In a sweeping and persuasive review of the past two decades of education reform, Paul Peterson observes that top-down efforts, like standards, testing, and accountability, have run out of steam educationally and politically. The best way forward, he argues, is to continue working for the steady expansion of choice and competition.
Here are some highlights:
Vouchers and tax credits are slowly broadening their legal footing. Charter schools are growing in number, improving in quality, and beginning to pose genuine competition to public schools, especially within big cities. Introducing such competition is the best hope for American schools, because today’s public schools are showing little capacity to improve on their own.
And on the failure of top-down reforms:
Admittedly, regulatory reform was not invented in Washington. Calls for higher standards, minimum competency tests, and school accountability had surfaced at the state level as early as the 1970s. Southern governors—James Hunt in North Carolina, Bill Clinton in Arkansas, Jeb Bush in Florida, Ann Richardson in Texas, and others—played major roles. Outside the South, Massachusetts took the lead….
All these steps required a vast number of regulations. But school districts still found ways of undermining federal objectives. They instituted byzantine procedures that parents had to navigate before they could exercise choice. Afterschool programs offered by private providers were frequently denied space at local schools. Reconstitution of low-performing schools often consisted mostly of window dressing.
Leading him to conclude:
As an education reform strategy, federal regulation is dead. The regulations had little long-term effect, and the political opposition crescendoed. The regulated captured the regulators. Nor is there much appetite for new accountability rules at the state level. If reform is to take place as the rest of the 21st century unfolds, it will happen because more competition is being introduced into the American education system.
Be sure to read the entire piece in Education Next.