thickening to empire | Main | federal budget trends

April 05, 2006

major strategies for educational reform

American public education has been subjected to waves of reform, but much remains constant from generation to generation. Perhaps out of frustration with the slow pace of change, today's advocates and policymakers--whether conservative, centrist, or moderately liberal--now use a fundamentally new strategy. Instead of tinkering with what goes on inside schools, they concentrate on changing the incentive structure. In this post, I describe that strategy and then criticize it on democratic grounds. [Please also click on "comments" to see a response from Harry Boyte that pushes my argument in more ambitious directions.]

The traditional approach assumed that the important questions about education were "what?" and "who?" "What" meant the materials, teaching methods, and curriculum used in actual classrooms. Much of the debate about education from 1900 until ca. 1985 consisted of arguments that the content of instruction should be more rigorous or more relevant, more directive or more experiential, more coherent or more diverse. (See, for example, the Nation at Risk report of 1983). Decisions about content were made--in varying proportions--by state agencies, school districts, principals, and teachers, sometimes with considerable input from citizens, especially those who served on school boards and PTAs. Thus the education debate was mostly about what should be taught, and arguments were directed to state and local school leaders.

People also debated "Who?", meaning the identity of the teacher--how she was qualified and selected--and the composition of classes. The influential Coleman report of 1966 led people to think that the teacher was relatively unimportant but that the mix of students was crucial. Poor kids needed to be exposed to middle-class students; kids with disabilities needed to be mainstreamed. Thus, for a generation, the main issues in federal education policy were desegregation and integration. There was also much debate about the pros and cons of "tracking" students--separating them by interest or ability level. Again, this was a debate about "who?"

Despite all this attention to "what?" and "who?", education didn't change fast enough for many reformers, or not in the directions they wanted. Recently, they have given much more attention to "why?"--in other words, to the incentives that are supposed to motivate administrators, teachers, and students to behave in certain ways. There are three major types of proposal for changing the incentive structure in education, thus causing students and educators to answer the "why?" question differently:

1. Impose regular, standardized tests with carrots and sticks. (Then the answer to "Why study?" is "To pass the test." "Why teach effectively?" -- "To get the kids through.")

2. Increase the degree of parental choice and allow funding to follow students. ("Why teach effectively?" -- "To attract pupils.")

3. Increase funding for schools, or equalize funding among districts. ("Why work in a difficult school setting?" -- "To earn a reasonable salary.")

None of these approaches is completely new. Liberals have been advocating higher teacher salaries for a long time. School choice was first defended (to my knowledge) by Milton Friedman in 1955. There were high-stakes tests before No Child Left Behind.

Nevertheless, the tenor of the debate has shifted. Politicians and policymakers now show an extraordinary lack of interest in the "what" and "who" questions. They seem to agree with the economist Gary Becker about the futility of looking inside schools: "What survives in a competitive environment is not perfect evidence, but it is much better evidence on what is effective than attempts to evaluate the internal structure of organizations. This is true whether the competition applies to steel, education, or even the market for ideas." Becker is a libertarian, but liberals who want to pay teachers more to teach in inner-city schools are also interested in competition--they just want schools to compete better in the job market.

It's important to think about incentives; that's one of the main themes of modern social science. Asking schools to educate better (or differently) without changing their incentives won't work. On the other hand, there are democratic reasons not to ignore the internal policies and choices of schools:

1. If the market or the authorities that create standardized tests control schools by manipulating the incentives, there is little scope for parents and other community-members to deliberate about local education. (It is especially difficult to deliberate about norm-referenced exams.)

2. If parents create incentives for schools by choosing where to send their kids, I worry that they will seek private goods for their own children (such as marketable skills and membership in exclusive peer groups) rather than public goods (such as civic skills, experience with democracy, and exposure to diversity). I also worry that parents who are not well-educated themselves will choose schools without the demanding extracurricular activities and enrichment programs that generate civic skills. (However, I must admit that school systems without choice also provide lousy extracurriculars for low-income kids.)

3. If educational authorities create incentives for schools by imposing standardized tests, all the pressure will be in favor of outcomes that can be measured on exams--especially individuals' factual knowledge and cognitive skills. It is much more difficult, or perhaps impossible, to create high-stakes assessments of moral values, habits and dispositions, and collaborations. Yet a democracy needs people who collaborate and who have civic virtues and habits.

4. All these approaches to reform (including the liberal tactic of increasing funds for teachers' salaries) involve extrinsic motivations. But people can also be intrinsically motivated to teach and to learn. Democracy needs citizens who understand the intrinsic value of working and learning together. Besides, as I argued previously, it is offensive and alienating to treat good teachers and students as if they lacked internal goals and will only respond to carrots and sticks.

I think there are good arguments for increasing teacher salaries, imposing at least some tests that have high stakes, and providing some degree of school choice. However, if the above arguments are persuasive, we also need vigorous public debates about what goes on inside schools.

Posted by peterlevine at April 5, 2006 10:27 AM


From David Airth, via email:

I think we are seeing to much carrot and stick and not enough substance. There is perhaps to much carrot and stick put into SATs at the expense of learning anything meaningful and lasting. It is like paying police to arrest people. Police will then only have the incentive to do the most expedient thing, to arrest people instead of preventing crime. With the carrot and the stick, as it is becoming, teachers have only the incentive to prepare for and teach tests that in the end will show few gains or accomplishments.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 5, 2006 04:43 PM

From Harry Boyte via email:

With our partners in civic and educaitonal groups, the Center for Democracy and Citizenship has been doing a good deal of work on the question of the civic impact of public policies as we've begun planning for a statewide initiative in Minnesota to strengthen civic life in the face of destructive cultural trends such as consumerism, hyper-competitiveness, focus on celebrities, and radical individualism. A focus on the question, what is the impact of public policies on civic life?, reframes the "who," "what" and "why's" of the education debate, as it reframes other policy questions.

"Who" becomes whole, living civic communities, not simply schools -- the older tradition of seeing education for children (and life long learning for adults) as a function of the civic culture of places. It was this tradition that nourished great experiements like Hull House (or in the Twin Cities, settlements like Phyllis Wheatley in the black community and Neighborhood House, in the Jewish, Mexican, and Eastern European Jewish community of the West Side of St. Paul): civic learning networks and centers that had rich, interactive relationships with schools, and vice versa. It also nourished the tradition of neighborhood libraries, drug store debates and many other things. It was the animating philosophy behind the original cooperative extension, aimed at creating "rural settlements." And it nourished the national movement of schools as "social centres," in the language of John Dewey.

In Minnesota, much of the most innovative public policy for which the state is famous reflects this tie of education to civic life such as community education and early childhood parent education -- both the largest in the nation -- which are run through community boards still, not schools.

"What" becomes the skills, habits, and attributes needed to contribute to civic life, not simply to achieve individually. Curriculum and pedagogies pay attention to the civic dimensions of a well-educated person -- with the aim of growing citizen business owers, citizen clergy, citizen teachers, citizen politicians. Again, in the traditions of places like Phyllis Wheatley or Neighborhood House, "citizen professionals" such as Gertrude Brown, Ray Hatcher, and Constance Currie were seen as educational exemplars -- Richard Green, the famous school superintendent of Minneapolis who became chancellor of New York in the late 1980s was inspired and shaped by such examples, on his own admission.

"Why" becomes the question of creating a policy frame and incentive structure to nourish and support a vibrant civic life, with all the elements implied -- vibrant, lively educational institutions of many kinds, and also strong relational and family networks, a sense of local pride, beautiful public design and public spaces, cultural amenities, locally owned businesses, a sense of shared wealth and responsibility, etc.

We are preparing several studies that will be soon available, on the Jane Addams School for Democracy partnership with new immigrants (forthcoming from Kettering, and the Neighborhood Learning Community in St. Paul (forthcoming from the CDC), which illustrate these themes. Both provide many examples of current neighborhood wide iniatives that aim at creating a "culture of learning" for which all are responsible (soon advertised on the CDC web site,, and also the Neighborhood Learning Community site,

I would add that in my view the individualized and decontextualized emphases that are so much a part of conventional educational debates reflect hidden technocratic biases, which have uprooted all sorts of professionalized systems, around the world-- including schools -- from living, distinctive civic cultures, and created self-referential bubble cultures that are abstract, standardized, and dispiriting. A crucial challenge of culture change is to reintegrate such systems of all kinds
into civic life.

Posted by: Peter Levine [TypeKey Profile Page] at April 6, 2006 10:47 AM

Post a comment

This blog is under attack from comment spammers, who are causing a problem for the server. I believe I can block them by upgrading to a recent version of MoveableType. However, I do not have time to do that until late December. Therefore, I have temporarily disabled comments. Please feel free to email me feedback at

Site Meter