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Widening our school reform horizons

In the early decades of the 19th century, American education reformers followed eagerly the developments in European countries that were building systems of popular schooling; Horace Mann even spent his honeymoon touring Prussian schools! More recently, however, there has been a marked disinclination to learn from what – for good or ill – is happening in the schools of other countries. Now and again, it is true, there will be a flurry of interest in why measured performance is better in Taiwan or in Finland than in the United States, but the reports we receive commonly lack the context that would allow us to make sense of national differences.

Of course, there are increasingly rich data on performance outcomes, and studies that correlate these outcomes with different characteristics of national education systems. An especially powerful study, for those concerned with education reforms that include both accountability for results and the empowerment of parents and teachers through school autonomy and choice, was published a couple of years ago as School Accountability, Autonomy and Choice around the World, by Ludger Woessmann and others, including Martin West of Harvard.

Those who want more details on how different educational systems – at least those in Europe – function can turn to Eurydice.org or, for a broader but less detailed view, to OECD’s invaluable annual Education at a Glance  and to the reports of the World Bank and of UNESCO on a range of education issues. The new edition of our Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education, with chapters on more than 50 countries, will be out in four volumes in 2012.

But how to make sense of all this information and, especially, how to think about it in a systematic way that can serve as the basis for structural and governance reforms? It is not enough, surely, simply to assert that reading and math scores will go up if this or that change is made; efficiency in producing such measurable outcomes (while essential) is not the only result that a society expects from its educational system.

Americans often turn to decisions of our Supreme Court, such as Pierce, Meyer, Barnette, Brown, Yoder, Lau, and others, to articulate fundamental principles that should guide decisions about education, and we do so in ways that often go beyond the particular circumstances of the decision or its actual legal implications. We do this because we lack more general formulations of the right to education and rights in education, apart from the varied provisions of state constitutions. This makes it difficult to think and to discuss in a principled way and causes us to fall back on arguments about test scores as though they were the only issue in education.

There is a rich tradition of such discussion in Europe, where the various post-war international declarations and covenants that have sought to describe the rights of individuals and families are taken more seriously than they are in the United States. Every country in Western Europe (with the exception of Italy, and there the situation is changing) provides funding to non-government schools chosen by parents, and does so on the basis, not of a desire to harness market forces for quality improvement, but as a fundamental right of conscience. This has led to a rich elaboration of the principles that should undergird education reform as it seeks to balance the sometimes-conflicting imperatives of justice and freedom.

One resource for such discussion that I have found very helpful is too-little known in the Anglophone world: OIDEL, a Geneva-based NGO that focuses on how the evolving international standards for human rights apply to education worldwide, especially with respect to the right of parents to guide the education of their children and the right of educators to create educationally-distinctive schools.

OIDEL is essentially a network of experts from a number of countries who are coordinated by a very small staff to provide analysis and advocacy with the United Nations, UNESCO, and the Council of Europe with respect to educational and cultural rights in education. OIDEL’s most recent project, just completed, was to coordinate a Europe-wide effort based in a number of universities to develop and pilot indicators of the extent of parental participation in education along a number of dimensions; I will report on the results of this IPPE study in a subsequent blog post.

In each analysis or study that OIDEL undertakes, the principles spelled out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and more recent expressions of emerging international law are applied to concrete situations and policies.

To give an idea of the cast of characters of OIDEL, the following new members of the Executive Committee were elected in December 2011:

  • Francis Delpéré, emeritus professor of the University of Louvain and a leader in the Belgian Senate;
  • Paz Gutiérrez Cortina, Secretary of the Education Committee of the Mexican Chamber of Deputies and President of a Mexican NGO;
  • Luisa Ribolzi, emeritus professor of the University of Genoa and member of ANVUR, the national agency evaluating Italian universities and their research institutes, and author of what I consider the best book by a European on the need for fundamental school reform including parental choice;
  • María de Lurdes Rodrigues, former (and markedly successful) Minister of Education of Portugal and President of the Luso-American Foundation for Development; and
  • Luca Volonté, member of the Italian Parliament and of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe, where he is a spokesman on issues of social justice and parental rights.

What will be immediately apparent from these names is the orientation of OIDEL toward the south of Europe and Latin America. The visitor to OIDEL.org will note that most of the materials available are in either French or Spanish, which are also the languages of instruction in the annual ‘summer university on human rights and the right to education’ in Geneva, which is “aimed primarily at decision makers (diplomats, civil servants, members of parliament), activists, journalists, academics, and students who have completed a degree in law, social sciences or education,” and special sessions for indigenous women from Latin America.

While this limits OIDEL’s influence in the United States (I am the only North American on the Executive Committee), it provides a special opportunity for us to be in touch with a different way of thinking about the goals of education reform. Over the coming year, OIDEL will be expanding the section of its website that includes materials in English. A great impetus would be given to this by the active participation of more Americans concerned with education reform and parental rights in this international effort.

If you would like to be in contact with OIDEL, email oidel@oidel.org.


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BY Charles Glenn

Charles L. Glenn is professor of Educational Leadership and Development and former Dean of the School of Education at Boston University, where he teaches courses in education history and comparative policy. From 1970 to 1991 he was director of urban education and equity for the Massachusetts Department of Education, including administration of over $200 million in state funds for magnet schools and desegregation, and initial responsibility for the nation's first state bilingual education mandate and for the state law forbidding race, sex, and national-origin discrimination in education. He is a member of the Massachusetts State Advisory Committee to the United States Commission on Civil Rights.

Glenn is author of a number of books, including the historical study The Myth of the Common School (1988, 2002), which has been published as Il mito della scuola unica (Milan 2004), El mito de la escuela publica (Madrid 2006), and will be published in Portuguese in 2012. He has also published Choice of Schools in Six Nations (1989), Educational Freedom in Eastern Europe (1994, 1995), Educating Immigrant Children: Schools and Language Minorities in Twelve Nations (1996), The Ambiguous Embrace: Government and Faith-based Schools and Social Agencies (2000), as well as some twenty articles in four encyclopedias, and several hundred other articles, book chapters, and monographs on education policy.

In 2002 he and Jan De Groof of Belgium published Finding the Right Balance: Freedom, Autonomy and Accountability in Education, a study in two volumes of how 26 countries balance educational freedom with common standards and accountability, pupil and teacher rights with the integrity of school mission. An abbreviated version appeared in Italian as Un difficile equilibrio, and in English (for distribution in Eastern Europe) as Education Freedom.

Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education (2004), a substantially revised and expanded version in three volumes, covers 40 countries. A new four-volume edition will add more than a dozen countries, and up-date the others, for 2012 publication.

Glenn is currently completing a series of books on the history of educational policy in North America and Western Europe. His book on The Netherlands and Belgium, Germany and Austria, Contrasting Models of State and School: A Comparative Historical Study of Parental Choice and State Control, was published by Continuum in April 2011. A companion volume, The American Model of State and School: An Historical Inquiry, is in press, and he is writing Challenging the American Model of State and School: School Choice and Cultural Pluralism on the antecedents and prospects of current structural reforms of education.

African American/Afro-Canadian Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present and Native American/First Nations Schooling: From Colonial Times to the Present were published by Palgrave Macmillan in June 2011. His book-in-progress on the harmful influence of certain ideas about education, The Genealogy of Bad Ideas in Education, will be published by ISI Books. His next project will be The Contested School: State and Church in France, Italy, Spain, and Mexico.

Glenn is active in educational policy debates in the United States and Europe, is vice president of OIDEL (the Geneva-based NGO promoting educational freedom worldwide), and a member of the boards of the European Association for Education Law and Policy and the Council for American Private Education, and of five scholarly journals. He has served as a consultant to the Russian and Chinese education authorities and to states and major cities across the United States, and as expert witness in federal court cases on school finance, desegregation, bilingual education, and church-state relations in education. His BA and EdD degrees are from Harvard, his PhD from Boston University.