America's 'collective farm'

Monday Book Reviews

January 17, 1994|By Craig B. Schulze

PUBLIC EDUCATION: AN AUTOPSY. By Myron Lieberman Harvard University Press. 341 pages. $27.95.

MYRON Lieberman's analysis of public education in America is as complex and hulking as the corpse it means to examine. From teacher training to educational research, nothing seems to escape the pathologist's scrutiny as he searches for the causes of a system's demise.

AUltimately, though, the painstaking analysis reveals the cause of death to be a simple lack of competition. Succinctly put, the author suggests that public education is America's "collective farm."

This is a conclusion that has been heard at least as far back as the 1983 publication of "A Nation at Risk," but unlike many other critics of the current state of our schools, Dr. Lieberman holds little hope that competition from within the system will make a difference.

He points to the restrictive Milwaukee voucher system and the underused program of public school choice in Minnesota -- where fewer than 5 percent of public school students changed schools when parents were given the opportunity to select any public school -- as proof that a voucher program that fails to allow "for-profit" schools to compete will never produce the radically different schooling that just about everyone believes is necessary to restore America's educational preeminence.

Dr. Lieberman says the problem is that the entire operation of public schooling is producer rather than consumer driven. Take, for example, teacher certification. Until very recently, one could become a teacher in public schools only by taking a required block of methods courses followed by a supervised period of student teaching. Even now, when states are beginning to recognize that expertise in a field may count for more than knowledge of "methods," only provisional certificates are granted most cases to those with specialized knowledge who become teachers without the benefit of education courses.

In a market system, the author reminds us, the consumers -- parents or students themselves -- would determine the fitness of prospective teachers directly, by deciding from whom they would take their classes.

Dr. Lieberman wonders who benefits from such a system when students attending private schools, Public schooling is producer rather than consumer driven.

where such safeguards are not in place, seem to do as well as (if not better than) their public school counterparts. No detective work required here: The higher education community maintains the status quo. After all, what would all those professors of

education do if there were not a massive boondoggle in the name of quality control? The author thinks the public wouldn't be concerned about a precipitous decline in teacher quality if the present system were abandoned in favor of one subject to market controls.

Similarly, Dr. Lieberman is quick to decry the anti-competitive nature of teacher unions' positions on the salary issues, such as equal pay for unequal performance and the protection of incompetents.

Because public education is a monopoly, Dr. Lieberman submits, it also does a very poor job of policing itself. A West Virginia physician, for example, studied standardized test scores and discovered that the vast majority of districts consider their students (like those in Lake Wobegon) above average. Dr. Lieberman asks where all of the education industry's experts were when this layman was doing his work. No doubt they were busy proselytizing for "restructuring," "cooperative learning," "teacher empowerment" or any of the other fads public school officials are so quick to embrace and just as quickly discard.

If information gleaned from research is the vehicle that private industry uses to correct its shortcomings, Dr. Lieberman dismisses the possibility that this factor can cure public education. In the first place, those currently conducting education research are generally not teachers. For the most part, they are academics whose primary contacts are with other researchers in the field. Whether the stuff they espouse actually promotes enhanced learning is rarely, if ever, scientifically tested with large and diverse student populations. And even when there is a working collaboration between schools and research groups, widespread replication of effective ideas and practices is uncommon.

Dr. Lieberman's book, like so many of the current jeremiads about education, does a marvelous job of elucidating the problems. It even goes beyond the usual platitudes in offering some specific suggestions, such as the creation of an independent system of student assessment. But like Boris Yeltsin in Russia, Dr. Lieberman comes up short in telling us how to transform a bloated and bureaucratic system into a lean and efficient one.

Moreover, by overlooking Baltimore, the author missed the opportunity to discuss two promising models, one combining an inner-city public school with a private, nonprofit school, the other turning urban public schools over to a profit-making contractor. With the Barclay-Calvert School partnership (already showing promising results) and the Tesseract experiment, we have two models that could bring Dr. Lieberman's patient back to life.

Craig B. Schulze is assistant principal of Harford Heights Elementary School in Baltimore City.

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