Reformers, Make No Small Plans
More than fifty books, three hundred articles, and dozens of
awards and prizes for his scholarship have made Dr. Herbert J.
Walberg an internationally recognized expert in the field of
education. He is one of three U.S. members of the International
Academy of Education. He chaired a scientific advisory group for
the Paris-based Organization for Economic Cooperation and
Development, overseeing its project on international educational
indicators. For the U.S. Department of Education, he has carried
out research comparing Japanese and American schools.
Dr. Walberg is, one might say, an "expert's expert."
He holds a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago and is Research
Professor of Education and Psychology at the University of
Illinois at Chicago. (He is also chairman of the board of The
Heartland Institute, publisher of School Reform News.)
He is listed in both Who's Who in America and Who's
Who in the World.
In his research, Dr. Walberg employs experiments,
meta-analyses, secondary analyses of large national and
international data sets, and automated content analysis of
qualitative data to discover the factors in homes, schools, and
communities that promote learning and other human
In his work on behalf of education reform, however, Dr.
Walberg employs plain language, common sense, and down-to-earth
advice about how we can best prepare our children for the
twenty-first century. That ability to speak the truth plainly and
persuasively was quickly apparent in a recent interview he
granted to Diane Bast, editor of School Reform News.
Bast: You've spent the better part of your
professional life evaluating the performance of public schools in
the United States. How are we doing?
Walberg: U.S. schools are performing poorly,
not only by the standards of other countries but also by the
standards of what our students should know and be able to do.
Although it is difficult to say that "learning," as
measured by standardized achievement tests, has declined, it is
clear that our students perform well below those of Europe,
Japan, and other affluent countries in science, mathematics,
geography, and foreign languages.
Our students perform best in reading, but primarily because
they start school better-prepared in reading than their
international counterparts. Once they are in school, our students
make the least progress in reading during their school years.
This is true even though our per-student spending on reading
programs is highest among affluent countries.
Bast: So why do our schools perform so poorly?
Walberg: There are many reasons. The U.S. has
the shortest school year in the industrialized world. Our
education system lacks uniform standards, so our teachers cannot
depend on what their students have been taught in previous years.
There are too many "cooks" in our education system,
which is regulated by federal, state, and local bureaucracies.
Those bureaucracies make poor choices of what subject matter
should be covered in the classroom and what instructional methods
should be used to teach it.
And, perhaps most damaging, our education system completely
lacks incentives for educators and their students to improve.
Bast: What reforms do you believe would address those
Walberg: Extending our school year by a fifth
or a third would put U.S. students on a more equal time footing.
And then, getting consensus on education goals, curriculum, and
tests would allow us to establish real standards for schools and
measure school performance against those standards.
Other countries have been able to get consensus among subject
matter experts, national, state, and local education agencies,
and other individuals and groups. But I doubt if current efforts
in the United States to reach this consensus will succeed. We may
be a country far too diverse to reach consensus on something so
important as the education of our children.
If consensus isn't possible here, we should recognize that.
Perhaps we should abandon altogether our search for consensus,
and instead capitalize on our diversity. A promising alternative
would be to deregulate and privatize education, and provide
scholarships that all students could use at public or private
schools. Doing this would allow for a diversity of educational
approaches to match the diversity of parent and student
preferences in education.
Schools and systems of schools could provide curriculum
uniformity within their bailiwicks, and this could become a
"selling point" for parents, who would want to see
their children receive a consistent education. Private groups
could develop and maintain educational standards and the means of
measuring them, in much the same way as industrial groups have
developed standards for their industries.
Privatizing education in this way could also answer the
problem of heavy-handed bureaucracy and excessive administrative
costs, which are about two times higher in the U.S. than in other
wealthy countries. Minimizing federal and state regulations would
allow more funds to serve students directly and would draw
educators' attention to their chief purpose--learning.
Bast: What would happen to curriculum standards under
a privatized system of education?
Walberg: Students cannot know everything, so
we must be selective in setting forth educational goals. Once
again, this is difficult to do in the U.S., because educators,
parents, and students differ substantially in their preferences
about what to learn and how to learn it. Again, diversity of
approaches is in order.
In many circumstances and in many industries, only one social
mechanism has proven to provide such diversity efficiently: the
Markets also respond to the lack of incentives for
improvement. In a privatized system of education, providers who
were unable to attract customers would go out of business.
Bast: But can we depend on parents to make good
decisions about which schools are best for their children?
Walberg: We allow parents to choose their
children's names, to control their children's nutrition, to
provide clothing and shelter to them, and to select doctors for
them. In fact, we trust parents to make choices for their
children all the time, in every imaginable arena, except in
In all but the smallest minority of cases, parents care more
about their children than anyone else can. I'm much more
comfortable trusting parents to make education decisions for
their children than trusting bureaucrats and government
Bast: Why should our readers support the reforms you
Walberg: Americans increasingly recognize
that our schools are not up to par and need improvement. I
suspect that many of your readers may even believe that their
children may be the first generation that learns less than their
parents did. Your readers recognize the long-term value of
"human capital" (knowledge and skills) for the welfare
of individuals and the nation. Polls indicate that such matters
are very much on their minds.
Bast: What are the most likely objections raised by
people who oppose the reforms you propose?
Walberg: For many people, it is simply a fear
of the unknown. They are fearful of increased choice, especially
free markets for education. I think a compelling case can be
made, but we need an educational campaign to make the case better
known. We also need to be able to demonstrate the value of
educational choice in practice. Many instances of partial choice
and evidence from other countries help make the case, but we
would benefit greatly from large-scale demonstrations in the U.S.
In addition to choice opponents who simply fear the unknown,
there are other choice opponents who know full well what choice
would mean, and they don't like it. Teachers unions,
administrators, "educrats," and school board members
attack choice as somehow undemocratic or un-American. But such
objections are to be expected from any group that is narrowly
interested in its own welfare, receives huge subsidies from
taxpayers, and is subject to little accountability.
From a consumer point of view, Toyotas and Mazdas were the
best things that ever happened to General Motors and Ford.
Competition is the key if consumers are going to get the best
possible product. That holds true in education, too.
Similarly, the presence of successful private schools in a
community will increase the effectiveness of public schools. It
is simply not the case that the better students will be
"creamed off" by private schools, making public schools
worse. The public schools will be forced to compete with private
schools. In the beginning, those private schools will generally
beat the public schools on both results and costs. But there are
many things the public schools can do to improve their
performance. With competition, they will have incentives, which
they don't have now, to make those improvements.
Bast: Weighing the strength of the case in favor of
educational choice against the strength of its opponents, are you
optimistic? What do you think the future holds for the reforms
Walberg: In the last presidential election,
candidate Bob Dole advocated school privatization. And much to
the consternation of teachers unions who had contributed to his
campaign, President Clinton said he wouldn't object if states
experimented with choice. Polls also indicate that the public
increasingly favors choice, and this is especially true of
minorities, who most often get the short end of the educational
services stick in large cities.
The education establishment and the chattering classes,
nonetheless, think they know best and are loath to allow mere
parents to choose. So I forecast a continuing scrap between
education consumers and providers. Eventually, bolder and fairer
tests of choice will be made, and these will demonstrate the
superiority of choice in educating our children. In addition, of
course, we should remain firm in our belief, with the American
founders, that people rather than governments should choose.
Bast: What one message would you most like to
communicate to state policy makers, journalists, and our readers
about education issues?
Walberg: Do not be swayed by heavily
subsidized monopolists. Follow Aristotle's advice: Consider the
source. Read the reviews of research on choice assembled by The
Heartland Institute and covered in this newspaper. Then, as
Daniel Burnham said, make no small plans.