What does your research suggest will be the consequences of the many school reforms and improvements of the 1980s?

Our research suggests that the school reforms that have been pursued so aggressively during the 1980s will have disappointing results. We offer this assessment with some caution because our research does not examine the consequences of specific reform efforts. Nevertheless, it is fair to assume that the consequences of reform will depend on how reform affects those attributes of schools that are most strongly related to student achievement. Most current reforms either fail to influence school characteristics that seem to matter most for student achievement or influence those characteristics in counter-productive ways.

Public school reform in the 1980s has had essentially two thrusts, one to spend more money and the other to impose more standards. Thus, teacher salaries and per-pupil expenditures have been increased by enormous amounts (as we explained in question 2), and graduation requirements, teacher certification and performance standards, and student achievement objectives have been raised substantially too.

Spending reforms obviously do not have a very good track record. For example, per-pupil expenditures increased nearly 50 percent in real terms during the 1970s (see question 2) while high school achievement slid downward. If our research is correct, the record of the 1970s will be repeated. The amount that a school spends on each pupil or on each teacher is unrelated to the amount that students in a school achieve, all things being equal. Many schools succeed in this country with relatively low levels of funding and many others fail with relatively high levels of funding. Because so many forces more powerful than money influence how a school performs, spending more money on schools will probably not transform the bad ones into good. In the very long run higher teacher salaries ought to attract more talented people into teaching and provide some overall improvement. But there is no evidence that in the short-run higher teacher salaries, paid to poor and excellent teachers alike, will spur improvement. And, there is little evidence that the small reductions in class size that might be purchased with greater school revenuewill boost achievement either. Schools can succeed with relatively high pupil-teacher ratios and fail when those ratios are low. In sum, if schools are given more funds to employ in essentially the same ways funds have been employed in the past, there is little reason to believe additional spending will bring about improvements.

Of course, many school reformers are wary of throwing good money after bad. They recognize that past investments in public schools have not produced their expected returns. Many reformers understand that giving poor schools and incompetent teachers more money will not turn either around. Reformers during the 1980s have therefore gotten tough with the schools, holding them to higher standards and telling them more explicitly what to do. Some of this may be helpful. It is hard to argue with competency tests that prevent the truly unprepared from becoming teachers.

But most of the well-intentioned crackdown that reformers have launched on mediocrity during the 1980s may not help at all. Our research shows that student achievement is not promoted by higher graduation requirements or more demanding homework policies – two favorite targets of school reforms. And more fundamentally, our research shows that the regulation of teachers and teaching can be detrimental to school performance. Current reforms employ more extensive teacher evaluation systems, use more frequent standardized testing to keep track of student performance, and impose more detailed curricula and instructional methods. Yet, these are precisely the kinds of reforms that can rob schools of the autonomy that they need to organize and perform effectively.

School reformers are not ignorant of the dangers of excessively regulating schools, however. And some reformers are taking small steps to provide schools with autonomy. School systems are experimenting with school-based management and other forms of decentralization. For example, the entire Chicago school system is converting to a system of community control over schools. There are several problems with these efforts, however. First, the so-called autonomy that schools are being given is being circumscribed by regulations governing precisely how decentralized policies must be made – specifying, for example, decision processes and participation rules. Second, the use of autonomy is being monitored with elaborate performance accountability systems – for example, employing standardized tests – that threaten to distort how autonomy is used. Finally, autonomy is always vulnerable to political pressures that it be reduced. If schools utilize their increased authority in ways that are unwise or displeasing – and some inevitably will – school authorities such as superintendents and school boards will be pressured to intervene in school decisionmaking and to return to the pre-autonomy ways of doing things. Increasing school autonomy is simply not consistent with public education as it is now organized. Unfortunately, autonomy, not spending and regulation, seems to hold the key to school improvement.