The Fiction of Education Reform

[This review is basically a re-write of a review done in the 80’s. I expect to re-read this book in the future and expect to make further comments. TA]

Book Review

Beyond Public Education, Myron Lieberman, 1986, Praeger

Fact and Fiction of Education Reform

Lieberman’s book could be the starting point for anyone concerned with our public schools. He says that all the reform efforts of the last few decades are unrealistic and even “harmful” to education. His book largely refers to the American scene, but from what I’ve read most of the insights apply to the Canadian scene as well.

If you’ve ever been frustrated by the system, the following insights from a long-time “insider” since the 50’s are revealing. The major obstacles to educational reform include:

  • The structure governing public education
  • Teacher unions
  • Tenure laws
  • Insulation from competition or alternatives
  • Leadership gap

Even as reform efforts may point to desirable new directions, their major flaw is failing to acknowledge the above obstacles which are too real to ignore. The symbolic gestures at reform produce the illusion of concern and serve to perpetuate the status quo with its vested interests.

Media gullibility obscures the political, educational and intellectual bankruptcy of the reform movement. Educational reform is taking place in newspaper articles and television broadcasts, not in classrooms.

Educational deterioration is real enough, though understated, says Dr. Lieberman.

  • Illiteracy is a major problem
  • Many remedial courses in colleges/universities are needed to bring students up to speed
  • Avoidance of testing contributes to grade inflation and covers up decline in achievement
  • Increase in high school programs lacking any defensible academic purposes

Audience for Whom the Message is Addressed

The price of the book ($67.00 in 1986) meant that not many parents would read the book, even though they are one of the major intended audiences of the author.

“One of my major objectives is to help parents reject cosmetic changes in education that leave the status quo essentially unchanged. My analysis is intended to explain how and why parent participation in school affairs is usually futile…”

Of course, all the myriad policy-makers and players are enjoined to read the book: unions, school boards, legislators, media, business people, etc. From my experience, the analysis in the book equips the status quo for greater resistance to parents than to assist parents. Now, 20 years after the publication of that book and after my first reading of it I think that is true. The status quo persists. (Example: 7 of the 9 trustees at the Vancouver School Board are teachers, ex-teachers, or in the education system one way or another and one member is an ex teacher union official. Isn’t that conflict of interest? One board member has been there for over 20 years! Now that is status quo! Should there be term limits? How effective can parent voice be before such a body?)

What’s to Be Done?

Lieberman states repeatedly that the purpose of the whole effort is an educated citizenry, not the apparatus that has grown up around the effort. He makes two suggestions for real improvement in education:

  1. Improve Family Choice Since parents have no voice in educational governance or quality control, at least if they had a choice of schools, their “consumer” activity would trigger competition, improvement, etc. The vehicle for this would be tuition tax credits or vouchers.
  2. Entrepreneurial Schools Either founded by businesses or educator entrepreneurs, these schools would be more efficient, relevant, innovative and responsive to their constituents (parents and students). Their emphasis would be on results, marketable skills, jobs, and personal pride.

For the first time ever, a complete un-masking of the education industry by an ex teacher, ex teacher union negotiator and a university professor and now chairman of the Education Policy Institute.

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