out research comparing Japanese and American schools.

Dr. Walberg is, one might say, an “expert’s expert.” He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is Research Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of Illinois at Chicago. (He is also chairman of the board of The Heartland Institute, publisher of School Reform News.) He is listed in both Who’s Who in America and Who’s Who in the World.

In his research, Dr. Walberg employs experiments, meta-analyses, secondary analyses of large national and international data sets, and automated content analysis of qualitative data to discover the factors in homes, schools, and communities that promote learning and other human accomplishments.

In his work on behalf of education reform, however, Dr. Walberg employs plain language, common sense, and down-to-earth advice about how we can best prepare our children for the twenty-first century. That ability to speak the truth plainly and persuasively was quickly apparent in a recent interview he granted to Diane Bast, editor of School Reform News.

Bast: You’ve spent the better part of your professional life evaluating the performance of public schools in the United States. How are we doing?

Walberg: U.S. schools are performing poorly, not only by the standards of other countries but also by the standards of what our students should know and be able to do.

Although it is difficult to say that “learning,” as measured by standardized achievement tests, has declined, it is clear that our students perform well below those of Europe, Japan, and other affluent countries in science, mathematics, geography, and foreign languages.

Our students perform best in reading, but primarily because they start school better-prepared in reading than their international counterparts. Once they are in school, our students make the least progress in reading during their school years. This is true even though our per-student spending on reading programs is highest among affluent countries.

Bast: So why do our schools perform so poorly?

Walberg: There are many reasons. The U.S. has the shortest school year in the industrialized world. Our education system lacks uniform standards, so our teachers cannot depend on what their students have been taught in previous years. There are too many “cooks” in our education system, which is regulated by federal, state, and local bureaucracies. Those bureaucracies make poor choices of what subject matter should be covered in the classroom and what instructional methods should be used to teach it.

And, perhaps most damaging, our education system completely lacks incentives for educators and their students to improve.

Bast: What reforms do you believe would address those problems?

Walberg: Extending our school year by a fifth or a third would put U.S. students on a more equal time footing. And then, getting consensus on education goals, curriculum, and tests would allow us to establish real standards for schools and measure school performance against those standards.

Other countries have been able to get consensus among subject matter experts, national, state, and local education agencies, and other individuals and groups. But I doubt if current efforts in the United States to reach this consensus will succeed. We may be a country far too diverse to reach consensus on something so important as the education of our children.

If consensus isn’t possible here, we should recognize that. Perhaps we should abandon altogether our search for consensus, and instead capitalize on our diversity. A promising alternative would be to deregulate and privatize education, and provide scholarships that all students could use at public or private schools. Doing this would allow for a diversity of educational approaches to match the diversity of parent and student preferences in education.

Schools and systems of schools could provide curriculum uniformity within their bailiwicks, and this could become a “selling point” for parents, who would want to see their children receive a consistent education. Private groups could develop and maintain educational standards and the means of measuring them, in much the same way as industrial groups have developed standards for their industries.

Privatizing education in this way could also answer the problem of heavy-handed bureaucracy and excessive administrative costs, which are about two times higher in the U.S. than in other wealthy countries. Minimizing federal and state regulations would allow more funds to serve students directly and would draw educators’ attention to their chief purpose–learning.

Bast: What would happen to curriculum standards under a privatized system of education?

Walberg: Students cannot know everything, so we must be selective in setting forth educational goals. Once again, this is difficult to do in the U.S., because educators, parents, and students differ substantially in their preferences about what to learn and how to learn it. Again, diversity of approaches is in order.

In many circumstances and in many industries, only one social mechanism has proven to provide such diversity efficiently: the marketplace.

Markets also respond to the lack of incentives for improvement. In a privatized system of education, providers who were unable to attract customers would go out of business.

Bast: But can we depend on parents to make good decisions about which schools are best for their children?

Walberg: We allow parents to choose their children’s names, to control their children’s nutrition, to provide clothing and shelter to them, and to select doctors for them. In fact, we trust parents to make choices for their children all the time, in every imaginable arena, except in education.

In all but the smallest minority of cases, parents care more about their children than anyone else can. I’m much more comfortable trusting parents to make education decisions for their children than trusting bureaucrats and government officials.

Bast: Why should our readers support the reforms you propose?

Walberg: Americans increasingly recognize that our schools are not up to par and need improvement. I suspect that many of your readers may even believe that their children may be the first generation that learns less than their parents did. Your readers recognize the long-term value of “human capital” (knowledge and skills) for the welfare of individuals and the nation. Polls indicate that such matters are very much on their minds.

Bast: What are the most likely objections raised by people who oppose the reforms you propose?

Walberg: For many people, it is simply a fear of the unknown. They are fearful of increased choice, especially free markets for education. I think a compelling case can be made, but we need an educational campaign to make the case better known. We also need to be able to demonstrate the value of educational choice in practice. Many instances of partial choice and evidence from other countries help make the case, but we would benefit greatly from large-scale demonstrations in the U.S.

In addition to choice opponents who simply fear the unknown, there are other choice opponents who know full well what choice would mean, and they don’t like it. Teachers unions, administrators, “educrats,” and school board members attack choice as somehow undemocratic or un-American. But such objections are to be expected from any group that is narrowly interested in its own welfare, receives huge subsidies from taxpayers, and is subject to little accountability.

From a consumer point of view, Toyotas and Mazdas were the best things that ever happened to General Motors and Ford. Competition is the key if consumers are going to get the best possible product. That holds true in education, too.

Similarly, the presence of successful private schools in a community will increase the effectiveness of public schools. It is simply not the case that the better students will be “creamed off” by private schools, making public schools worse. The public schools will be forced to compete with private schools. In the beginning, those private schools will generally beat the public schools on both results and costs. But there are many things the public schools can do to improve their performance. With competition, they will have incentives, which they don’t have now, to make those improvements.

Bast: Weighing the strength of the case in favor of educational choice against the strength of its opponents, are you optimistic? What do you think the future holds for the reforms you propose?

Walberg: In the last presidential election, candidate Bob Dole advocated school privatization. And much to the consternation of teachers unions who had contributed to his campaign, President Clinton said he wouldn’t object if states experimented with choice. Polls also indicate that the public increasingly favors choice, and this is especially true of minorities, who most often get the short end of the educational services stick in large cities.

The education establishment and the chattering classes, nonetheless, think they know best and are loath to allow mere parents to choose. So I forecast a continuing scrap between education consumers and providers. Eventually, bolder and fairer tests of choice will be made, and these will demonstrate the superiority of choice in educating our children. In addition, of course, we should remain firm in our belief, with the American founders, that people rather than governments should choose.

Bast: What one message would you most like to communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our readers about education issues?

Walberg: Do not be swayed by heavily subsidized monopolists. Follow Aristotle’s advice: Consider the source. Read the reviews of research on choice assembled by The Heartland Institute and covered in this newspaper. Then, as Daniel Burnham said, make no small plans.