Toward a New Public School

by Paul T. Hill, Lawrence C. Pierce, 
and James W. Guthrie.

The University of Chicago Press, 
267 pages, $16.95.


Here from three experts on education policy, is an idea for "reinventing" American public education. The idea is simple, neat, and familiar: have school boards cease to operate schools directly and instead contract with private (not-for-profit or for-profit) organizations to provide day-to-day schooling. That is, arrange for schools to work the way the selection of textbooks now does. School boards do not design and print texts; they decide what they want and then choose from the offerings of vendors. If after a year or two a text is found wanting, another is readily at hand to replace it. The wishes of school boards profoundly affect what publishers print. There is synergy here, hardly perfect but demonstrably better than any available alternative. This arrangement allows for choices among competing texts, is flexible, and leaves room for experimentation. It keeps the boards away from the nuts and bolts of publishing, allowing them to concentrate on other matters. It permits decisive, orderly changes in educational approach.

If such a policy were extended from textbooks to the design and operation of whole schools, boards of education would start by setting the scope and standards of the educational offerings they wanted. They would then solicit bids from providers, select one or several, and write contracts with each. From that point forward the detailed operation of a school, or a cluster of schools, would be in the hands of the contractor, though shaped by the contract. The school boards could focus their attention on overall policy rather than on micromanaging individual schools. Contracts would come up for renewal periodically, giving the school board the option of staying the course, modestly or substantially changing it, or starting anew.

All this is familiar American practice. Many public or quasi-public entities contract for much of their work: school districts hire Marriott to operate their cafeterias; the U.S. Postal Service asks Delta and American to haul mail; city and town governments contract with builders to construct public buildings. There have been several, albeit halting, attempts to run public schools under contract, but these have been essentially limited management contracts, not freshly focused and bold reconceptions of what a good modern education should entail.

So, then, what makes this orderly, familiar, and thus presumably uncontroversial proposal a "reinvention"? Some will predict the apocalypse: privatization! They forget that publicly directed bodies unilaterally write the specifications for contract schools. More critics will predict "union-bashing." They overlook the fact that progressive district leaders and unions across the country have already joined in launching new schools that are largely free from traditional regulation. Yet other critics will see contract schools as devices for segregation. They forget that (alas) many metropolitan regions are already profoundly segregated. Contract schools will not necessarily affect this one way or the other.

The book's title reminds us how profoundly we are stuck even in the way we think about schooling and learning. We assume that formal education will be delivered by professionals working inside rectangular classrooms within buildings that together with similar buildings elsewhere in the community make up a system. We assume that such systems, whatever their size, are an important expression of democracy, reflecting the wishes of their communities.

However, even as these systems have had to deal with growing numbers of ever more diverse children, they have clung to their routines, inevitably making public education, the authors say, "more rule-bound, rights-driven, and divided into specialties." And, they continue, by centralizing decision-making in district offices, courts, and state departments of education, "we have weakened schools as organizations." Many districts are now enormous enterprises, enormously complex and thus rigid. There are currently more children enrolled in the New York City public schools than there are citizens in Rhode Island.

And we keep thinking that "public education" is necessarily, inevitably, the same thing as those enterprises. What they consider to be education becomes what is offered in the classroom; people's hopes for and commitment to their children are properly synthesized and then expressed through bureaucracies and their political chiefs. We find ourselves trapped by a conception of schools that is appealingly noble but demonstrably impractical. We are dominated by what the authors call an "organizational frame of mind" -- one that makes any examination of the most efficacious ways and means of educating our children apostate, unthinkable. "Educators' habits of operating as bureaucrats under regulation are deeply ingrained," the authors say. Hence this book's argument for reinvention.

HILL, Pierce, and Guthrie exhaustively describe how a contract system might work. They deal with the practicalities, knowing full well that to avoid them would allow the book to be dismissed as pie in the sky. A long appendix deals with a wide range of questions about precisely how a contract would function. The authors are good and patient explainers. They are persuasive: all this can be made to work. This book isn't Rousseau's Emile. It is a highly sophisticated field manual, along with an argument for the importance of its message. It is likely, therefore, to be effective. Reinvention will come, sooner or later.

The authors write,

Americans quite properly seek public schools that both respect the rights and values of a diverse population and make the most of the talents and initiative of individual students and teachers. Unfortunately, the rules, regulations, and bureaucratic machinery created to attend to the first of these goals threaten to overwhelm the second. The result: a system that works for very few.

Few believe any more that the failure is the result merely of bad leadership. What is striking about the past two decades, particularly in urban American school districts, is both the high quality and determination of many leaders in education and the strict limitations that are placed on their ability to improve the performance of their students. If it isn't the people who are the problem, it must be the system. A growing number of influential Americans understand that.

Contract schools, as the authors describe them, give substantial power to the people holding the contracts. Once they have their marching orders, they are to be left largely alone. There are today dozens of such nominally "public" schools, places that are deliberately self-governing, close to and in league with the parents of their students -- but whose "contracts" have come about because of inattention or desperation (many of these schools serve the poor) or through deliberate benign conspiracy. They are "upstart" schools, and the best of them work profoundly well, as the school reformer Deborah Meier has movingly described in (1995). Some state governments have authorized the creation of charter schools (whose charters are, for all intents and purposes, contracts). Some cities have done likewise: Boston's pilot schools, for example, are creatures of that city's collective-bargaining agreement with its teachers. Usually such innovations are bitterly fought by those accustomed to controlling the established system: they are properly seen as true reinventions. As these schools grow in number and build up strong track records, the down-to-earth contracting ideas of Hill, Pierce, and Guthrie will seem ever more mainstream.

More difficult for the existing system to absorb is the notion that, as the authors put it, "schools will have to differ in their goals and approaches." That is, there cannot be One Best System (to quote from the title of David Tyack's careful history of Americans' pursuit of universal education). Government must learn to trust the people, and in education the people deserving disproportionate authority are the parents of the children in question. If there were a variety of contract schools in a district (an approach the authors applaud) and parents could choose among them, then children in that district would have the opportunity to attend different sorts of good schools. A market would operate, with those schools that failed to win favor going out of business and being replaced by schools more attractive to consumers. This would be true reinvention, with emphasis on the "re-": American public education started some 150 years ago with small, locally controlled, and responsive schools (for better or worse) -- classic "upstart" schools.

Of course, we live in times quite different from those of Horace Mann. The nationalizing agencies of informal education, which teach the young about life, are now numerous and extraordinarily powerful -- and none more so than the mass media. The homogenizing force of these agencies would astonish the founders of the American public school. The argument for collective institutions close to the people they serve has, therefore, new legitimacy, even if the leaders of school systems can't acknowledge it. The slow breakup of huge school systems is under way, peppered by contrary-seeming policy initiatives (such as detailed state-dictated curricula) derived from the days of the "administrative progressives."

Contract schools will come, sooner rather than later. The quiet, thorough, and constructive ideas presented in Reinventing Public Education will serve to remind us of the need to think anew about the purposes and methods of a truly useful public education, and also to provide us with a careful blueprint once we are ready to take the leap toward a new sort of public school.

Theodore R. Sizer is the chair of the Coalition of Essential Schools at Brown University. His most recent book is (1996).

The Atlantic Monthly; December 1997; Toward a New Public School; Volume 280, No. 6; pages 126-128.