reviews

Peterson’s core argument–that reformers seek greater centralization of control, then lose control of the intended reform–seems especially pertinent to thinking about the impact of the Common Core standards.

Peterson is an able writer, graceful rather than powerful. Happily, the book lacks condemnations, sanctimony, or dewy-eyed platitudes, which puts it in rare company.

— Daniel Willingham, The Answer Sheet


One of the continuing problems with our public schools is that they remain top-down, command-and-control bureaucracies strongly resistant to change. It has been nearly a century since school superintendents adopted the system of strong central offices that ineptly micromanage schools. Nearly every critic of the schools knows that this management system needs to be changed, but little or nothing is done. Why?

Many of the answers can be found in Paul E. Peterson’s excellent history of American education, “Saving Schools.” Mr. Peterson, a Harvard professor of government, is one of the nation’s leading analysts of school choice. His latest book explores the reasons why public schools have stoutly resisted efforts to introduce choice and competition to education.

— Martin Morse Wooster, The Washington Times


Across the political spectrum, the need to reform American public education is no longer in dispute. Even teachers’ unions at least pay lip service to change, and debates about education policy now focus on where we should go from here. To answer that question, though, we must first understand where we started going wrong in the first place.

In Saving Schools, Harvard’s Paul Peterson tells us that America’s road to public-school ruin was, naturally, paved with good intentions. Peterson chronicles the history of America’s public schools through the lives of the six titans of education policy—Horace Mann, John Dewey, Martin Luther King, Jr., Albert Shanker, William Bennett, and James Coleman. Each found that his noble efforts to save public schooling produced, at best, disappointing results and a legacy of government control that has done more harm than good.

Marcus A. Winters, City Journal


Peterson is always a delight to read. Even his research papers shine. I enjoyed the entire book. But I read first his take on Young and the rise of new technology because it was a topic I yearned to understand. I have read the paeons to the wonders of computers in classrooms, but I don’t see them doing much in the urban schools I care about. The 21st century schools movement in particular seems to me too much about selling software and too little about teaching kids.

I am glad I jumped ahead to Peterson’s last chapter. It put the rise of school technology in a new context for me. For the first time I realized that the education reforms I write about, raising achievement in the inner city, are as Peterson puts it turning standard marketing strategies upside down. Maybe they will work better, he suggests, if we let their 21st century promoters try them out in affluent schools, seeing what works best before moving to kids who really need something better than what they’ve got.

— Jay Mathews, Class Struggle


In a compelling and enlightening narrative, “Saving Schools: From Horace Mann to Virtual Learning,” Peterson traces a variety of reform movements by profiling their leaders or other key players. Horace Mann fostered public schools nationwide, creating a global model in the 19th century; in the early 1900s, John Dewey pushed for education that respected children as individuals and erased social strata; the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., in leading the civil rights movement, forced schools to start doing as courts and legislators told them; Albert Shanker pushed for better pay and conditions for teachers; a series of “rights” reformers tried to improve quality across the board, while a series of scholars measuring their work found precious little benefit, and that led to the “adequacy” and choice movements, including the push for publicly funded vouchers and charter schools, which together involve less than 10 percent of U.S. schoolchildren.

Peterson says the barrier obstructing today’s education reform efforts is so obvious, it’s usually overlooked: Educating children costs a lot because it’s labor-intensive. Sure, American education spending has risen from 1 percent of GDP in 1902 to 2 percent in 1950, 4.5 percent in 1975 and 10 percent in 2006, he says, citing Census figures. And it’s climbing again with economic stimulus funding.

But teachers — like classical musicians, most artists and those in a few other professions that require lots of training and experience — are paid poorly compared with similarly educated workers. And schools don’t reward teachers who excel. So the smartest and most talented candidates tend to go elsewhere.

His survey of 150 years of education theory and practice brings Peterson to the conclusion that the best hope rests in virtual learning. And the promise is clear: More students can learn from a single teacher online, class discussions can work better than in traditional settings, it’s easier to submit and check work, transportation and real estate costs are much lower, and it’s cheaper to offer a full array of classes.

“Saving Schools” brings numerous aspects of education history out of the clouds and into focus with excellent context and background.
— Laura Impellizzeri
, Associated Press


Paul E. Peterson has written a deep and rich history of public education in American and the people and forces that shaped it.  He brings together policy, research, and political issues with genuine sophistication and hard-edged thinking.  He believes we’re finally poised for a big step forward, using technology to customize the learning experience and empower both students and their families.
— Joel Klein,
Chancellor, New York City Department of Education


In “Saving Schools,” Peterson looks at the history of schooling in America and concludes that is has been harmed by the steady ceding of the education system to state and federal governments. He believes families and communities teach their children best. He finds hope in virtual learning that can easily (and cheaply) be tailored to the needs of individual students.
— Stephen Lowman, The Washington Post On-line


This book is a masterpiece — carefully constructed and engagingly written. In one volume Peterson gives us a portrait of schools as they have come to be, and as they soon will be as technology brings to each student a virtual little red school house, custom-constructed to each one’s needs.

— Clayton Christensen, Professor, Harvard Business School and author, Disrupting Class


“Saving Schools” stands out among the … titles published each year on education history and reform … Peterson provides an outstanding review of the rise, decline, and potential resurrection of the U. S. educational system.  Education professionals, politicians, and anyone else interested in education will benefit from reading this book.
Library Journal


Paul E. Peterson is one of our finest historians and analysts of urban politics and urban school politics, and in recent years has become one of our most perceptive analysts of educational  reform  plans, in  proposal and implementation.  In Saving Schools, he goes back  to the origins of American urban public schools, and their ideals, and asks how current school reform plans shape up in realizing these ideals. He has written the best guide to our efforts to reform schools over the past 25 years, and the difficulties and unanticipated consequences that have marred so many  of them.
— Nathan Glazer
, Professor of Education and Social Structure, Emeritus; Honorary Associate of Adams House, Harvard University


Paul E. Peterson’s work has inspired and informed me since I was a college student and has helped to broaden my understanding of both the challenges and hopes of urban America.  His current work (Saving Schools) grounds the reader in the important historical context that has shaped our current educational challenges and opportunities. Peterson shows how heroes from our past – driven by the highest of ideals – shaped American education. He artfully tells their stories, detailing the contextual factors that informed their work and helped shape their principles.  Moreover, Peterson provides critical analysis of the work now underway by educational leaders and idealists, offering unique insight into the promise of today’s education reform movement and its potential future impact. Our great democracy will only be as strong as the schools that prepare our citizens. I believe Peterson’s work is an important contribution to the dialogue and work necessary to ultimately save our schools and our nation.
— Cory Booker
, Mayor of Newark, New Jersey, former Newark Councilman and community activist


Chicago's Mayor Richard Daley and Paul Peterson discuss the possibilities of saving urban schools.

Peterson’s book is an important contribution to the dialogue necessary to ultimately save our schools and our nation.
— Cory Booker, Mayor of Newark