Choice and the pursuit of justice

14th January 2005 at 00:00
Making School Reform Work. Edited by Paul T Hill and James Harvey. The Brookings Institution pound;12.50

Who's in Charge Here: the tangled web of school governance and policy. Edited by Noel Epstein. The Brookings Institution pound;38.50

Educating Citizens: international perspectives on civic values and school choice. Edited by Patrick J Wolf and Stephen Macedo. Brookings Institution Press pound;14.50

Sage Handbook of Educational Leadership. Edited by Fenwick W English. Sage Publications pound;75.

The American school system was built on solid foundations: the principle of common schooling for common goals and the primacy of local democratic control. Under the twin onslaught of the "choice" movement and the creeping central government control epitomised by the "No Child Left Behind" legislation of the first George W Bush administration, both are crumbling.

What, if anything, should replace them?

Making School Reform Work starts from the assumption that in the cities the current system is beyond repair. Neither politics nor philanthropy can overcome the vested interests it harbours; "it rejects change in much the same way as the human body rejects transplants".

The solution, the authors say, is "new partnerships for change", a portmanteau phrase that covers parental choice through magnet and charter schools, targeted funding and incentives, devolved decision-making, short-term contracts and new forms of semi-corporate "oversight". The argument is that this is how private schools work, and private schools, by definition, are "effective". The role of central government is accreditation, light-touch regulation and inspection, on the Ofsted model.

The citizen's role is to choose; choice is the engine of the system.

To British ears it is not an unfamiliar prescription, and it is argued here crisply and with conviction. It does, however, raise problems, not least the question of ultimate responsibility that is addressed in Who's in Charge Here: the tangled web of school governance and policy.

Accountability used to rest with school boards and districts; now, not only state and federal authorities but also courts, community organisations and management companies are deeply involved.

For Paul T Hill, who contributes to this volume too, the acid test is the degree of "subsidiarity" involved. The more devolved the decision-making - as, for example, with charter schools - the better the result. His fellow contributors, though, see many problems. Who picks up the bill for federally mandated standards? How can the country ensure that teachers and resources are used where they are most needed? Should we be rethinking, especially in the cities, the social and civic functions of education, and, if we should, what partners and agencies should we be involving? What if (as Larry Cuban's chapter asks) the standard explanation of educational failure is wrong; that it is social and economic inequality that drags schools downwards?

Their conclusion is that, though freedom of choice is desirable, so are efficiency, equity and social cohesion, even though these admirable goals tend to pull in different directions. It is the role of policy to unite them, but policy gets submerged in the rhetoric of market choices.

Is this inevitable? Educating Citizens: international perspectives on civic values and school choice looks at how countries with very different political and educational traditions - Canada, the UK, various other European states - approach this issue. Superficially, their analysis is reassuring. They see few signs of the social disintegration and sectarian hostility that the enemies of school choice in the US have always predicted. "Nowhere," they report, "did we find dire consequences of publicly funded choice."

What they did find - a downside in American eyes - was that such choice invariably involves "astonishing systems of regulation, accountability and control". There is no support, in fact, for the optimistic claims of free market competition: even choice itself is "only part of the solution". What matters more, the authors suggest, is systemic design: educational structures for public good as well as private advantage.

And that chimes closely with the central theme of the Sage Handbook of Educational Leadership, a massive survey of the politics, initiatives and research projects that have in the past 20 years or so affected and often transformed the once predictable world of "school administration".

The change of terminology is important. This is a handbook for masters courses in school leadership; in part a work of reference, it is awesomely comprehensive. It has, however, an important and insistent theme: that every school can be improved, and that leadership - not administration, not even management - is key to such improvement. Effective leadership involves sensitivity to context and to the values of social justice, civic responsibility and democratic accountability, and these essays show how and why.

In the context of the clamour for markets, tests and choices, they make encouraging if unfashionable reading. Hope yet, perhaps, for the American public school.

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