Today, American education is being reinvented. The assumptions that have governed their structures and power relations for more than a century are being replaced. This renewal is generating all sorts of new styles for schools, and hybrid arrangements that blur the line that has long separated public and private schools. For example, the best of what have come to be called charter schools possess elements of today’s public and private systems. Moreover, this new paradigm is not wild, does not work, does not work, and is not dependent on the free market. The public retains its interest in providing educational services that are paid for by public funds. Public authorities continue to set standards for educational performance – in particular standards for student achievement – for all schools receiving public funds and to monitor whether these standards are met.
Transfer of power from producers to consumers. Public education has always been product oriented. The primary beneficiaries of this model are the school and its staff, not its customers. Bureaucrats, experts, and special interests control the system and make decisions under the monopoly of the public school.
New studies show that students want higher standards of behavior and achievement, and nearly six in ten parents with children in public schools would send their children to private schools if they could afford it, which analysts interpreted as a “year ready to run.”
Emphasis on results. The second principle guiding reinvention is the primacy of what children learn and how well they learn it—not over the rules schools follow, how they are run, the (worthy) intentions of teachers, or what they spend. Administrators should monitor academic outcomes for education, and allow individual schools to determine how they are achieved—including annual calendars, daily schedules, staffing arrangements, student grouping, budget decisions, and so on.
– responsible. Schools must establish accountability and establish an assessment system that measures results. An accountability system begins with a clear set of learning standards or expectations. There are two standards. Content standards define the skills and knowledge that students must achieve at different stages – what they should know and do. Performance standards – sometimes called levels of achievement – specify the expected level of competency – what is good enough to progress from one stage to the next.
Students should only be promoted and graduated when they meet specific criteria; Universities should only admit students when they meet college-level entry criteria; Employers should examine the texts and use them in their hiring decisions. Similarly, teachers, principals, and other responsible adults should be rewarded for success, punished for failure, and fired if they or their schools cannot get the job done.
– Choosing a school. Also guiding the reinvention of American education is the idea that schools can be different from each other rather than identical and that families should be free to choose from a variety of educational opportunities and settings. Schools must fit the different needs of families and children — not bureaucrats, state and local regulations, or union contracts. Various current proposals would allow non-public schools and home schools to receive money under choice plans: tax credits, tax-exempt K-12 education savings accounts, publicly (and privately) funded scholarships, and others. Because these scholarship dollars will be in aid to families, not schools, they can be used at any legally operating public, private, or religious school.
– Professional. The Renewal Model states that those who work in schools should be treated like themselves and act like professionals. This means deregulating schools, freeing them from bureaucratic oversight and micromanagement, and allowing individual schools, teachers, and parents wide decision-making latitude on issues such as teaching loads and methods, staffing, and resource allocation.
The teaching profession itself must be liberated. Hiring teachers at the reinvented public school should not be limited to graduates of teacher or administrator training programs. Teachers’ unions may be an obstacle to such reforms, but even they have shown some signs of hope.
This new vision of American education is spreading rapidly, redefining public education, and blurring the line between public and private schools. It creates a radical new education system in which families choose from a continuum of learning opportunities and designs, with public money following the child to the school of their choice. As the lines blur and private and public schools become more alike (and different from today’s schools), private schools will change, too. The rise of private schools’ opposition to vouchers suggests that some would rather retain their autonomy than engage in confusion that would bring vastly greater control than others. However, states already have the power to regulate private schools; Thus it is unlikely that reinvention would destroy their independence. The new model allows them to remain “private” in several important ways: they are autonomous, free from most regulations, able to hire whomever they want, control their own curriculum, and attend the youth their parents choose.
The central principle that organizes the academic program of most parochial schools is a core curriculum for all students regardless of background and future educational plans. Electives are limited, and required courses prevail.
Students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds respond well to the challenge. The focused core curriculum of a parochial school improves student achievement, especially among disadvantaged students, and guards against the academic fads that sweep the world of education with such frustrating reluctance. Schools of the future will require more basic academic courses for their students, especially the socially and economically disadvantaged.
Such a structure required strong community organization. Diocesan teachers see teaching as a vocation, a ministry to serve. Schools foster personal interactions and shared experiences among those who work, attend and support them. Numerous activities unite staff, students, and supporters—including sporting events, fundraisers, parades, school plays, alumni assemblies, retreats, and various forms of religious rituals and prayers. Academically, the core curriculum plays this unifying role. These reinforce a commonality of purpose that underpins the school’s mission.
Parochial schools are usually less constrained by centrally controlled bureaucracies than public schools. Almost all important decisions are made at the school site, under the leadership of the principal. This allows the school to develop a distinct personality and sensitivity to the unique needs of students and families.
This market response is modified by the core beliefs and values that permeate the school. The parochial school’s unique educational philosophy emphasizes fundamental truths and includes a special religious respect for the dignity of every person and the sanctity of human society. This perspective determines not only what the students know, but also the morals they will follow and the moral society the school creates.
Perhaps the biggest difference between the public and private spheres is this apparent moral education, character development, and religious education in religious schools (although in recent years public schools have become more aware of these issues).
Charter schools – (mostly) independent public schools that are selected and responsible for student learning outcomes – involve a serious attempt by the public sector to reinvent education along these lines and give public schools full autonomy. Unfortunately, not all charter school laws are created equal: some show the facade of freedom but not the reality. Policymakers must resist the temptation to confine charter operators to the web of existing state laws and rules, collective bargaining agreements and the like.
As charter schools explain, public school means any school willing to embrace high standards, enroll students without discrimination, and be accountable for its results, regardless of who owns or runs it. Public money follows the child to these schools, and what unites them is a mandatory set of academic results limited to a basic list of widely accepted knowledge and skills.
The “public” American schools of the future will not look, feel, or act like “the government.” But they are clearly larger than the individual or the family. In this sense, they meet the classical definition of a ‘middle’ institution, and are, in fact, examples of what modern analysts call ‘civil society’. They are voluntary institutions, not mandatory nor monopolistic. They are more responsive to their communities than the schools created by large public bureaucracies.
Schools must, of course, play an essential role in this process, but today’s traditional public schools face bureaucratic restrictions against religious education. Of course, in a pluralistic society, there are varying ideas about what this means. Unfortunately, the current system of American public education cannot accommodate such diversity. Thus, if we want to revitalize our communities, if we want to rebuild the social capital of our families and our neighborhoods, if we want to educate our youth, especially those most disadvantaged, we must allow families more choice in education, and with it the flourishing of diversity, pluralism, and freedom. Outdated laws and attitudes that favor the status quo are the only real limit to the future of American education.