Harvard Educational Review
  1. School Choice

    The Struggle for the Soul of American Education

    By Peter W. Cookson Jr.

    New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1994. 174 pp., $22.50

    Amid heated partisan debate over school choice and privatization, it has been virtually impossible to find a book that comprehensively and — perhaps more importantly — clearly illustrates the practices and politics and the whos and whys of such a reform movement. Since most books discussing school choice often leave a puzzling and unfinished picture, readers consequently find themselves searching for pieces to better understand the multiple and contradicting roots and realities of school choice: the history and context of such a debate, the controversial implications of various proposals, the realities and myths of competitive models of schooling, and the inherent paradox of democratic education in its simultaneous commitment to the rights of both individuals and the collective.

    Educational sociologist Peter Cookson Jr., presently Associate Dean of the School of Education at Adelphi College, has spent the past five years exploring in great detail the school choice controversy. The author of numerous books on educational policy, including Preparing for Power: America's Elite Boarding Schools and Making Sense of Society (cowritten with Caroline Hodges Persell), Cookson contextualizes and analyzes voices of policymakers, politicians, teachers, academics, parents, students, and school administrators from across the political spectrum in School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education. Based on this cross-section of different views and case studies of implemented programs, along with his own experience as a professional educator in public, private, secondary, and university settings, Cookson's analysis of choice provides the reader with a sound foundation for an inside and critical look at the variables involved.

    The first two chapters, "Lifestyle Loyalties in an Age of Doubt" and "Reformers and Revolutionaries: The Drama of Deregulation," examine the historical, cultural, philosophical, and sociopolitical roots of the debate. Chapters three and four, "The Varieties of School Choice" and "Does Choice Make a Difference?" critically look at the innovative and productive potential of such reform for public schooling by examining the relevance and outcomes of plans developed and implemented in the state of Minnesota; in Cambridge and Fall River, Massachusetts; in East Harlem and White Plains, New York; and in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. It is through these diverse, tangible settings that Cookson shows choice's many faces and helps the reader to understand what is actually known about the outcomes in terms of student achievement, school improvement, community, and equity.

    Chapter five, "The Stark Utopia: The Market as Messiah," provides a culturally and politically framed analysis of market models of educational reform and the competitive ethic that informs them. While the author believes that competition among schools can be productive, he is nevertheless skeptical about the possibility of markets bringing about equitable and worthwhile educational and social change. One of the distinguishing features of this particular chapter is the discussion of international experiments with choice and privatization.

    The concluding chapter, "Reinventing Public Education," discusses Cookson's own compelling vision of what school choice, and consequently public education, could be. Central to this vision is a profound commitment to families, teachers, children, basic democratic ideals, and the urgent need to dismantle large-scale educational bureaucracies. While such insights are certainly worth considering, the author himself warns from the very beginning of the book that "School choice without good schools is meaningless" (p. xi). In others words, schools without a vision and commitment to social responsibility, equity, and democratic struggle are doomed to perpetuate the same oppressive conditions that render today's public institutions of education sites of turmoil rather than places of growth and self-empowerment. The book closes with an appendix, which is extremely helpful in mapping out school choice legislation activity presently taking place across the United States.

    Regardless of whether one chooses to read School Choice from the perspective of policymaking or sociology, the most compelling quality inherent in Cookson's interdisciplinary approach is his ability to humanize the issue of educational reform. The pages of School Choice are written with a constant awareness of the people affected by school choice policies. Vividly woven into each discussion are the realities of poverty and discrimination that plague the lives of a great many children and educators, and, in addition, how such realities drastically affect the role and possibilities of schools and communities. Moreover, Cookson moves a step beyond mere voyeuristic description of these abject conditions, exposing how the notion of collective responsibility has slipped from public consciousness. Such an interdisciplinary humanistic understanding of public education helps the reader keep sight of the profound philosophical, moral, and political dimensions that make possible a much larger step toward a more just and democratic society. As Cookson so eloquently states:

    We are living in a society in which spiritual and moral purpose seems like a vestige of a bygone era. We are experiencing an intellectual and social crisis. The future of American education will be determined not by the winds that glide over the educational landscape but by the hidden seismic faults that push against each other and threaten to cause an educational earthquake. To understand this reform, one must accept the dialectic tension between its practical applications and the moral theater it generates. To describe school choice merely in terms of governance is like describing a painting as pigment on canvas. (p. 4)

    For those truly concerned with the social and educational dilemmas facing the United States today, School Choice: The Struggle for the Soul of American Education is one book that certainly deserves considerable attention. Today, education as a means of creating responsible citizenry and democracy has been put on the back burner by misguided labor and profit imperatives that benefit so few in the long run. Cookson's book, which argues that school reform policies that are not driven by a sense of educational and social justice are bound to fail, is crucial in helping set the stage for both social equality and academic excellence.
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