- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

If you want to be better informed about the best ways to reform our schools, you ought to study the history of American education. A good place to start might be William J. Reese’s informative book, America’s Public Schools: From the Common School to “No Child Left Behind (Johns Hopkins, $21.95, 333 pages).

Mr. Reese, an education historian at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, has set out to tell the entire history of our schools in a book. As he notes in the appendix, “single-volume interpretations of the broad sweep of American education are rare.” After all, the history of our schools is complicated, and most historians these days gain tenure not by writing surveys, but by producing tiny, specialized studies of little interest to anyone outside the academy.

Mr. Reese, however, is good at showing the ways that our schools have alternated between having “progressive” educators in charge who want to make the curriculum less intellectual and more practical, and “traditionalists” who wish to purge the classes of frills and get back to teaching reading, writing and arithmetic.

“America’s Public Schools” is a fair and judicious book but has two major flaws. The publisher decided to save money by replacing footnotes with an extended essay at the end. As a result, readers who are curious about where Mr. Reese obtained an interesting quotation are unable to check his sources.

Second, the author is relatively objective until his regrettable conclusion. He argues, among other things, that school choice is bad because it is supported by corporations, which he believes are always up to no good.

Except for this final chapter, “America’s Public Schools” does a good job in limning the main currents of American education history. Mr. Reese’s book is a very good introductory survey for anyone who wants to learn more about American education, and even readers who know the subject well will find that the book provides fresh information about familiar topics.

I was once asked what books on school reform someone should read if they wanted to study the best. I provided a list of four: “Charles Glenn’s “The Rise of the Common School,” Frederick Hess’ “Common Sense School Reform and Revolution at the Margins,” Diane Ravitch’s “Left Back and The Language Police,” and Joseph Viteritti’s “Choosing Equality.” Those who read these books will sharpen their understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of American education.

Of these scholars, Mr. Hess, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, is the youngest and has the broadest range. His recent articles are collected in Tough Love for Schools: Essays on Competition, Accountability and Excellence (AEI Press, $25, 243 pages).

Mr. Hess has written extensively on subjects most education scholars ignore. For example, his “Retooling K-12 Giving,” first published in Philanthropy in 2004, is a thorough analysis of which foundations are giving money for elementary education and high schools, and whether or not these grants are doing any good. Several essays also look at the messy ways in which teachers are given their teaching credentials, and whether or not these licenses actually show that teachers are capable of doing a good job in the classroom.

It should be noted, however, that about half of the articles in this book aren’t based on original research, but are op-eds and short articles written for a general audience. These articles have dated badly. Moreover, there’s a great deal of repetition in this book, including several articles each about vouchers, charter schools, and teacher licenses and schools of education. Mr. Hess’ opinions are always interesting — except when one has read them for the fourth or fifth time.

“Tough Love for Schools” is a below-par book by one of our best education writers. Readers who are curious about what Mr. Hess has to say should read one of his other books, such as “Common Sense School Reform.”

The debates over school choice have changed in the past five years. Nearly everyone now accepts that having more choices for students and parents is a good idea. The debate is now about whether or not these choices should include just public schools or private ones as well.

In Getting Choice Right: Ensuring Equity and Efficiency in Education Policy (Brookings, $19.95, 244 pages), 12 education scholars look at various aspects of school choice. The book, edited by Julian R. Betts, an economist at the University of California at San Diego, and Tom Loveless, a Brookings fellow, presents the findings of a commission funded by the Gates and Annie E. Casey foundations. The commission’s task was to look at school choice and see ways it can be improved.

What most of the scholars show is how little we really know about how school choice affects student achievement. In one chapter, for example, a Rand researcher named Laura S. Hamilton and Kacey Guin of the University of Washington conclude that we really don’t know, after all these years, why families choose one school over another.

Two papers stand out. A research team led by Dan Goldhaber of the Urban Institute concludes in one paper that the canard that children will suffer if parents don’t choose a school is probably wrong; in fact, such children do slightly better than children in districts without any school choice.

And Mr. Betts suggests that a market could be established in high-achieving students comparable to markets that have been established for selling broadcast spectrum or the right to pollute with certain chemicals. Suburban schools with lots of top achievers, Mr. Betts argues, could pay for the rights to educate these students, giving the funds to inner-city schools with few top achievers. The inner city schools could then use the funds to make improvements such as better textbooks and more teacher aides.

“Getting Choice Right” doesn’t break any new ground. But it does remind us that educational researchers would be more productive if they spent less time theorizing about school choice and more time in the field, looking at the ways that increased choice has changed schools.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds.”

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