2 Reviews: The Irony of Early School Reform and School Choices
Given the current political and educational climate, where there is much hand wringing about the plight of American public education—and specifically that of the nation's urban public schools—it's a useful reminder that such ferocious debates are nothing new.
Originally published more a quarter of a century ago, Michael B. Katz's exploration of the competing causes surrounding both the establishment of mandated high schools in Massachusetts during the 19th century, and why the town of Beverly opted to abolish its high school in 1860, echoes with surprisingly clear resonance today.
As he writes in his new introduction, “ ‘Irony’ was written when educational decentralization and community control were still emergent, radical ideas, and the idea that school systems needed fundamental restructuring was a position on the political left...both the political right and left have appropriated the ideas of earlier radicals, albeit in different ways. Today, the book's stories would need a different educational setting. The emphasis on standards and high-stakes testing would provide the foil for questioning top-down reform while the move to market models, embodied in the idea of choice, would introduce a whole new set of considerations. Nonetheless, the problem of the disjunction between the hopes and dreams of early school promoters and what urban school systems became remains as real, and troubling, an issue as ever.”
Clearly written, with an engaging style that involves the reader in the narrative's progression—and is a welcome change from most academic writing—Katz's book also covers issues surrounding state reform schools and the tensions between newly professional teachers and conflict about how best to teach curriculum.
School Choices: True and False
by John Merrifield
(The Independant Institute, $15.95/book)
Far less compelling in style, or substance, is School Choices: True and False, by John Merrifield, published in 2002 by The Independent Institute in Oakland, California. The author, a research fellow at the Independent Institute and an economics professor at the University of Texas, San Antonio campus challenges much of the received wisdom about school choice programs. He contends that school choice proposals aren't sweeping enough, and fail to truly engage the market forces that would make an authentically competitive educational industry. His approach is somewhat chilling, because of the economic lens through which he bases his analysis, but probably worth a quick read from a school system superintendent or principal concerned about the impact of charter schools and vouchers.
The Irony of Early School Reform
by Michael B. Katz
(Beacon Press, $19.95 /book)
Far better, though, to spend one's time with “Irony.” The book retains its value, as Katz says, because “It highlights how education has been used in America as a way out of public dilemmas—as a painless substitution for the redistribution of wealth—and how and why that gambit always fails.”
In his conclusion, Katz adds, “ Very simply, the extension and reform of education in the mid-nineteenth century were not a potpourri of democracy, rationalism and humanitarianism...we must face the painful fact that this country has never, on any large scale, known vital urban schools, ones which embrace and are embraced by the mass of the community, which formulate their goals in terms of the joy of the individual instead of the fear of social dynamite or the imperatives of economic growth.”
It's a lesson that, in the smoke and mirrors surrounding too much of the current debate, policy makers would do well to heed.#