American educators and policy makers have grown increasingly frustrated in recent decades as attempts to enhance equity and bring American student learning to the level experienced in other countries have faltered. Recent efforts have included the standards movement as well as broad expansion of “school choice.” These endeavors, which largely rely on market-based thinking, assume that individual schools and teachers have the will and ability to do better, if only prodded by competition and other sticks and carrots. Such attempts overlook flaws in a system developed to provide a “common” education while also subdividing resources to maintain privilege for some. This book traces the history of American education as a foundation to examining persistent weaknesses in education today. Meaningful reform and improvement, which are urgent needs, will require broad, systemic change, based on the engagement of many sectors.
This book offers a vision for such reform. Following successful models in other countries suggests options for moving away from current, deeply enmired, systemic inequities, to a system better suited to meeting a broad range of educational needs. A portfolio of diverse schools, regionally administered and held accountable for student learning, presents an option for moving away from inequitable district structures and scatter-shot “choice” options. The critical questions are how to get there from here, and do we have the will to do so? The book concludes with suggestions on how to start the process.
Susan Tave Zelman was a high school teacher, college professor and researcher. The second half of her career she served in high level positions in state departments of education in Massachusetts, Missouri and State Superintendent of Public Education of Ohio.
Margaret Erlandson Sorensen was a member of VISTA and has several decades experience in community organizing in a settlement house and neighborhood health centers. She has served in multiple policy and research positions in the Ohio Department of Education.
Introduction: An Overview of American Education
Chapter One: School as We Know It
Chapter Two: On Teachers
Chapter Three: School Choice
Chapter Four: Engagement
Chapter Five: School Governance in America
Chapter Six: A New System of Education: Starting from Scratch
Appendix A: Pertinent Court Cases
Appendix B: Discussion Questions
About the Author
Susan Zelman and Margaret Sorensen have written the education book that America needs. Public education, built to ensure predictability and stability for adults, is struggling to innovate and adapt to COVID-era students’ needs. It’s also walled off from community assets like social service agencies, socially conscious companies and private schools. Enrollment declines and teacher shortages are evidence that things are not working. Zelman and Sorensen show how schools can have the mix of freedom and incentives to innovate, and how schools can be held publicly accountable whether they are chartered, private, or run by school districts. The system of fair funding, parent choice, school control of hiring, openness to new schools and public oversight based on specific school missions can transform and rescue post-Pandemic K-12 education.
For the general public and teacher education students who want to learn about how education works in America, Zelman and Sorensen’s book offers a thought-provoking account about curriculum and instruction, making teaching a more honorable profession, school choice, community engagement, school finance, and governance. The authors provide an interesting model though not perfect that can stimulate our thinking to reimagine new systems of schools that can provide ALL students and their parents with more options for better schools that address their unique needs. This is a must read for all who want to see the current system be more equitable and eliminate the culture wars that tear America apart.
With great care and detail Zelman and Sorensen take the reader on a journey through the history of education in America, and review the current state of education policy to lay the foundation for a provocative recasting of the nation’s education system along more pluralistic lines. A worthy read for anyone engaged in re-imaging a brighter future for students and families through a more focused and responsive education system.
In this comprehensive overview of efforts to improve American education, past and present, Susan Tave Zelman and Margaret Erlandson Sorensen offer readers a useful guide to the major issues in the field. While advocates will find plenty of specifics with which to quibble, Zelman's and Sorenson's commitment to the promise of American education comes through loud and clear.
Drs. Zelman and Sorensen suggest we seize the opportunity to grow a new foundation based on respect for our democratic principles for public education.This book advocates for creating a vigorous national dialogue to stop making public education a political tool and create systems that balance societal needs with those of all children and their families. Examining both past and future perspectives about the structural barriers that have mitigated against efforts to reform public schools, Zelman and Sorensen strike a chord as they analyze the lens with which we plan for schooling, centering the dialogue around student-centered culture building, and not the needs or desires of adults in the general public. Their key questions are important for anyone interested in schools to reflect upon, during a most crucial time in the history of our nation.
American education is at a crossroads and all those invested in its success need to understand the dynamics that have made schooling a commodity that has been cheapened by political myopia. Zelman and Sorenson insightfully document the way education has been bought and sold by political self-interests and how a new pluralistic model that engages a wide range of stakeholders is essential for fostering new and more effective paradigms of practice.
Calls to reform or reinvent the U.S. education system are heard far and wide. Serious efforts at reinvention, though, will require a thorough understanding of our country’s education context – both its current state and the history that brought us to it. Without this deep contextual understanding, even serious reinvention efforts will fail. Zelman and Sorenson provide this desperately needed contextual understanding with extensive historical underpinnings and granular descriptions of the workings of our current system and its many nuances. They build a much-needed foundation for serious consideration of reinvention proposals and conclude with strong proposals of their own. I hope this book is widely read and thoroughly discussed.
Zelman and Sorensen have crafted a lucid, important primer at a moment when, as Lincoln once said, 'the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present,' Read on for an education.
As schools across the country emerge from the COVID-19 pandemic and other major educational disruptions, the United States has a unique opportunity to create a new system of education. Zelman and Sorensen examine our country’s nearly 200 year old school systems and then uses that historical knowledge to offer a point of view about how to leverage this unique moment in time to think anew about American education. This book can serve as a primer for policymakers and school leaders alike as we seek to create more fair, just, and good systems of education for America’s youth.
Zelman and Sorenson have provided vital resource for educators, parents, legislators and the general public as, together, we grapple with how to address inequities laid bare in American school during the COVID-19 pandemic. Beyond its concise and illuminating history of public education over the last two centuries, the authors provide a rich understanding of the manner in which policy continues to impede progress in our most disadvantaged schools, forcing us to rethink our approach to American education now and in the future.
In their book, Zelman and Sorenson offer a wonderful and encyclopedic summary of our schools' past to help build a common understanding of why American education is where it stands today and why the traditional prescriptions of reform struggle to gain lasting traction. In its place, in a soaring final chapter they offer a hopeful vision for a pluralistic system with some common values to transcend our differences and allow all students and families to make progress.
At a time when federal and state school reform has stalled and local school boards are mired in controversy, Zelman and Sorensen make the case for reimagining school governance, oversight and funding to promote student success. As Governor, I witnessed how Susan Zelman, as Ohio’s State Schools leader, built strong relationships with policy makers at all levels to align educational goals and policies. She understands the importance of engaging parents, deploying technologies, promoting choice and holding schools accountable to focus on student learning. This timely book outlines where we went astray on past school reforms and how we can build a common vision for redesigning systems of schools to meet our future needs.
While the public schools of our nation are responsible for starting our young people on the path to becoming bold and creative thinkers and caring and concerned citizens, the authors articulate a wide range of challenges that are currently undermining efforts on the part of school educators and administrators to achieve these vitally important goals and priorities. What makes the book such a compelling read for all stakeholders is that it then goes on to provide innovative and practical ways to transform these threats and challenges into opportunities for success!
Advocating for the child to be the center of learning, culture and educational structure, Drs. Zelman and Sorenson review the history of educational decision making and look to the future of a pluralistic education system. Understanding the past and the future of changing student learning needs to influence decision makers centers Dr. Zelman's and Dr. Sorenson's thoughtful and insightful perspective. Examining the past and future through the lens of what works best for all student learners is the discussion of our time.
Zelman and Sorensen have taken a gnarly, impenetrable mountain – what to do about our public schools -- and turned it into a trail map that feels plausibly navigable. American public education is the crucible where all of our society’s fissures and fractures ultimately gather, and writing about it dispassionately is something of a heroic enterprise. But that’s what they’ve done. Their calm analysis leads them to a provocative vision for an “accountable, pluralistic” system, marrying two quintessentially American passions. Would it work? Who knows, but… who’s got a better idea?
Student achievement has gone flat-to-down during the 2010s and 2020s. And, now with COVID and the generally poor response the system made to its challenges, children are at considerable risk of losing even more ground educationally. I spent a long career in school policy promoting the idea of reforming and making the “system" work better. Now, somewhat sadly, I’m convinced that’s no longer the right approach. Instead, as the two authors of this book argue, we must effect a more dramatic overhaul. Their proposals to build a new, more pluralistic world of education will indeed be difficult but is timely and worth pursuing. As the book makes clear, there’s a great deal of work ahead. The angels will be in the details. But we do have here a vision and a general roadmap. And it’s one well worth reading, understanding, and pursuing. My hat is off to them for laying out the right challenge and pushing us forward to take it on.
I could not be more honored than to write this endorsement in support of the work done by Drs. Zelman and Sorenson.
This work clearly defines many of the challenges associated with the landscape of public education and provides many thought provoking solutions to address. It is critical that we acknowledge this work as paramount for creating the innovation and transformation that is desperately needed in public education today.
These leaders understand the history of public education in our country and are strong advocates for improving “life choices” for all students regardless of their zip code or other demographic characteristics. No place is there greater need than in the rural areas in which I have served for 35 plus years. They are true champions for public education and the students they are designed to serve.
This book, their work, serves as a valuable catalyst to consider the education reform needed in our country to better address individual learner and systemic needs as we move deeper into the 21st century and beyond.
The Buying and Selling of American Education offers a bold model for revamping the entirety of our mediocre status quo K-12 education system, which is necessary; and although I disagree with the authors’ proposed funding mechanism and some conclusions, my disagreement validates their point – there exists a multitude of competing definitions of public education which, if honestly examined using their pluralism model, could produce much-needed purpose-driven improvements in the delivery of K-12 education in America.
3/21/2023, Cleveland Jewish News: Susan Tave Zelman was interviewed about the inspirations for the book.