From uniformity to pluralism in public education

Johns Hopkins’ Ashley Berner speaks at TEDx Wilmington.

Over the past several years, Ashley Berner has gained prominence as education policy scholar — thanks, in part, to her exploration of a fundamental question: Why does American public education look the way it does?

Last year, we highlighted her bookNo One Way to School. It argues, compellingly, that historical forces shaped America’s public-school system into one in which the government was the sole operator of publicly supported schools. It wasn’t always that way. And it isn’t that way in other industrialized democracies.

An assistant professor and director of the Institute for Education Policy at Johns Hopkins University, Berner recently gave a TEDx talk that distilled some of the ideas in her book.

It’s worth a watch. Berner says:

Most of us in the United States hear the term ‘public education,’ and we instinctively picture a traditional neighborhood school. We instinctively picture public education as one thing: Schools that are funded, regulated and exclusively delivered by the state.

Yes, our school systems are changing. In the last 25 years, many of our states have passed laws that enable charter schools, tax credits, vouchers. These are constitutionally appropriate mechanisms for funding diverse kinds of schools.

So yes, our school systems are being challenged, but over and against the legitimacy of a uniform cultural default — the uniform school system.

Now ‘uniform’ is kind of an odd word to use when it comes to public education, because we know our schools aren’t uniform in terms of their effects, but our school systems were designed to provide a uniform, common experience, delivered uniformly by the state. In fact, many of our state constitutions use this term to define public education.

Indeed, Florida is one such state. But this wasn’t always the norm. Berner details how, in the early American republic, Catholic, Baptist and Congregationalist churches received public funding to operate schools in accordance with their faiths, while common schools and other schooling models we’d recognize as public grew alongside them.

In the middle of the 19th century, the common schools movement was gaining strength. At around the same time, millions of Catholic immigrants began arriving on American shores, first from Ireland and later from Southern and Eastern Europe. This growing influx challenged the Protestant majority. That inspired a nativist movement and widespread persecution of Catholics. States began defunding religious schools, or even trying to outlaw them entirely. The so-called Blaine Amendments in roughly two-thirds of U.S. state constitutions date back to this era.

Berner sums it up:

In short, in the decades following the civil war, our school systems moved from being plural to being uniform, and that, over time, became the cultural default for public education in the United States — just like planes, trains and democracy are cultural norms inherited from conflicts that occurred a long time ago. That’s how culture works.

Unlike planes and trains, though, uniform public schools are not the norm in industrialized democracies. Berner points to Hong Kong, Australia and Alberta, Canada, as well as much of Europe, to identify a different norm: “A mosaic of diverse schools that are all funded, regulated, but not delivered, by the state.”

Funded. Regulated. But not operated.

In her book, Berner takes issue with some free-market school choice advocates. She argues that in a pluralistic system, all schools should be held accountable for certain, publicly agreed-upon academic standards. In that vein, during her talk, she lauds a new tax credit scholarship program in Illinois. Children who use the scholarships to attend private schools will have to take statewide standardized assessments, just like their peers in public schools. That kind of arrangement, she says, may strike a better balance than a uniform public-school system.

Berner again:

I want to suggest that having a cultural norm of uniformity is a problem for many reasons, but I want to focus on equity. Uniformity, as a cultural default, is a problem for equity.

There are a thousand different reasons why a particular school may not work for a particular child. It may have to do with a family’s religious beliefs. It may have to do with their pedagogical preference — so you like Classical-book tradition, you like project-based learning, for example. It might have to do with a mismatch with a child’s disability or a child’s interests. It might have to do with a school’s size or location. There are a thousand different reasons why any school might not fit a particular child.

But a uniform school system means that the only people who can act on that knowledge are people of means. People with access to wealth can move to a school district they like better. They can enroll their children in private schools. Low-income families don’t have those options.

Sometimes we hear the argument that if we simply find district schools at a higher level, they would all be excellent, and we wouldn’t have to worry about charters, choice. But that really doesn’t solve the problem that the best district school doesn’t necessarily work for every child.

So uniformity is a problem for equity. Educational pluralism, on the other hand, assumes that families or children are not all alike, and that’s a good thing; that schools will differ in meaningful ways, and that’s a good thing; and that it’s our collective responsibility to ensure that all schools are held accountable for academic performance, and that that’s a good thing, too.

Educational pluralism does not solve all problems that pertain to creating and sustaining a fair and excellenct school system. … But it comes closer to fairness than a cultural norm of uniformity.

Indeed, pluralism doesn’t solve the problems faced by many parents of special needs children, parents whose children are multiple grade levels behind but trying to integrate socially with their peers, or people concerned with a growing recognition that much learning happens outside of formal education — and who note this disproportionately disadvantages low-income students.

Charters, vouchers and other forms of educational choice don’t fully solve those problems. But they may help set a new cultural norm, in which the education system responds to the needs of individual children. This is a long, messy process. It may help case some of the present controversies over school choice in a new light.

Berner sounds this note of caution:

We know that actual change at the level of cultural assumptions is arduous, takes time — sometimes generations — and in short, there are no guarantees about change at level of culture. Yes, our school systems are changing, and being challenged and pushed in many different ways, but this — this may not touch culture, and our default. We don’t know.

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BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)

One Comment

America needs a separate stream for fast learners, who should be allowed to escape the uncompetitively slow single pace of learning established by the Common Core State Standards. In keeping with this, American families should also be able to escape the state testing system established by No Child Left Behind and mistakenly continued by the “Every Student Succeeds” act, since such federal legislation excessively narrows curricula to just two subjects, since too many educators believe in the cliche “what gets tested gets taught”, which wasn’t the problem in the 20th century that it has become in the 21st. Large nations with better education systems than America’s, such as Canada, constitutionally guarantee control of their education systems to their states, and the best of these, such as Switzerland, in turn devolve these powers to local education agencies, reserving their main foray into assessment for matriculation examinations that qualify students for free higher education in their university college institute faculty programmes.

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