Fix schools by not fixing schools

Fix Schools by Not Fixing Schools advises Jay P. Greene. Instead of trying to reform traditional public schools, go around them.

We can expand access to other educational options, including charter schools, voucher schools, tax-credit schools. ESAs, digital schooling, home-schooling, and hybrid schools.  We can also expand access to enriching non-school activities, like museums, theaters, historical sites, summer camps, and after-school programs.  Reformers should concentrate their energy on all of these non-traditional-school efforts and stop trying so hard to fix traditional public schools.

Traditional public schools don’t want to be fixed, writes Greene.

The people who make their living off of those schools have reasons for wanting schools to be as they are and have enormous political resources to fend off efforts to fundamentally change things.  Trying to impose reforms like merit pay, centralized systems of teacher evaluation, new standards, new curriculum, new pedagogy, etc… on unwilling schools is largely a futile exercise.  They have the political resources to block, dilute, or co-opt these efforts in most instances.

“Second, attempting to impose reforms on traditional public schools requires a significant increase in centralized political control,” Greene writes.  When traditionalists subvert “most reforms through poor implementation,” the centralization remains.

 Centralized reforms that can be adopted and implemented have to be watered-down enough to gain broad support for passage and implementation, rendering them mostly impotent.

. . . even if by some miracle an effective and appropriate centralized reform with bite is adopted and properly implemented, there is no natural political constituency to preserve the integrity of that reform over time.

Traditional public schools don’t resist the creation of alternatives “with the same ferocity that they oppose reforms that directly effect their daily working life,” Greene writes. Creating alternatives doesn’t require centralization or pleasing everyone. Successful alternatives build their own constituency.


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  1. Agreed. There are many alternatives for students. 15-16 years ago, when we had high-schoolers, each one was different. One required a non-traditional path, one was happy with the public schools, and the other preferred a private all male school.

    With many choices, there are many solutions.

  2. But most of these alternatives actually INCREASE inequality.

    These options are already out there, and middle and upper class parents take advantage of them. The problem is that kids who are trapped in failing schools often have no way out. And they have parents who can’t or won’t take them to museum free day, or who don’t know what to do in a museum when they get there…who won’t even take their kids to the local library for free books, story times, and programming.

    So…I’m all in favor of investing in these alternatives because *I* like them…. but they won’t really help kids stuck in the permanent underclass. For them, the school is often the only point of contact with the larger world… so when we let bad pedagogy take hold, it serves to keep them in their places, not offer them an escape.

    Which, if you think the pie is a fixed size and that any gains for one group come at the expense of another, is a rational strategy, I guess.

    BUT if you actually think that all kids deserve a chance at better things, the neighborhood schools MATTER.

    • Stacy in NJ says:

      In New Jersey and other states with strong public schools in affluent suburbs most of the alternative growth has happened in disadvantaged areas like Newark, Camden, and Trenton. The oldest and best performing charters are located in the most disadvantaged areas. In the affluent areas you basically have your district school or private schools. Suburbanites are only now waking up to the advantages of having a choice and charters are spreading like wildfire.

      Greene is right, though. Reformers should invest their energies in building sound alternatives and leave the district schools to rot.

    • Richard Aubrey says:

      Point is, even though what you say is true, it doesn’t matter. The article says you can’t fix those schools, no matter how important they are to the unfortunate.
      Now, the article may be wrong, or exaggerating, but the point is, if you can’t fix them, insisting they matter makes no difference.

    • Uh, Diedre? The district system is meant to ensure the persistence of inequality rather then the opposite. Rich folks get to lavish their wealth on their kiddies, because they go to “neighborhood schools” and poor parents get to lavish their lack of wealth on their children for the same reason.

      That’s how it was set up and it’s only been since state-level funding that the gap’s been closed not that one could tell from the results.

      Of course those reforms couldn’t tamper with the inequality built into the system so wealthy areas still have higher levels of funding and probably always will. Any other arrangement would see rich people flee the public education system in droves and the collapse of districts in wealthy areas.

      So the neighborhood, i.e. district schools *don’t* matter since in many cases they’re complicit in ensuring that the children of poor people end up poor themselves.

      If parents can’t pick the school someone else must and for their own reasons. That’s not a comforting fact for anyone concerned primarily with the welfare of the kids.

      • But his suggestions (beefing up libraries, museums, park districts) won;t work because the same kids who are trapped in bad schools are the same ones whose parents won’t take them to the other places, EVEN WHEN THEY’RE FREE.

        I suppose we could try to bring the museum/library/etc. to the district schools, but that would involve ‘improving public schools.’

        Offering options won’t work if the parents don’t care.

        • In the first paragraph Greene makes some decent suggestion about how to “fix” the schools by not fixing them:

          “We can fix schools — that is, traditional public schools — by going around them. We can expand access to other educational options, including charter schools, voucher schools, tax-credit schools. ESAs, digital schooling, home-schooling, and hybrid schools.”

          In other words, forget about trying to fix the unfixable and make sure there are plenty of alternatives.

          The next sentence, which has the feel of an after-thought, is access to museums, libraries, theaters and historical sites.

          It’s the second paragraph in which he gets into the “why” of not bothering to expend further effort on the district system – it doesn’t want to be fixed.

          While that’s true it’s a particularly unhelpful and anthropomorphic explanation.

          A better explanation is that the basic underpinnings of the district system – mandatory attendance and tax support – combined with the necessarily politicized nature of administration and governance means that districts are inherently resistant to making education the first priority in all decisions. In some districts education’s hardly considered at all.

          Greene’s point is that the state of public education isn’t the result of bad people or bad decisions but of a bad system and a bad system that can’t be made better. I agree.

  3. Roger Sweeny says:

    Jay P. Greene makes a good case that traditional public schools will not change much and will continue to get results similar to what they get today.

    Alas, as of today there is nothing else that has done substantially better and is scalable. Of course, we won’t know what is possible outside the traditional schools until lots of different things have been tried. So, “let a hundred flowers bloom.” However, history suggests we will be disappointed.

    Maybe I’m just a jaded old man but I am afraid Arnold Kling may be right, “I put my faith in the null hypothesis in education. … In education, the null hypothesis is that nothing makes a long-term, scalable, replicable difference.”

    • I wouldn’t put too much stock in history’s suggestions or Mr. Kling’s views because the evidence that both are wrong is getting pretty tough to ignore, although I will grant the volume of evidence hasn’t quite achieved the status of being unignorable.

      As I keep pointing out, fruitlessly by and large, the public education system’s a political entity and the proper way to view the public education system is as a political entity.

      So, are those intent on maintaining the public education system as it is racking up one victory after another or are they not?

      The answer is, they are not. In some places they hold the line but this past year has been a flurry of significant defeats so Mr. Kling’s certainty notwithstanding we’ve clearly decided on a new course for how education’s to be conducted.

      My view is that we’ll do just fine.

      • Roger Sweeny says:

        allen, you are, of course, correct that “the public education system’s a political entity and the proper way to view the public education system is as a political entity.” Anyone who denies that is silly–and I don’t think most people here do. I think most of them agree with you.

        Public schools, the Marine Corps, the National Science Foundation, and Medicare are all political entities and share certain things in common. However, they are also different in various ways.

        What is this evidence that you speak of that says Kling and history are wrong? What is there “that has done substantially better and is scalable?” I’d hate to ignore it.

  4. When enough people leave, the school loses market share or “capture rate.” Then they investigate what they can do better. With a monopoly (or close to it), there is simply no need to innovate.

    • Happy Elf Mom — I am not sure I understand your comment. The monopoly that runs our public school system doesn’t check to see where kids with actively involved/supportive of the school parents go. They don’t appear to care at all. Are you talking about monopoly run schools or private schools? Thank you

      • Richard Aubrey says:

        Where I used to live, a nearby system did make some changes. The super burbled about how parental imput was important. He even mentioned competition for students from other types of schooling–which were new in the area..
        No reference to the importance of parental input in the years prior to competition.

      • I’m talking about public schools, and what happens when enough parents pull their children to place them privately or homeschool them. I’ve seen news stories about school districts actively recruiting families in the hopes that they will enroll their children. They will make programs or change things to better suit these parents, insofar as they are able.

        One example, but there are others:

        • Richard Aubrey says:

          In order for that to happen, we need abundant alternatives. Otherwise, there are too few places for the kids to go to get the super’s attention.

    • The monopoly gets its money by having as high a proportion of poverty and special needs students as possible. It’s in their best interest to convince as many students as possible who prevent them for qualifying for more state and federal aid to move to private school, since they don’t have to return the money.