Jurgen Herbst. School Choice and School Governance: A Historical Study of the United States and Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006. xiii + 207 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-4039-7302-3.
Reviewed by Mark A. Bullock (Department of History, University of Illinois at Chicago)
Published on H-German (November, 2006)
Public School Rules
The current debate on education in both Germany and the United States has grown increasingly acrimonious in light of studies highlighting the many deficiencies present in public schools. In the United States, public schools are under assault from the charter-school movement, while the 2000 Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) jolted the highly touted German public school system, ranking the land of poets and thinkers twenty-fifth out of thirty-two participating countries. The No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 and the upcoming 2006 PISA study ensure that the issue of public schooling will remain contentious on both sides of the Atlantic.
The critics of public schooling in both countries are many and varied. Some American and German detractors charge overly bureaucratized urban public schools with maintaining low academic standards and failing to respond to the needs of children from the lower class, as well as members of racial and ethnic minorities. Proponents of religious instruction believe that a secular education fails to provide children with a proper moral foundation. Others worry that the failure to educate the coming generation adequately will leave western countries exposed to foreign economic competition. In the United States, free-enterprise advocates demand that public schools be closed altogether, preferring instead to allow private schools to compete for students under the belief that market forces will generate more effective schools. More xenophobic critics in both Germany and the United States complain that the failure to educate the children of immigrants properly about the values and culture of their adoptive homelands threatens to do irreparable damage to the national character. Although the sources of dissatisfaction with public schools differ greatly, the desire for greater choice and influence over the education of children supplies the impetus for the school-choice movement.
Jurgen Herbst's even-handed study traces the history of school choice to its roots in the Enlightenment and the rise of the modern nation-state. By comparing the United States and Germany, Herbst demonstrates that, while regional differences exist, both countries have followed a similar course toward school administration. The central theme running through the history of German and American public schooling is that the influence of parents and local interests over education diminished as modern states took a greater role in the schooling of their citizens. The rise of state-operated public schools provided the impetus for the school-choice movement. Herbst defines school choice as parental desire to send children to schools selected by themselves instead of by outside educational or governmental authorities. He describes the various dissatisfactions with public schooling that have fueled the growth of the school-choice movement, such as objections to academic standards; the race, class, or gender of schoolmates; and religion.
Relying primarily on existing research, Herbst points to key differences in the ways that the American and German education systems developed. The main area of divergence between the two is that Prussia's system was initiated and administered by civil servants, who exercised a high degree of influence over the shape of local schooling, whereas locally elected school officials worked more closely with the municipal elite in designing American public schools. Cooperation between school administrators and local business elite marked U.S. public school systems, where civil society, according to Herbst, played a greater role.
In the United States, individual states began enacting school legislation and, consequently, diminishing local taxpayer and parental control over community schools during the late 1830s and 1840s. Congress enacted a series of educational laws aimed at rebuilding a sense of nationhood following the Civil War. This legislation raised the ire of Catholics, who would be a continual source of opposition to public schools, because it stipulated that no federal funding would be forthcoming for parochial schools. Despite congressional efforts to discourage non-public schools, the Supreme Court endorsed school choice in 1925 when it ruled that private schools had the right to exist and that parents had the right to enroll their children in them--at their own expense.
Opposition to public schooling in the United States for much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries arose from childless taxpayers and parents in rural townships. Herbst excels in describing the politics of school administration in rural America, where county superintendents, elected by their farming neighbors, sought to appease state schoolmen and academic requirements while meeting the demands of local farmers. Indeed, a continual source of strength in this study is Herbst's emphasis on the transformation of the teacher-parent relationship over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Prior to the centralization and professionalization of public education, parents exerted much control over local schools and teachers were generally unwilling to provoke parents' anger for fear of their jobs. But as school districts grew more consolidated during the Progressive era, teachers and school administrators cared little for public input in developing school policy.
During the course of the twentieth century, Herbst contends that Americans came to expect federal intervention, even in the education of their children. This break with the traditional belief that schooling was a local matter occurred following the Second World War, when the federal government interceded forcefully into state affairs in an effort to desegregate America's racially divided schools. Many Americans came to see that only the federal government could solve the problem of unequal educational opportunity for African-Americans. The 1954 Supreme Court decision in Brown v. the Board of Education sparked "freedom of choice" policies among southern opponents of integration to enable white parents to send their children to attend white-only schools. These efforts at maintaining school segregation were undone by the end of the 1960s, but they did give rise to school voucher programs, which were then taken on by free-market advocates opposed to any sort of federal intervention in education--most notably Milton Friedman.
After describing the evolution of voucher programs, Herbst turns to the charter-school movement, which was born in 1990. Charter schools have spread rapidly in the United States, based on the promise to create less bureaucratic schools that vest "management authority in a group of community members, parents, teachers, and students" to allow for the "expression of diverse teaching philosophies and cultural and social life styles" (p. 107). Herbst ultimately maintains that charter schools have produced mixed results. Recent studies confirm that charter-school students do not out-perform their public-school counterparts. Herbst concludes his study of U.S. schooling with the note that federal intervention in public and private education has only increased since the 1990s. The federal government's involvement culminated in the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, which, even though it extends federal oversight of state schools, still grants parents the choice of removing their children from persistently failing schools.
A high degree of state regulation of public schools is the hallmark of the German education system. Herbst focuses on the evolution of education law and state-run schools in Prussia, as the Prussian education system became the model for most other Länder after unification in 1871. His narrative begins in the eighteenth century, as ministers concerned with increasing economic development initiated administrative reforms in Prussia. Though Prussian ministers, particularly Karl Abraham Freiherr von Zedlitz, sought to replace local control over schooling with a centralized, uniform system administered by the state during the eighteenth century, not until the implementation of the Prussian General Land Law of 1794 did the state first attempt to take responsibility for educational institutions. In theory, the central government now supervised all public schools and educational facilities in Prussia. In reality, however, compulsory education was not universally enforced and schools relied upon local sources of revenue, which, therefore, allowed local notables to hold sway over the administration and curriculum of schools in Prussia until about the middle of the nineteenth century. As the central government in Berlin tightened its grip on public education during the course of the nineteenth century, so began a debate between advocates of parents' rights and those favoring state control. Ultimately, though, conservative ministers and their bureaucratic minions were able to assert authority over local schools, establishing an educational system in Prussia and eventually Germany administered closely by the central state.
Prussia's educational professionals founded a class- and estate-based educational system that was closely allied with the church. Largely estranged from the people, Prussian school administrators ignored the voices of parents and other critics, with few exceptions. Even the fall of the empire in 1918 did not bring about any fundamental changes to the German school system, as the National School Law of 1920 disappointed progressives hoping for a more democratic education system. Even though some of the ideas of the "new pedagogy," such as work schools, were incorporated into German schools, schooling remained the exclusive domain of education professionals, remote from outside voices. Although Herbst pays scant attention to schooling in the Third Reich, his reasons for this decision are sound. Under the Nazis, school choice did not exist as dissent and interwar pedagogical innovations within and outside the public school system were abruptly halted following Hitler's appointment as chancellor.
After a brief period in which the victorious allies enforced common schools in the occupation zones after the Second World War, the Federal Republic returned to the familiar three-tiered school system in 1949. The German Democratic Republic fared no better in democratizing its school system. Despite implementing its own common schools, which were intended to provide equal educational opportunity for all children, schools in the GDR also evolved into a multi-tiered system that allowed some children into higher education while holding others in lower schools. The socialist goal of marrying vocational training with a liberal-scientific education went unmet as traditional academic routes reemerged for those entering university. The GDR's need for well-trained technicians overrode the Marxist-Leninist promise of providing an equal education for the traditionally disadvantaged children of workers. In any case, school choice did not exist in the East German educational structure, as teachers and school authorities determined whether a child would train for a vocation or pursue a profession.
Upon German reunification in 1990, the GDR's system of education was incorporated into the Federal Republic, which still maintains the traditional dual system of academic and vocational education within the three-tiered elementary, middle and high school arrangement. Under this structure, Herbst emphasizes that school choice is really a process of selection rather than a true choice for German students and their parents, because teaching staffs ultimately hold the final say in determining which educational route children are qualified to pursue when conflicts between the desires of parents and school officials arise. Despite this drawback, Herbst asserts that the German educational system is unlikely to change because it remains so popular.
Popular as they might be, Germany's public schools, like their American counterparts, are failing to educate significant numbers of children, as demonstrated by the 2000 PISA. Class and race contribute greatly to educational success, and the German case is no exception. Foreign-born children, children of immigrants and members of the lower classes are relegated to the lowest of the three German school categories, where their odds of achieving even minimal academic standards are poor. Finding the means to improve these students' educational opportunities will challenge German educators well into the future.
As is often the case with works of synthesis, this study of school choice is not innovative in its approach. Herbst nonetheless provides a sound introduction to the rise and evolution of public schools in the western context from the eighteenth century to the present. He also describes the critical works in the history of education, with the notable absence of studies by Marjorie Lamberti and Karl Schleunes. Herbst is at his best when describing the various branches of the German and U.S. educational reform movements over the course of the period under examination, particularly those educational theorists who built upon Pestalozzi's democratic methodologies seeking to develop children as individuals rather than forcing them to adhere to a standard curriculum.
Its broad geographical and chronological scope is the weakest aspect of Herbst's study. By comparing the evolution of public schools in Germany and the United States over three centuries, Herbst is simply unable to provide enough detail to make all his arguments as convincing as they might be. Moreover, Herbst largely describes the legal and administrative systems constructed by policy-makers and education professionals that divested parents of control over their children's schooling. Unfortunately, this method offers few opportunities to include parents' voices or to describe many of the results of school policy on the ground. Although his is a top-down investigation, Herbst also does not delve too deeply into the motives of school administrators and policy-makers. Preferring to describe rather than judge, Herbst rarely inserts his own opinions into this account. The result is an inclusive narrative covering the key aspects of public schooling and the school-choice movement in a decidedly neutral tone.
. Marjorie Lamberti, The Politics of Education: Teachers and School Reform in Weimar Germany (New York: Berghahn, 2002); Marjorie Lamberti, State, Society, and the Elementary School in Imperial Germany (New York: Oxford University Press, 1989); Karl Schleunes, Schooling and Society: The Politics of Education in Prussia and Bavaria, 1750-1900 (New York: Berg, 1989).
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