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The American public school system is in the midst of a vast and promising reform. The core architectural principle of the emergent system is the grant by higher-level authorities – federal government, states, and school districts – to lower level ones of autonomy to pursue the broad goal of improving education. In return, the local entities – schools, districts, and states – provide the higher ones with detailed information about their goals, how they intend to pursue them, and how their performance measures against their expectations. The core substantive commitment of the emergent system is the provision to all students, and particularly to racial and other minorities whom the public schools have traditionally short-changed, of an adequate education, where the definition of adequacy is continuously revised in the light of the improving performance of the best schools. The reform seeks an education that builds on the curiosity and needs of diverse students and uses the whole school system as a vast laboratory to determine how best to achieve this end. If it succeeds, it will attain on a national scale enduringly the goals that John Dewey's famous Laboratory School in Chicago was able to approximate for roughly a hundred students for a few years.

The reform grows out of and contributes to a new form of collaboration among courts, legislatures, and administrative agencies on the one side and between these organs of government and new forms of public action on the other. It thus redefines the separation of powers and recasts the administrative state more generally, while opening the way to new forms of citizen participation in the orientation and operation of key public institutions. At the limit, school reform raises the prospect of a broader redefinition of our very democracy.

The sad history of education in the last fifty years, and particularly the troubled efforts to improve public education in its closing decades, invites an incredulous reaction to such claims. For most of the twentieth century, administrators – local, state, then federal – tried to control classroom behavior through uniform rules and hierarchy. Teachers retained significant autonomy over their day-to-day activities, but only at the high cost of using standard textbooks and regimenting students in accordance with administrative precept. Periodic efforts to introduce what could very broadly be conceived as Deweyite reforms or otherwise to assist at-risk students left traces in individual classrooms and schools. But they changed next to nothing at the higher levels of the school administration or at the leading institutions that trained school administrators.


Civil Rights and Discrimination | Constitutional Law | Education Law | Law