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Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems Paperback – March 19, 2002
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"Hess states at the outset that he is 'not seeking to provide a definitive account of educational markets, but to launch a more useful conversation on the topic,' and he has achieved this goal.... Hess succeeds in posing a challenge to those who see choice and competition- the manipulation of incentives, if you will- as a way of improving schools without getting bogged down in the nitty-gritty issues of providing a quality education." Edward B. Fiske, Education Next, 7/1/2002
"Anyone interested in school choice ought to place Frederick M. Hess' 'Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems' on their reading list.... Mr. Hess successfully strives to be objective in his analysis.... The result is a book that will increase the knowledge of anyone interested in school choice.... Mr. Hess' excellent book will make anyone interested in school choice better informed about the history of vouchers and the changes vouchers have made in our schools." Martin Morse Wooster, Washington Times, 7/14/2002
"[A] meticulously researched book.... Reading 'Revolution at the Margins' will take most educators out of their comfort zone- the zone that deals with urban reform focused on teaching, learning, classroom practice, assessment, standards, traditional school funding options, and community involvement." Terry Stirling, Northeastern Illinois University, Teachers College Record, 11/5/2002
"A nuanced study." Future Survey, 11/1/2002
"Hess's analysis [is] sound and moves the voucher debate helpfully away from the rigidities of the state-vs.-market debate.... Hess's most important contribution is clarifying and redefining the debate." John Gardner, Milwaukee School Board, Education Next, 7/1/2002
"[A] revealing and timely book..." David Ruenzel, Teacher Magazine, 11/1/2002
"Hess explains very clearly why public education cannot compete effectively in a competitive education industry." Myron Lieberman, School Reform News, 8/1/2002
"He has made an invaluable contribution to our understanding of the context in which market based urban school reforms occur." Michael Mintrom, University of Auckland, Journal of Public Administration Research and Theory
"Presents new ideas and evidence in a readable form that is likely to be noticed and noted. Hess's concept of the 'political market' is valuable and has relevance even beyond the school choice debate. " Jeffrey R. Henig, Rethinking School Choice and coauthor of The Color of School Reform and Building Civic Capacity: The, 2/1/2002
"Well-written and nuanced work that gets us to reflect realistically on what competition might accomplish in public education. A rich set of cases." Henry M. Levin, William Heard Kilpatrick Professor of Economics and Education and Director, National Center for the, 2/1/2002
About the Author
Frederick M. Hess is the director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy Research. He is the coauthor (with Michael J. Petrilli) of No Child Left Behind Primer (Peter Lang, 2006) and editor of Educational Entrepreneurship (Harvard Education Press, 2006).
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What I really liked about this book is that the author doesn't try to prove that school choice does or doesn't work. Instead, he dives into trying to understand how it affects the public schools in the community. Using extensive interviewing, research, and document collection, he offers the deepest look I know of into how school choice competition actually plays out. The reliance on interviews and historical narrative also has the plus of making it much more engaging than the standard analysis of school vouchers. The book also offers some important insights regarding urban schooling and the nature of urban school reform.
This is a book that is definitely worth reading for anyone interested in school vouchers, or even those who just want to learn more about school reform or urban schooling.
Regrettably, Revolution at the Margins says rather more about educational research than about the impact of pro-choice initiatives. Essentially, Hess finds virtually no result at all from competition with the politically well-entrenched public sector. Bureaucrats occasionally mobilized themselves to a little mendacious propaganda (hanging banners outside public schools saying 'High Standards Start Here'), to teaching test-taking strategies to children, and to mounting legal actions to cramp the style of choice schools; but usually there was no action beyond verbal "lashing out" (for example at the "racist and rapacious" proponents of choice). Behind and explaining such inertness lie the 'education systems' of the (Black and Hispanic) slums with their low wages for, and high turnover of teachers. An area that *did* risk union wrath by sacking scores of teachers one spring found it had to re-employ them all, in different schools, by the autumn. Since only idealists and incompetents will work for low wages, yet need self-respect, state teachers would simply shrug off the arrival of competition and continue in their own favoured ("idiosyncratic", says Hess) ways - telling Hess "we have too much on our hands to worry about vouchers and charters" and "you're lucky we're here to provide this service" (even when 40% of state teachers had themselves stopped sending their own offspring to state schools). Quite often, because of high pupil turnover in slum schools, teachers had literally no idea that their school was indeed losing pupils to the private sector. In any case, the size of the challenge in the three schemes studied was slight. Hess concludes that only really large choice schemes will prove sufficiently "fearsome" to make state teachers change; and that, even then, change will be unlikely without background 'institutional reform' needed for the last thirty years but never adopted - notably, giving heads the power to sack weak teachers. State educators are in an impossible position, apparently, after decades of liberal-left misrule. "Imagine," Hess writes, "a private sector producer whose consumers disagree about what kind of product they want; who depends on the support of both consumers and nonconsumers; whose executives are largely unable to evaluate, hire, fire, reward, or sanction employees; and whose product is hard to judge. Any executive, whether Henry Ford, Jack Welch, or Bill Gates - would struggle in the face of such odds." Thus "there was no evidence that competition bulldozed away inefficiencies or forced systemic efforts to reform policy or improve practice, as officials had neither the incentive nor the ability to mount aggressive assaults on organizational culture or procedure."
Yet, as if all this were not depressing enough, Hess's method of arriving at his conclusions will make grown men weep. It is not just that Hess's 'research' involves none of the normal listings of subjects interviewed, questions asked, percentages favouring different answers, etc. Hess is content to provide the kind historical record of developments that could be, and probably was culled from local newspapers - supplemented by a few conversations of his own. This method results in pages littered with dollar signs, numbers and capital letters as the various outlays are made, as votes are taken, and as unions express outrage; but even this is not the worst.
A specialist volume like this should present, first, a testing of whether choice schools produce better end-of-the-year results for pupils than could be expected from their children's starting IQs; and, secondly, a testing of whether such value-added results occur with increasing frequency in state schools after the arrival of private school competition. How else could one possibly say whether either set of schools had truly been doing a good job? Yet test results are scarcely mentioned in this volume, and value-added calculations not at all - and this despite the book being endorsed on its dust jacket by half-a-dozen worthies from the world of educational research. OK, since Hess believes test scores are largely determined by socio-economic circumstances (and never mentions education professor Arthur Jensen), it might have been less problematic for him to ask the children and their parents if they became *happier* as school choice was expanded; but Hess does not even consider, let alone use this humdrum route. Frankly, one wonders what hope there can be for America's children when even a sympathizer with 'choice', as Hess apparently is, cannot imagine and discuss a reasonable way of evaluating the experiment that has been underway in the cities. Hess is right as far as he goes: "So long as school systems are governed by rickety bureaucracies, run by managers bereft of data or tools, staffed by employees who have little motivation beyond the intrinsic, charged with producing ill-defined and ambiguous outcomes, and faced with few penalties for poor performance, efforts at substantive improvement - whether market driven or not - will be stifled." But educational research, too, turns out to stand in similar need of data and re-tooling. One thing is sure: experiments in allowing parental freedom will continue by popular demand so long as educators and educationalists persist in the dismal set of attitudes and practices that this book casually reveals.