- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 8, 2010


By Paul E. Peterson Harvard University Press, $26.95, 282 pages

One of the continuing problems with our public schools is that they remain top-down, command-and-control bureaucracies strongly resistant to change. It has been nearly a century since school superintendents adopted the system of strong central offices that ineptly micromanage schools. Nearly every critic of the schools knows that this management system needs to be changed, but little or nothing is done. Why?

Many of the answers can be found in Paul E. Peterson’s excellent history of American education, “Saving Schools.” Mr. Peterson, a Harvard professor of government, is one of the nation’s leading analysts of school choice. His latest book explores the reasons why public schools have stoutly resisted efforts to introduce choice and competition to education.

Mr. Peterson looks at seven people who, in his view, substantially changed American education: educator Horace Mann, philosopher John Dewey, activist Martin Luther King Jr., union leader Albert Shanker, author William Bennett, sociologist James S. Coleman and school creator Julie Young.

Mr. Peterson throws in many interesting details about the people he profiles. For example, King was born Michael King Jr. and had his name changed when his father, originally Michael King Sr., changed his name and his son’s after a trip to Germany.

However, the biographical details in “Saving Schools” are secondary. The book is a history of American education with biographical details, not a collection of biographies. The first six people Mr. Peterson profiles all changed the schools, but largely in ways that encouraged centralization. Mr. Shanker, for example, began his career as the head of the tiny New York City-based High School Teachers Union and ended it making the American Federation of Teachers into a national force.

But the end result of increasing unionization is that massive teachers union contracts (New York City’s is 800 pages long) minutely control every aspect of a teacher’s day. In addition, unions make sure that bad teachers can’t be fired. Mr. Peterson cites the findings of reporter Scott Reeder, who discovered that between 1986 and 2004, just 36 of 95,000 public school teachers working in Illinois were fired.

Mr. Peterson’s best chapter concerns sociologist Coleman, who wrote four reports that shed a great deal of light on the problems of our schools. Coleman’s first book, “The Adolescent Society” (1961), created the style of book that describes a year in the life of a high school. This book, in Mr. Peterson’s view, “remains Coleman’s masterpiece.”

In 1966, Coleman led a massive research effort that showed that the best way to gauge whether a student will succeed in school is to determine a parent’s education and the number of books in the home. Spending money on fancy facilities and high-tech equipment, Coleman found, had little to do with student achievement. In 1975, Mr. Coleman discovered that white families were leaving inner-city schools for the suburbs, a phenomenon known as “white flight.” And in 1980, a third major Coleman study showed that Catholic schools did a better job educating children than did comparable public schools.

Mr. Peterson spends several of his final chapters analyzing developments in school choice over the past decade. School choice has been highly controversial but remains a relatively small part of American education. Less than one-half of 1 percent of American students use vouchers. About 2 percent are in charter schools.

Between 3 percent and 4 percent are home-schooled, and about 11 percent are in private schools. That means that between 82 percent and 83 percent of American students remain in traditional public schools and have no choice of school. The goal of education reformers of the past 50 years to have a competitive market in education remains as distant as ever.

Mr. Peterson finds hope in “virtual schooling.” His final chapter is about Julie Young, who created the Florida Virtual School in the late 1990s. As a result, today about 11,000 Floridians spend at least some of their time in “virtual courses” in which they deal with teachers via e-mail, video courses and occasional on-site visits. For example, a popular virtual physical-education class, called Wellville, connects students with a personal trainer who monitors their exercise habits and encourages students who grow stronger.

Virtual classes are supplemental courses, used when a school doesn’t offer a particular course, such as an Advanced Placement class. However, Mr. Peterson foresees virtual courses eventually supplanting traditional bricks-and-mortar education. Should that happen, he foresees, Julie Young “could join the pantheon of those who have transformed America’s schools.”

If we’re ever going to reform our schools successfully, we need to know why American education remains largely a centralized monolith. School reformers will find a great deal of valuable information in Mr. Peterson’s thoughtful and informative book.

Martin Morse Wooster is the author of “Angry Classrooms, Vacant Minds” (Pacific Research Institute, 1993).

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