Revolution at the Margins: The Impact of Competition on Urban School Systems / Edition 1

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For more than a decade, school choice has been a flashpoint in debates about our nation's schooling. Perhaps the most commonly advanced argument for school choice is the notion that markets will force public schools to improve, particularly in those urban areas where improvement has proved so elusive.

However, the question of how public schools respond to market conditions has received surprisingly little attention.

Revolution at the Margins examines the impact of school vouchers and charter schooling on three urban school districts, explores the causes of the behavior observed, and explains how the structure of competition is likely to shape the way it affects the future of public education.

The book draws on research conducted in three school districts at the center of the school choice debate during the 1990s: Milwaukee, Wisconsin; Cleveland, Ohio; and Edgewood, Texas. Case studies examine each of these three districts from the inception of their local school choice program through the conclusion of the 1999 school year.

The three school districts studied did not respond to competition by emphasizing productivity or efficiency. Instead, under pressure to provide some evidence of response, administrators tended to expand public relations efforts and to chip holes in the rules, regulations, and procedures that regulate public sector organizations. Inefficient practices were not rooted out, but some rules and procedures that protect employees and vocal constituencies were relaxed.

Public school systems are driven by political logic, according to Hess, and their incentives lead them to respond generally through symbolic and metaphorical gestures. Choice-induced changes in public school systems will be shaped by public governance, the market context in which they operate, and their organizational characteristics.

Revolution at the Margins encourages scholars and policymakers to think more carefully about the costs and benefits of educational competition, to understand how competitive effects will be heavily shaped by the outcomes of more conventional efforts to reform schooling, and to reevaluate some of the facile promises of market-based education reform.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

"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

"Hess provides us with the first empirically based, theoretically informed, institutionally rooted, non-ideological assessment of the way in which public schools have initially responded to choice initiatives. For those interested in education reform, this is a highly accessible must read." —Paul E. Peterson, Henry Lee Shattuck Professor of Government and director, Program on Education Policy and Governance,, 2/1/2002

"Drawing upon extensive case studies, Rick Hess sheds new light on how teachers and administrators are responding to educational competition. What he finds may disappoint school choice enthusiasts and opponents alike. Educators do respond to competitive pressure, but their responses are muted and slowed by a culture that is antithetical to competition, a system that fails to provide incentives to respond to competition, and a political dynamic that insulates schools from the consequences of competition." —Jay P. Greene, Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, 2/14/2002

"Drawing on economic, political, and organizational theories, Rick Hess constructs a broad-based theory of the way urban schools respond to educational choice policies. He looks with a cool, dispassionate eye on the claims and counterclaims of choice advocates and opponents in three urban settings. This book makes a major contribution to the field of educational choice and to our broader understanding of the political economy of urban schooling." —Richard Elmore, Harvard Graduate School of Education, 2/10/2002

For the vast majority of American children, the effects of market- based "reforms" on public schooling, are likely to be more significant than individual schools of choice, notes Hess (government and education, U. of Virginia). He examines the response of three urban public school systems to competition from market forces. From his findings, he argues that schools may be too encumbered by culture and bureaucracy to effectively respond to competition. Even if they do, they may respond with merely superficial responses that correlate to measurable outcomes that may not be educationally desirable. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780815702092
  • Publisher: Brookings Institution Press
  • Publication date: 1/28/2002
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet 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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Table of Contents

Preface ix
Chapter 1 Introduction 1
Chapter 2 The Market and the Urban Public School System 30
Chapter 3 Urban Systems as Competitors 53
Chapter 4 Milwaukee, 1989-95: Prologue 72
Chapter 5 Milwaukee, 1995-99: Hints of the Pickax 107
Chapter 6 Cleveland, 1995-99: Muffled by the Din 137
Chapter 7 Edgewood, 1998-2000: An Outside Invasion 167
Chapter 8 A Political Market 197
Chapter 9 You Say You Want a Revolution? 219
References 243
Index 261
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