Solving the Great Education Mystery

Published October 1, 1998

“The public education system will not reform itself.”

That was Chester E. Finn Jr.’s response to the “great education mystery” posed by Northwestern University management professor Michael Bakalis at the Edventures ’98 Conference in Evanston, Illinois: If students are not learning enough and educators know how to improve schools, why haven’t schools been improved?

“Most young Americans still aren’t learning enough for their own good or for their country’s good,” according to Finn, an Assistant Secretary of Education in the Bush Administration. Finn now heads the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and is a Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

When A Nation at Risk was published fifteen years ago, observers widely assumed that the proper vehicle for reform was the public education system itself. But the establishment has produced little progress, and it is now generally accepted that the public education system will not reform itself. Change will come from outside the system.

Finn refers to the new paradigm as a “radicalization of school reform.” As reform is radicalized, public schools become educational institutions funded by tax dollars, but not necessarily run by the government. The school board’s role is to set standards rather than run schools. Charter schools and voucher-supported schools offer evidence that a shift to the new paradigm is underway.

Reinventing Public Education

University of Washington research professor Paul Hill agrees that public education needs to be redefined. Hill, however, proposes an all-contract public education system.

Under Hill’s approach, presented at the Edventures ’98 Conference, school districts would contract out for instruction and other services, with school boards deprived of any role in the operation of individual schools. Schools would operate independently but would be required to commit to district-wide performance goals. All schools would be schools of choice for both teachers and students.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].