Today the American education is being reinvented. The assumptions that have governed its structures and power relationships for more than a century are being replaced. This reinvention is breeding all manner of novel approaches to 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 model is not an unbridled, laissez-faire, free-market one. The public retains its interest in the delivery of educational services paid for by public funds. Public authorities continue to set standards for educational performance-especially student achievement standards-of all schools receiving public funds and monitor whether those standards are achieved.
– Shift of power from producers to consumers. Public education has long been producer-oriented. The primary beneficiaries of this model are the school and its employees, not its customers. Bureaucrats, experts, and special interests control the system and make decisions within the framework of a public-school monopoly.
New studies show that students want higher standards of behavior and achievement, and that nearly six out of ten parents with children in public schools would send their children to private schools if they could afford to, which the analysts interpreted as “a public poised for flight.”
– Emphasis on results. The second principle guiding reinvention is the primacy of what children learn and how well they learn it-not on what rules schools follow, how they are run, the (worthy) intentions of educators, or what they spend. Administrators should monitor the academic results of education, letting individual schools decide how to achieve them-including yearly calendar, daily schedules, staffing arrangements, student grouping, budget decisions, and so forth.
– Accountability. Schools must establish accountability and create an assessment system that measures results. An accountability system begins with a clear set of learning standards or expectations. There are two types of standard. Content standards define the skills and knowledge students should attain at various stages-what they should know and do. Performance standards-sometimes called achievement levels-specify an expected level of proficiency-what is good enough to advance from one stage to the next.
Students should be promoted and graduate only when they have met specified standards; universities should admit students only when they meet college-level entry norms; and employers should examine transcripts and use them in their hiring decisions. Likewise, teachers, principals, and other responsible adults should be rewarded for success, penalized for failure, and dismissed if they or their schools cannot get the job done.
– School choice. Also guiding the reinvention of American education is the notion that schools can be different from one another rather than identical and that families should be free to choose among a variety of educational opportunities and settings. Schools should fit the differing needs of families and kids-not bureaucrats, state and local regulations, or union contracts. Various current proposals would allow non-government schools and home schoolers to receive money under choice plans: tax credits, tax-free K-12 education savings accounts, publicly (and privately) funded scholarships, and others. Because these scholarship dollars would be aid to families, not schools, they could be used at any lawfully operating school-public, private, or religious.
– Professionalism. The reinvention model holds that those who work in schools should be treated like-and conduct themselves as-professionals. This means deregulating the schools, freeing them from bureaucratic control and micromanagement, and allowing individual schools, educators, and parents wide latitude in decision-making on issues such as teaching loads and methods, staffing, and resource allocation.
– The education profession itself should be deregulated. Recruitment of educators for the reinvented public school should not be limited to graduates of teacher- or administrator-training programs. The teachers’ unions may be an obstacle to such reforms, but even they have shown some hopeful signs.
This new vision of American education is spreading rapidly, redefining public education, and blurring the line between public and private schools. It is creating a radically new system of education in which families choose from a continuum of opportunities and learning designs, with public money following the child to the school of choice. As lines blur and private and public schools become more alike (and different from today’s schools), private schools too will change. Mounting private school opposition to vouchers suggests that some would rather keep their independence than participate in a blurring that is apt to bring considerably more control from others. States, however, already have the authority to regulate private schools; it is thus unlikely that reinvention will destroy their autonomy. The new model allows them to remain “private” in several important ways: they are self-governing, free from most regulations, able to hire whomever they like, in control of their own curriculum, and attended by youngsters whose parents choose them.
The central principle organizing 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 predominate.
Students of all racial and ethnic backgrounds respond well to the challenge. The focused core curriculum of a parochial school improves student achievement, particularly among disadvantaged students, and protects against the academic fads that sweep through the education world with such depressing frequency. Schools of the future will require more core academic coursework of their students, particularly socially and economically disadvantaged ones.
Such a structure requires a strong communal organization. Parochial educators view teaching as a vocation, a ministry of service. The schools promote personal interactions and shared experiences among those who work in, attend, and support them. Numerous activities unite staff, students, and supporters-including athletic events, fundraisers, rallies, school plays, alumni gatherings, retreats, and various forms of religious ritual and prayer. Academically, the core curriculum plays this unifying role. These promote a commonality of purpose that supports the school’s mission.
Parochial schools are typically less constrained by centrally controlled bureaucracies than are public schools. Nearly all important decisions are made at the school site, under the leadership of the principal. This allows a school to develop a distinctive character and sensitivity to the unique needs of students and families.
This market responsiveness is moderated by the fundamental beliefs and values that permeate the school. The unique educational philosophy of a parochial school affirms the existence of fundamental truths and includes a special, religiously based respect for the dignity of each person and the sacredness of human community. This perspective determines not only what students know but also the morality they will follow and the moral community the school creates.
Perhaps the greatest difference between the public and private realms is this explicit moral education, character development, and, in religious schools, religious instruction (though public schools in recent years have become more mindful of these issues).
Charter schools-(mostly) independent public schools of choice accountable for the results of student learning-comprise 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 equal: some display the facade of freedom but not the reality. Policymakers must resist the temptation to constrain charter operators with the current web of state statutes, rules, collective bargaining agreements, and the like.
As charter schools demonstrate, a public school is coming to mean any school willing to embrace high standards, enroll students without discrimination, and be accountable for its results, regardless of who owns or operates it. Public money follows the child to these schools, and what unites them is a compulsory set of academic outcomes confined to a core list of broadly accepted knowledge and skills.
American “public” schools of the future will not look, feel, or act like “government.” But they are plainly larger than the individual or family. In that sense, they satisfy the classic definition of a “mediating” institution, They are, in fact, examples of what contemporary analysts term “civil society.” They are voluntary institutions, neither compulsory nor monopolistic. They are more responsive to their communities than schools created by large public bureaucracies.
Schools, of course, should play a fundamental role in this process, but today’s conventional public schools are hobbled by bureaucratic constraints against religious education. Of course, in a pluralistic society there are bound to be varying ideas of what this means. Unfortunately, the current system of American public education cannot accommodate such variety. Thus if we are to revitalize our communities, if we are to rebuild the social capital of our families and neighborhoods, if we are to educate our young people, especially those who are most disadvantaged, we must allow families much more choice in schooling, and with it a flowering of variety, pluralism, and freedom. Antiquated laws and attitudes that favor the status quo are the only real limit on the future of American education.
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