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Ideal School Systems
How community-administered and stateregulated school systems best serve purposes of schooling and public education
Introduction........................................................................................ .....................2 Purposes of Schools....................................................................................... ..........3 Ideal School Systems......................................................................................... ......5 An Alternative?.................................................................................... ....................9 Conclusion............................................................................................ .................11 Works Cited............................................................................... ............................12
Jason J. Wong 4/6/2009
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 2 of 14
Introduction On a typical school day, the American education system educates almost 49 million students in approximately 100,000 public K-12 schools.1 Including private schools, the American education system includes almost 55 million students. The public education system is perhaps the most direct way that the government influences the lives of thevast majority of its citizens. In terms of social services, only Social Security and Medicare come close to the level of interaction with individuals that schools have. For many students, this system is failing. In some states, the high school drop-out rate hovers around 60%— or worse.2 My outline for an ideal school system attempts to maximize the strengths of both state-supported and community-oriented school systems to address each other’s weaknesses and provide a meaningful, responsive, efficient, and equitable school system for all students. This paper beginswith an analysis of the many different purposes of schooling that people have hoped to achieve. Then, I explain how the ideal public school system should function and address these goals and objectives. I look at alternative school systems and explain where they fall short, and how a state/community hybrid school system addresses those weaknesses. Finally, we conclude with the idea that although a state/community hybrid school system is
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 3 of 14 imperfect, and difficult to carry out in practice, it is the best system
administratively, socially and economically for our time. Purposes of Schools The purpose of schooling revolves around the development of two ideals: 1) the development of the individual (private goals), and 2) the development of the citizen (public goals). Ultimately, I believe that these two goals can address most if notall of the purposes of education that many theorists, including Friere, Hofstadter, Galston, Counts, Lazerson, and Grubb all espouse. The purposes of schooling have been continuously contested among intellectual heavyweights, and ideas have also changed over time. Since the early twentieth century, the goals set out for education have been many and varied, and have taken to account ideas of social justice, economic considerations, the benefits of being “educated,” etc.. Many of these goals and visions for a proper school system are valid and not inherently wrong. Why shouldn’t we expect a public school system address social, economic, and individual goals at the same time? History has shown that it is difficult to meet all these goals at the same time, but that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t. The ideal school system should adequately strive to fulfill high standards, and be satisfied with nothing less. During the Civil Rights era, George Counts wrote about the idea of social justice, and the ability for schools to educate students about how to change society to become more just (). Three decades later, Richard Hofstadter wrote about how qualities of intelligence different with qualities of intellect, and that it is the goal of schools (or that it should be the goal of schools) to develop their students’ intellect. Whereas intelligence “seeks to grasp, manipulate, re-order,
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 4 of 14 adjust, intellect examines, ponders, wonders, theorizes, criticizes, imagines.” ()
Education, then, becomes a means and an end unto itself. Paulo Freire went further, and wrote about education as a form of liberation (). Freire writes that the ideal of education is that “the teacher-student and the students-teachers reflect simultaneously on themselves and the world without dichotomizing this reflection from action, and thus establish an authentic form of thought and action.” () Simply, in Freire’s view, a great education transcends power relationships and allows the world to be analyzed and thought about without deceit. People such as William Galston believe that schools should teach citizenship and educate students on how to flourish in a democratic state (). Recently, Norton Grubb and Marvin Lazerson have written about the economic purposes of schooling, and try to balance the ideas of vocational education for economic benefit, and the need for a minimum standard for knowledge that all individuals should obtain (). There is no reason that a proper school system cannot address all or most of these goals. Most of these goals are not mutually exclusive, and many are mutually supportive. For example, a more equally educated society might correlate with a more just society, and a more egalitarian education system might promote economic and social equality. There is an argument that conflict exists betweenpublic goals and private goals. Even if this were the case, private goals largely benefit from the development public goals. Take public safety and my individual quest for financial security, for instance. While it is my private goal to acquire wealth, I benefit by having rules and regulations in place that limit my ability to take shortcuts to acquire that wealth. This also affords me
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 5 of 14 protection against others who would seek to overpower, cheat,or swindle me.
Therefore, maintaining the public order supersedes, and even supports, my private objective of obtaining fortune, as long as the economic system considers both public objectives (law and order), and private objectives at the same time. Similarly, a proper school system takes both private goals and public goals into account, and maximizes the harmonious development of both. Ideal School Systems The best system for organizing a school system revolves around accountable community autonomy, which takes into account the strengths of both community-centered school systems and state-regulated school systems. A similar idea was also espoused by Archon Fung in his book, Empowered Participation. In it, Fung writes about how accountable autonomy manages the complicated task of balancing discretion versus accountability, and how “school systems can become more responsive, fair, innovative, and effective by incorporating empowered participation and deliberation into their governance structures” (). Empowering communities requires a level of decentralization to give localities meaningful decision-making and administrative power, while holding these communities accountable also requires a level of centralization of power in order to regulate. Thus, the ideal school systemscombines a bottomup and top-down approach to simultaneously check each other’s weaknesses and take advantage of each other’s strengths. An accountable community school system utilizes the local community of teachers, parents, students, administration, and other community members to make the majority of meaningful decisions about a school, and yet also utilizes a strong central and
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 6 of 14 national educational organization to give guidance, ensure equality across
schools throughout the system, and ensure compliance to relevant regulations and public goals. On its own, a community-centered school district is a powerful tool for addressing the local needs and diverse characteristics of different communities. The strengths of a community-centered school system are many. Communitycentered school systems are flexible, and ideally can take advantage and/or more directly address local educational objectives and needs. Furthermore, in an ideal community-centered school system, the community at large is engaged with the responsibility of educating the next generation of citizenry, helping to establish social relationships and engaging more citizens in political process/civic governance. As Fung noted, the community-centered school system model “emphasizes the positive and constructive face of autonomy—the capacity, indeed responsibility, of groups to achieve public ends that they set for themselves—as much as the emancipatory aspect of shedding centrally imposed constraints and demands.” () Therefore, the majority of decisions in an ideal community-centered school system, and our hybrid system, should be made by a locally elected body for each school which includes parent, teacher, administrative and student representation. The school site council’s responsibilities should be clearly delineated from the school administration’s responsibilities to prevent interference and muddled school leadership. In effect, each school would act as a miniature school district. The school site council will have a say in the hiring and firing of the school administration, shaping the overall school budget, and
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 7 of 14 crafting school policies, much like a school board, but the school principal should
be tasked with all of the administrative responsibilities of running a school, including creating teaching schedules, ensuring school compliance with district, state, and national goals, etc., much like a district superintendent. On the other hand, a community-centered school district, when not held accountable to a more centralized power with a system-wide view, can propagate inequality. Some communities may have higher, or different, standards than other communities. Furthermore, communities that are predisposed with greater resources, types and levels of expertise, etc. will be advantaged over other communities. In comparing urban and rural school districts with suburban school districts, Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick referred to discrepancies among different school systems and communities as “nested inequalities” (). A strong centralized power can work to address these inequalities. Where the community-based school system fall short, districts, states, and the federal government should step in to ensure some form of minimal standards and achievementacross all schools across the nation. Accountableautonomous school systems necessarily rely on a larger institution to ensure that public priorities are being enacted, and that school systems are constantly improving and evolving to address student needs. The idea of a state-centered public school system was also espoused by Jennifer Hochschild and Nathan Scovronick in The American Dream and the Public Schools. The idea of a statecentered public school system is to strengthen and maintain social order and upward social mobility. Essentially, the state will look at the performance of
schools overall from a more global perspective.
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 8 of 14 At the same time, local
communities are tasked with handling administrative details, but are also given the freedom to utilize resources to best address local needs that may be different from other communities. The state can step in to interfere with local community schools and school systems only when their performance meaningfully and/or significantly lags behind their peers, and the state should only be involved with managing the local school or school system until it is stabilized, and given the resources, and/or expertise, to perform on par with other schools and school districts. In that regard, an institution with a perspective across all school systems is important because this national body will be able to more accurately ascertain which local school systems are falling behind as well as disseminate information quickly system-wide. Furthermore, as Finn noted, there is an information vacuum with regards to student performance and what is happening in schools, therefore preventing various stakeholders from being accountable to increasing student performance (). By utilizing a standard yardstick, a state/national entity can increase transparency across the country and across different school districts to measure relative performance. In sum, a public school system ideallyutilizes the strengths of communitycentered school systems and state-school systems to enhance public education and resolve or minimize the shortcomings of the other. For states, a great shortcoming is that bureaucracies can have a slow response time, and be unresponsive to local needs and situations. On the other hand, communities, where these problems can be noticed immediately, and be noticed directly, can
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 9 of 14 address the concerns of a slow and unresponsive bureaucracy. A great
shortcoming for community-centered school systems is that the academic standards and rigor across school systems can be highly diverse, and students in comparatively lax school systems can be left behind. There may be cases in specific communities where experience in, for example, parliamentary procedure and balancing a budget, may be lacking. In these cases, it is important that a central authority step in to 1) provide the training, and/or 2) take over until a capable local governing body is organized. Although he espouses community control, Fung writes that schools and districts, when “left to their independent devices, some would surely flounder while others excelled at problem-solving due to their superior wealth, deliberative capacity, or brute luck.” () Therefore, Fung is also a proponent of some form of centralized control, that can step in when necessary to equalize achievement and performance gaps (). The idea is that schools will mostly be run by local governing and administrative bodies, such as school site councils and principals. Participants will be doubly accountable both to the expectations of the community, and the expectations of the centralized authority. The larger state and national governments will ensure that each local community is meeting a set of minimal standards, and will step in to run and train the bottom rung of school systems until they are on the path to improvement, as well as be a medium for spreading useful information across the entire school system at large. This vision is different from what is currently available because currently there is little collaboration between communities and states in educating young children, and
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 10 of 14 furthermore very few school districts empower local school site councils to
provide meaningful input and influence in school decisions. An Alternative? Aside from the concerns mentioned above, there are also poignant concerns brought up by people such as Milton Friedman, who believe in the idea that the best way to improve public education practice is to rely on free-market principles. The idea is that a market oriented system is more flexible than most other systems to respond to parents’ and families’ demands. A market oriented system, they argue, will also offer a plethora of choices for parents to choose from, as long as there is a demand for those services, and by schools competing against one another for students inefficient organizations will go out of business and further competition will bring about better performance. In a privatized school system, however, there is no mechanism to ensure that students will receive an education that responds to social objectives rather than individual objects. Simply put, individual goals and social goals can come into conflict, and when that is the case this school system is heavily influenced by individual goals because choice will be left to the individual. A privatized system can alsoincrease economic inequalities more than a state-centered school system or a community-focused school system. The best private school organizations may attempt to choose the best students, and/or the cheapest students to educate, potentially leaving students who can’t supplement their school vouchers, have learning disabilities, are ELL students, or aren’t the easiest students to teach (i.e. have personality disorders or who don’t conform to cultural expectations of the school) behind. A public school system full of
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 11 of 14 high achieving schools inherently is more egalitarian than the selection
processes for private schools, and therefore, a choice between a high achieving public school system should be preferable to a high achieving private school system that is not held accountable to the public at large, but just to smaller, more distinct and potentially homogenous, communities. Friedman points out that the state up to now has been relatively incapable of running a high achieving school system and that furthermore, the current situation is already inequitable because some families already have easier access to the capital required to access the very best institutions and education. School vouchers may give students of lower income backgrounds better access to elite institutions that previously had been reserved for the rich and the elite. A public school system that shares principles with the private market economy should also inherently be more susceptible to innovation due to competition, and furthermore will be held directly accountable to each of its consumers, the students and their families. If private schools are unsuccessful in this model, they will close, and schools with successful/popular practices and accomplishments will flourish. On the other hand, private schools have incentives not to share best practices with other schools in order to maintain their competitive advantage. In this manner, a private marketplace for schools can also discourage innovation and collaboration system-wide. Furthermore, if
schools are not held accountable to a more centralized authority like the state government, then private schools can still propagate inequality as well as have their interests be influenced by special interests.
Wong, Jason Schooling and Society Jal Mehta Page 12 of 14 For example, in certain areas of America, schools that teach creationism
over evolution might have a market. Friedman states that it is acceptable for the government to intervene when there are “neighborhood effects,” ()but in this case it would be difficult to argue that slight or meaningful differences in academic curriculum are equivalent to polluting a stream. In these cases, students who attend schools such as those that teach creationism will find themselves at a disadvantage in college admissions and perhaps job opportunities. Thus, a private school system can also propagate inequality. A public school system not based on profit-maximizing institutions better takes public goals into consideration, even if a private school system may respond better to individual goals and objectives. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that a community-based school system cannot also achieve some of the benefits of a privatized school system. Schools can be crafted to the specific needs of the community of students (or the neighborhood community) that it serves. Parents, if frustrated with their local community schools, are empowered to change the administration or change the focus of the school, and states are empowered to take over failing schools to try to make them more successful. What the free-market model doesn’t address, that communities and states emphasize, are the development of the social goals and public objectives of the country, in addition to the individual goals and private objectives of students and families. It is also harder to address inequalities in private school systems, because there isn’t an envisioned common yardstick, by which to measure student performance and achievement system-wide.
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Conclusion In spite of the weaknesses presented in this paper concerning communitycentered school systems and state-run school systems, and the strengths espoused by Milton Friedman concerning the free-market school system, a school system that utilizes both communities and states to run schools is the most ideal. While not entirely perfect, communities and states can form a symbiotic relationship that works off each other’s strengths and helps address each other’s weaknesses. A privatized school system, even a partially regulated one, is inherently problematic where the product is a public good and some of the objectives of schooling are broader than just serving individual goals and objectives to also serving the goals of society. A community/state-based school system can fulfill public objectives, ensure a minimal amount of standardization, and address individual objectives that a privatized school system cannot, and therefore is the best option.
Cardinal Newman, J. H. (1923). The Idea of the University. London: Longmans, Green and Co. Counts, G. S. (1932). Dare the School Build a New Social Order? New York: Arno Press. Finn, J. C. (1991). We Must Take Charge. New York: Free Press. Freire, P. (1970). The Pedagogy of the Oppressed. New York: Continuum. Friedman, M. (2002). Capitalism and Freedom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Friedson, E. (2001). Professionalism: The Third Logic. Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Fung, A. (2004). Empowered Participation. Princeton: Princeton University Press. Galston, W. (1989). Civic Education and the Liberal State. In N. Rosenblum, Liberalism and the Moral Life (pp. 89-101). Cambridge: Harvard University Press. Grubb, N. W., & Lazerson, M. (2004). The Economic Gospel. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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Hochschild, J., & Scovronick, N. (2003). The American Dream and the Public Schools. Oxford: Oxford University Press. Hofstadter, R. (1963). Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. New York: Vintage Books. Tyack, D., & Cuban, L. (1995). Tinkering Toward Utopia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
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