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Choice, Quality and Democracy in Education: A Comparison of Current Educational Reforms in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan - Part 3


As Tyack(1990, 87) points out, American "public education from its origin to the present has been contested political ground." Since the late nineteenth century, however, three evolving ideologies have emerged and became popular in this political ground. The first is the theme of improving standards, which is oriented toward societal collectivity. The second is that of expanding educational opportunity and increasing educational equality for individual citizen. The third is the progressive ideology in pedagogy which emphasizes individuality, self-realization and child-centered education. Waves of reforms in American education which have emphasized one or more of these themes have gone back and forth repeatedly like a "swinging pendulum" (Ravitch 1983). At the same time, behind these political and ideological movements, the commitment of state and federal governments to public education and the bureaucratization of educational management has expanded steadily (Katz 1971). It seems to be this expansion is being attacked by the current neoliberal and neoconservative reform movements.

Although the range of the pendulum was not so large and the goals of these movements often converged at earlier stages, the situation changed after the war. The movement for raising standards by modernizing the curriculum emerged in response partly to the development of modern science and technology and partly to the growing fears of rising communist regimes in eastern European countries. This was accelerated by the launching of Sputnik by the USSR in 1957.

Since the 1960s, however, new movements have emerged: One is the equality/equity movement, and the others are newly-dressed progressive education movements such as the "alternative school" movement. As the civil rights movement expanded, abolishing segregation and discrimination and realizing educational equality became a national goal of educational reform. To promote equality and desegregation, both federal and state governments carried out a variety of policy measures and expanded their financial commitments to public education.

The 1960s was also the time when public schools began to be troubled with various disorder problems, and partly due to this, the "school-humanizing" movement emerged with the following three elements: The first were the pedagogical innovations guided by progressive ideas, many of which emphasized children's experiences and contextual learning. The second was curriculum reform, especially at the high school level. Many high schools began to expand their curriculum and students were given more freedom to choose courses. This was later called by critics, "shopping mall high schools" or a "smorgasbord curriculum." The third was the "alternative school" movement which promoted to create various types of alternative schools, many of which closed down in next several years mainly due to declining popularity. All of these movements, in one way or the other, emphasized freedom of choice in education.

A new tide of deregulation and marketization in education emerged in the 1980s. In 1983, an influential federal report on educational reform, entitled A Nation at Risk, was published by the National Commission on Excellence in Education under the Reagan Administration. The sensational rhetoric of this report pointed to declining SAT scores, the low achievement of American students at an international level, and the growing cost of remedial education in universities, military and business. It claimed that public education was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our future as a Nation and a people" (NCEE 1983:5), and called for a nationwide "excellence" movement. In response to this report, hundreds of commissions and task forces were established at the state level. Over the next ten years, numerous state-level reforms like raising high school graduation requirements, expanding the Advanced Placement programs, raising teaching standards, reducing class size, were carried out to improve public education.

A Nation at Risk and the Reagan administration criticized public schools not only for their mediocrity but also for their inefficiency and inflexible bureaucracy. In other words, seeking "excellence," and promoting the deregulation and marketization of education were set as twin objectives of reforms which advocated "choice" and gave more control to local authorities and the market mechanism. For example, categorical grant schemes were abolished and several federal programs were terminated. State-level policies like tuition tax credits and educational vouchers were supported, "magnet schools," originally founded for the purpose of desegregation in the early 1970s, were expanded often as "schools of choice" for improving the quality of public schools. All these policies were congruent with the stance of the Reagan and Bush administrations, which were expected to regenerate the American economy and reduce the twin deficits in the federal budget and foreign trade. They were also characterized by a distinctive belief in small government and had politically neoconservative and economically neoliberal orientations.

Although A Nation at Risk called for a nationwide reform movement and the federal government carried out significant reform measures, the "excellence" movements of the 1980s were developed mainly by state-level initiatives and the responsibility for public education was primarily in the hands of the states and local districts. But, the reform movement of the 1990s shifted to one initiated and promoted by the federal government, even though the legal and financial responsibility has continued to remain in the hands of the state and local governments.

Goals 2000: Educate America Act, which was first prepared under the Bush administration and later enacted by the Clinton administration in 1994, was a land mark because, for the first time, the federal government began to assume a radical, mandatory role to improve education on the basis of a statutory framework. By passing Goals 2000, the Clinton administration and Congress attempted to mandate "a comprehensive educational reform plan for the entire nation"(Cookson 1995, 406).

Goals 2000 specifies the following eight national goals (quoted from Cookson 1995, 406):

All children will arrive at school ready to learn.
The high school graduation rate will increase to at least 90 percent.
Students will master challenging subject matter.
Teachers will have access to training programs to improve their skills.
U.S. students will be first in the world in math and science.
All adult Americans will be literate and able to compete in a global economy.
Every school will be free of drugs and violence.
Every school will strive to increase parental involvement and participation in their children's education.

In addition, the act created a new federal agency, the National Education Standards and Improvement Council (NECIC), which is responsible for certifying academic content and performance standards. It established a grant program to provide federal funds and to support states in their reform plans, although the performance standards were left to be developed on a voluntary basis by state and local groups or by national professional associations (Riley 1995, 383).

The Clinton administration and Goals 2000 shared the same concerns of the Reagan and Bush administrations - the concern for improving American education and increasing the economic competitiveness of American workers. But, the new federalism expressed in Goals 2000 and adopted by the Clinton administration differ significantly from the previous neoconservative reform strategies adopted by the Reagan and Bush administrations, at least in two aspects. One is that the new federalism is not necessarily supportive of school choice and market solutions for educational problems, and the other is its belief in public schools as institutions for saving American economy and society from its difficult circumstances (Cookson 1995, 407). It is somehow unclear, however, whether or not the Clinton administration is supportive of school choice, because, for example, it is advocating an increasing the number of "charter schools" as one of the promising strategies for improving public schools.


As suggested in previous sections, there are two major themes of current reform movements: One is how to reorganize public education in its form, function and contents, and the other is who governs public education and how to control it. Before discussing the implications of school choice and marketization for public education, let us make a brief summary of the current reforms coming out of these two themes.

We can identify at least four concerns which have stimulated and been used to justify reform initiatives in these three countries: 1) Standards/excellence; 2) equality/equity; 3) choice/freedom; and 4) normative, idealistic concern over education as seen in pedagogical progressivism or in the moralistic criticism of various maladjustment problems.

"Standards" and "choice" have been the two main issues in current reforms in the United Kingdom and the United States, although in the United States they are competing concerns which tend to generate contradictory reform measures, while in the United Kingdom, standards is the main concern and choice or employment of the market mechanism is a means to the goal of improving standards. The Japanese case is peculiar on this point, because current reform advocates argue, from a moralistic perspective, that even lowering standards is necessary for solving various school maladjustment problems, and from the progressivist and neoliberalist perspective, that choice is prerequisite to promoting individualized education.

In the area of equality, the situation differs significantly in each country. In the United Kingdom, equality has not been a critical issue in the current reform movement, partly because the United Kingdom is still a country where the heritage of a class society still exists in everyday life and in the educational opportunity, and partly because revitalizing the U. K. economy and providing more jobs have been of more national concern than emphasizing and improving educational equality. This may be the reason why the United Kingdom is one of the front-runners of educational marketization these days. In the United States, equality has been a basic tenet of almost all educational reforms since the late 1950s, because American society is a "discrimination-conscious society" and an "equality-conscious society" as well as a multi-racial, multi-ethnic country where discrimination and differences have been highly problematic. This is one reason the federal government is not strongly advocating school choice, while some states, local authorities, and professional groups are. In Japan, equality has not been a critical issue in the current reform period, and, on the contrary, the existing school system has been condemned for being excessively egalitarian which has caused strenuous competition in entrance examinations and has retarded the development of creativity and individuality.

As for normative and idealistic concern, here again, the situation seems to differ from country to country, reflecting the historical and social contexts. In the United Kingdom and the United States, educational progressivism has been common within schools for many years, while in Japan, it has spread in the last two decades, along with the increase of various problems such as vandalism, violence, bullying, and long-term absenteeism. Given these contextual differences as well as the tendency of educational progressivism to be accepted more enthusiastically among the middle and upper-middle classes, promoting progressive practices has not become a major objective of current reform movements in the United Kingdom and the United States. But in Japan, many educational critics, business leaders and policy makers, supported by the urban middle class have begun to advocate progressive reorganization of the school system and of educational practices as well as the expansion of school choice to the elementary and lower secondary levels.

It seems to me that all four of these themes are critical to the success of public elementary and secondary education, though their dimensions are basically different. The themes of equality and choice are fundamentally concerned with the institutional system of schooling and the opportunity structure of education - in other words, how open or closed the school system is to educational opportunity. In general, these themes fall in the problematic area of social justice and, in particular, of distributive justice. Standards and excellence, including the issue of creativity, are basically related to curriculum, pedagogy, and educational practices, and not directly to the opportunity structure of the school system. Maladjustment problems are, in part, related to the school climate and educational practices and in part to various factors outside the schools, but has nothing to do with the opportunity structure of the school system itself and very little to do with the school curriculum. I think that these differences should be considered seriously in the reform process.


In the area of deregulation and marketization, current reform movements have demonstrated a general tendency to depart from the "one best system" of state funded, state provided education to a more decentralized and diversified system. In Japan, with its centralized and standardized schooling, deregulation and diversification have become almost unanimously supported, reflecting the growing orientation towards more freedom of choice. The market approach is not as strong yet, though it may grow along with the expansion of six-year secondary schools and schools of choice. In current reform policies and arguments, there are growing voices for more parental choice as well as for expanding local and site-based management of schools.

In the United Kingdom, it is the local education authorities (LEAs) that have been condemned for the perceived failure and unresponsive nature of public education, and therefore, the harmonious partnership among central government, the LEAs and schools has been broken down. The role and power of the LEAs has been reduced dramatically through various reform measures such as the "opting out" policy to introduce the grant-maintained schools and the new OFSTED inspection scheme. The role of central government has been significantly expanded through such measures as the introduction of National Curriculum and its associated system of testing. Measures such as open enrollment, per capita funding, and the local management of schools policy have promoted market competition among schools as well as the expansion of the power of the school governing bodies.

In the United States, there has been a growing tendency to increase "parental choice" and market competition. The policies of the Reagan and Bush administrations promoted small government and deregulation. Reflecting this, tuition tax credits was adopted by many state governments and various "schools of choice" including "magnet schools" have increased over the last two or three decades. The role and authority of states and school districts to control public education is retained and various national, state, and local agencies and interest groups continue to exert influence over education. Unlike the U. K. case, however, the basic structure of governance of American education has not been changed, but three things have become clear: a growing ideological advocacy of greater choice and promoting greater choice and freedom in public education, a growing criticism of the expanded, unresponsive and self-protective educational bureaucracy as an obstacle to improvement of public education, and the fact that public education is held up as the key to saving American society. The new federalism as expressed in Goals 2000 "signals a reaffirmation of the belief" in its redeeming function (Cookson 1995, 407).


We have seen that school choice and marketization are now major issues of educational reform in the United States, the United Kingdom and Japan. Let us examine education as a "quasi-public good" and the implication of its marketization.

In the language of economics, education is both a public and private good. It provides individual benefits to its customers and at the same time enables a society to reproduce itself over the generations, to secure its integration and identity, and even to facilitate its own development. In other words, education is a "quasi-public good" which provides differential benefits to its customers and which charges a cost for its use.

Its social definition varies over time and from country to country, and is institutionalized into the school system. Compulsory, free education means that education at that level is defined and institutionalized as a public good, or something close to a public good. In this sense, modern nations have defined elementary education as a public good, developed it as compulsory and free, and extended the definition further to secondary education, while higher education is now treated as a quasi-public good for its customers who need to pay tuition. In post-war Japan, for example, elementary and lower secondary education has been defined as a public good and institutionalized as compulsory and free, with upper secondary and higher education are defined as a quasi-public good and a charge is levied for their use.

However, there has been a move away from this definition towards one of appreciating the privatization education. This move has been signaled by reforms to expand parental choice in all three countries, though to varying degrees. It also appears in reform policies that raise or charge tuition for national universities and in shifting national universities to independent agencies as in the United Kingdom and Japan. Therefore, it can be said that behind the current educational reform movements there has been a change in the social definition of education as a "quasi-public good" and the declining appreciation of the collective benefits of public education.

Thus, we may ask, is this change justifiable, and if so, on what basis? There seem to be two major lines of rhetoric from the advocates of greater parental choice: One is concerned with market competition, and the other is concerned with consumer rights. Those who advocate market solutions for educational problems argue that greater parental choice and market competition among schools facilitate new, creative efforts to improve public education just as can be seen in many private schools, and thereby, public education as a whole will be improved. Greater parental choice is also justified by the concept of consumer or civil rights - education is not an exception to this constitutional right, and diversity in education is a prerequisite for consumer right. Thus, state monopoly of education is now under fire. It seems to me that both arguments have serious defects and are based on a misunderstanding about the nature of public education.

First, the education market can not be an example of perfect competition in any sense. Educational services provided by schools are always collective, and this collectivity makes education not only an economic good but also a social good. When we choose a school, we are not just choosing a simple additive and divisible economic value, but a collective mixture of various values such as school climate, tradition, peers, as well as curriculum and standards of teaching. Furthermore, elementary and lower secondary education in many developed countries is a type of common education, delivering and transmitting common, basic knowledge and culture within a nation. School choice at this level contradicts these fundamental features of public education and may be criticized as having potential to undermine the foundation of a cohesive community at various levels.

Second, market competition in education is a zero-sum game competition, and therefore, it always creates a significantly large number of relatively low quality schools, which tend to degenerate through the mechanism of self-fulfilling prophecy in the absence of strong measures to compensate their deterioration. This may not be easy for American observers to understand, because of the educational system which reflects ethnic and sociocultural diversity and large regional economic differences. But this is the function of a zero-sum game, given that no school can be weeded out from the competition. The Japanese experience of the problems caused by school ranking at the upper secondary level may exemplify this mechanism. Anyway, this is the reason school choice and market competition raise the issues of Rawlsian distributive justice (Rawls 1971).

Third, education is not a finished product but an unfinished one, within a production process in which its customers participate. This is a critical feature which differentiates education from ordinary economic goods. Students and parents begin to participate in this production process when students enter a school. School choice implies discrimination in who should be admitted to participate in this process at any given school. This is the reason school choice raises the issue of social justice. It seems to me that there is no rationale for this discriminator.

There is a big difference between higher and upper secondary education and elementary and lower secondary education in this regard. Curriculum differentiation in higher education and, to a lesser extent, in upper secondary is linked to the differences in academic discipline and in the labor market. They can be justified by their relevance and effectiveness as preparation, while there is no such ground for justifying any curricular or ability differentiation at the elementary and lower secondary levels.

Compared to the case of market approach, it is more difficult to object to the consumer rights approach, partly because this approach is value-loaded and rooted in individualistic urban middle class ideology, and partly because of its idealized value in democratic society. Of course, the above discussion applies to this aspect too, but let us consider another aspect here.

"[C]hoice is one of the major tenets of both a market economy and democratic society"(Levin 1990, 248). Choice is something good in and of itself both in a market economy and a democratic society, and constitutes the core value of the modern definition of freedom. But, unlike the market economy, co-existence and public discussion are also core tenets of a democratic society. In such a democratic society, a wide variety of individuals and groups live together, keep order and maintain its identity over generations. Accordingly, co-existence is crucial for harmony and the persistence of a democratic society. This value of co-existence can be realized not by choice, but by accepting/admitting and making commitment. If public education is the foundation for a democratic society, organizing it along the lines of choice will undermine its foundation. Rather, it is critical to make public schools a place that all people in a region are willing to accept and to make a commitment to. Thus, this is related to the issues of who governs public education and how public schools are controlled through what kinds of mechanisms.


Here we must distinguish between educational administration and educational governance. Educational administration is concerned with issues such as centralization versus decentralization, regulation versus deregulation, and the relationship among the central, state, and local governments, and the schools and teachers. Current reforms have tried to reorganize the administrative system. In the United Kingdom, radical reorganization was carried out. In Japan, there is a growing orientation toward deregulation. In the United States, the roles of the federal government have been redefined, with the rise of the new federalism, although public education continues to be a responsibility of state and local districts. This is an important issue, but here, for want of space, I will point out only one tendency - that local or site-based management has begun to be reappraised and expanded, irrespective of how centralized or decentralized the system of educational administration is. This can be considered desirable because the heroes and heroines of education are not the governments but all the students and teachers in each school.

On the matter of who governs or controls education, we can identify at least four types of control: local control, professional control, bureaucratic control and market control. Historically, local control was common before the national education system emerged. But with the emergence of the national education system, both professional and bureaucratic control have become predominant along with its expansion, although there has been tension between these two controlling powers. We are now observing the rising tide of market control along with the expansion of the notion of accountability which, I think, requires some caution. Although the term "accountability" is used in a variety of ways, it is very often disconnected from the locality and is used to appeal to an individualized general public. Because of this disconnectedness and individualistic orientation, the principle of accountability tends to serve special interest groups who usually have a large voice in public decision making and who promote market solutions for various educational problems.

Bureaucratic and professional control have been criticized as unresponsive, inefficient and self-protective which seems to me to be true to some extent, but no evidence or reasonable justification has been provided by advocates who consider market control an improvement. In this context, our education is now at a crossroads, a very much critical, historical crossroads.

It would not be misleading to regard the United Kingdom as one of the front-runners in marketizing of education, the United States as a provider of various ideas and experiments in education including various models of "schools of choice," and Japan as still a follower of countries like the United Kingdom and the United States. But current aspects of education reform in those countries are highly questionable in several respects, as I have tried to demonstrate.


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