by Laurie A. Cummings, M.S., Senior Consultant for Economic and Education Policy, and Brian VanKlompenberg, Research Assistant

This Advisor summarizes the second of four interview that PSC is conducting this year with Dr. Robert Docking. Dr. Docking is a former superintendent of East Lansing and Bloomfield Hills school district and in 1988 was the first person named Michigan Superintendent of the Year. He currently is a professor at the University of Detroit Mercy and works closely with many Detroit Schools.

There are a growing number of people in Michigan and nationwide voicing the opinion that free‐​market principles are the answer to a decade of failure (perceived or real) of K – 12 education reform. “Market‐​based reform” assumes that competition among schools is the most effective mechanism of change.

Two of the most commonly known market‐​based reforms are public school academies (commonly called charter schools), which are specialized public schools to which parents may choose to send their children instead of the neighborhood public school, and vouchers, which are monetary allowances from the state that parents may use to send their children to any school in the state.

Proponents of market‐​based education believe that schools today are not performing as well as in the past. Most maintain that public education is insufficiently responsive to individual needs of students and their parents, that graduates lack the skills they need to keep America competitive, and that “government schools” resist change. They support competition among schools and maintain that if schools are to improve, the very structure of education must change, communities must take “ownership” of education, and society must “redefine the concept of schools and schooling.“1

How do men and women on education’s “front line” respond to these suggestions of sweeping change? To get an idea, we asked someone who has worked in Michigan schools for thirty‐​eight years. We presented Dr. Robert Docking with the recent statements of a leading spokesperson for the concept of free‐​market education, and we summarize Docking’s responses in the following pages. The assertions are made by former General Motors Corporation president, Lloyd Reuss, and were presented at a Michigan State Board of Education strategic planning meeting; Clark Durant, president of the board, has stated that Mr. Reuss’s comments fairly reflect the board’s line of thinking. For good measure, we also have included a quote from Craig Ruff, president of Public Sector Consultants, who challenges the ability of government, in general, to meet specialized needs.

Assumption: Schools Are Not Making the Grade?

Lloyd Reuss: Actual learning overall [in public schools] has declined.2

Robert Docking disagrees. He does believe that society needs to do a better job of “educating more people to higher levels than in the past” and that society’s expectations of student performance should be higher. However, he objects to statements that learning has declined. He explains that perception of declining student performance often is based on the greater need for learning and on misinterpretation of standardized test scores.

“The need for learning is increasing.” Dr. Docking says that in earlier decades, high school students could drop out of school, walk down the street, and, despite having only minimal skills, get a full‐​time manufacturing job, with benefits. Today, much more knowledge is needed, and students who drop out of school or graduate without having acquired the skills they need simply do not have available to them the employment opportunities of the past.

Today’s economy also requires that people have different types of skills than in the past, including much more advanced abilities to make decisions, work cooperatively and collaboratively, and use complicated technical manuals. Although this need for higher‐​level education and different skills is a reality that schools must face, Docking believes the need for something more or different should not be interpreted as a sign that students are learning less than in the past.

In regard to using standardized test scores as a school‐​evaluation tool, Docking believes the practice is a mistake, and he uses Scholastic Aptitude Test (SAT) scores to illustrate.3 The SAT was developed in the 1940s and originally was “normed,” or averaged, to a small group of students who were white, middle‐​class, predominantly from the eastern part of the country, and had attended the better prep schools. Test scores from this well‐​educated, college‐​bound, small slice of society were used to develop the SAT norms against which student scores still are rated today.

Now, however, college‐​bound students taking the SAT are much more diverse in race, in economic status, and in their native language than was the case in the 1940s, when the “average” scores were determined. Because schools are teaching a broader group of college‐​bound students, many of whom face far greater challenges than did the students of the 1940s, test scores naturally are lower today than they were fifty years ago.

Docking maintains that the lower scores do not reflect diminished learning but rather a student population less advantaged and more representative of society than in the past. If today one were to compare the SAT scores of a group similar to the one on which SAT was normed in the 1940s (white, middle‐​class, college‐​bound males), today’s scores would likely be slightly higher. He adds that even if SAT scores were a valid measure of student achievement over time, it is worth noting that since about 1990 they have been rising (see the exhibit).

Docking is convinced that as a general rule, using standardized testing to compare student performance over time or compare schools or districts is an inappropriate use of the tests. One problem is that research shows standardized test scores to have a very strong relationship to characteristics beyond the control of schools. For example, students from households with higher income typically have higher test scores than do students from less affluent homes, regardless of what school they attend; test scores and income have an almost one‐​to‐​one relationship. He believes this is because a higher income enables parents to enhance the home learning environment through travel, computers, books, magazines, and so on.

“Testing is useful if it’s diagnostic,” Docking contends. “I do think that it is better than a bad guess in finding out where kids have skills or are deficient.” Thus, tests can be useful in helping teachers decide where time and resources may be directed most effectively in teaching basic skills and facts. However, scores too often are used to compare school districts. “They never were intended for that [comparisons],” Docking explains, “but that is, in fact, what they are used for.”

He also is concerned that Michigan Educational Assessment Program (MEAP) test results frequently are used for political reasons — for “proving that public schools aren’t doing their job, so that other agendas can be promoted.”

Assumptions: Schools Should be Market Driven

Reuss: Nothing excels the market system in the delivery of goods and services. Can we not apply market principles — that have become so familiar to the whole world — to the delivery of education?

Docking is not opposed to competition among schools per se, remarking that “I think it is clear that competition does move people more quickly in a given direction than does noncompeti‐​tion.” He believes that public education has been slow to move on improvements that are needed and also that competition could “speed the process.” He also feels that although competition does not ensure “vision” in education, it may legitimize and encourage more visionaries getting into the business.

Of competition’s advantages he concludes, “We do a good job of educating our children; we can do a much better job. To the degree that different kinds of schools based on market principles can move us toward a desired end, I applaud it.”

Despite these potential advantages of interschool competition, Docking doubts that free‐​market principles will solve education’s fundamental problems. Competition cannot, for example, solve the problem of “a disinterested parent, a hungry child, a lazy teacher, a lazier administrator.” He also points out that only one in ten eligible voters actually shows up at the polls in school elections, and he wonders how reforms aimed at increasing public ownership or control of education will work with a public that does not exercise the ownership it already has.

He also objects to some of the analogies between private industry and education that he has heard. The comparison strikes him as seriously flawed, because, unlike private industry, schools have no control over their “suppliers.” He points out that companies can fail if they cannot control the quality of their supplies or raw materials.

He argues that when firms exercise more quality control over their input, as many U.S. firms began to do in the 1970s, the quality of their output improves. But, unlike private industry, schools do not have control over their inputs — students. “Entering schools is merchandise that is ‘damaged’ when it walks in the door: Kids who come to school hungry, from homes where crack is the meal of the day, and where there is deprivation in the home and neighborhood,” Dr. Docking observes. “To expect public schools to make up for these deficits is pretty unrealistic.”

Docking also is concerned that market principles do not take into account the heterogeneity of output — again, students. “As long as free‐​market principles do not assume that we are going to have ‘products’ that all look and think the same, then I think the approach is worthy of consideration. Human beings are very, very complex. They learn in different ways. They learn at varying levels of understanding. If we can agree, and I think we can, that there are some basic skills that every child must have, we also have to agree that not every child will get them at the same level.”

Reuss: The System [of public education] is a monopoly.

Dr. Docking rejects the premise that schools are a government monopoly. He points out that more than 10 percent of Michigan families do not send their children to public schools but to private or parochial schools. He states that although it does cost additional money to send kids to a private school, the cost — usually $2,000 to $15,000 annually — is within reach for many Michigan families.

In addition, Docking points to the growing number of in‐​district schools of choice and the experimentation with multiple‐​district choice begun in several Michigan regions. These options, in addition to the involvement afforded parents through local school governance, are inconsistent with a monopoly scenario.

Having made this point, however, Docking also sees a need for even more choices for parents and students. Reflecting on his experience in helping unique schools to get started, Docking finds that parental support for schools — a component he feels is mandatory for school improvement — goes up when parents believe their school is a “fit” with the learning styles, characteristics, and values of the student and his/​her home life.

As schools learn more about the multiplicity of ways in which people learn, they will become better at making more options available to children and their families. As public education moves in this direction, Docking is certain that criticism of public education as a “one‐​size‐​fits‐​all” monopoly will fade.

Although Docking believes that more choice is a positive step, he fears that the choice issue may be used as the vehicle to channel public money into private/​parochial schools. He feels that “parochiaid” (as it was dubbed in the 1970s) would be an inappropriate use of public funds, and he strongly opposes it.

Assumption: Schools Are Not Sufficiently Responsive to Their Customers

Craig Ruff: Government fills public interests, not atomized private concerns. It cannot satisfy the unquenchable thirst for specialized attention to an individual’s or family’s unique interests.4

Dr. Docking responds that national and local polls both show that the vast majority — 75 to 85 percent — of today’s parents are satisfied with the public education their children are receiving. Schools obviously must deal with the other 15 to 25 percent, and he thinks this may require different kinds of schools. But Docking believes that most parents’ needs can and are being met.

When asked about the varying needs of families, Dr. Docking points out that there are 540+ school districts in Michigan, the vast majority of which are small (fewer than 2,000 students), having only one high school and two or three elementary schools. As a practical matter, this makes it very difficult to establish distinctly different kinds of schools for different kinds of families. He believes that to the degree that charter schools, which tend to be very small and very focused, can provide diversity, they are a step in the right direction.

Docking points out that larger districts can set up unique education opportunities in separate buildings; since they have a number of elementary and secondary buildings, they have the physical capacity for specialization. “Magnet” schools are an example of this, and there now are many good ones in Michigan. Dr. Docking has worked with some of these magnet schools, is convinced they work, and observes that they enjoy tremendous support from the parents who choose them. The bottom line, says Docking, is that the current system already allows for differentiation and unique education opportunities, but educators and parents must take advantage of them.

Assummption: We Must Have Systemwide Reform

Reuss: I do know that the present school system in Michigan is not adequate to the challenges we face, socially and economically.

Docking disagrees with the assertion that needed improvements cannot be made within the present system. He says there are wide variances among public school districts, among schools within districts, and within given geographic areas of districts. The fact that this is true — that certain schools have excelled in the current system — demonstrates that improvements can be made within the current framework.

We asked Dr. Docking what determines which districts or schools excel and how, if not by restructuring the system, should improvements be made? Dr. Docking, recalling visits to numerous schools, lists four factors that he has observed as particularly crucial to success: parental involvement, leadership, innovation, and understanding the workplace.

Parent Involvement

In Docking’s opinion, “If we do not get the parents to work with the schools, the chances of public schools improving significantly are minimal.”


Docking says another key to a school’s success is the school leadership’s ability to get everyone — teachers, students, parents, community — working toward the school’s objectives; community members should be involved, and parents should educate at home to complement education at school. Moreover, administrators need to have a clear vision and be willing to take a stand — to lead — when they believe change is needed.


Schools should seek inventive ways to teach. Docking does not believe that the teaching ability in our schools is inadequate; colleges of education are producing teachers who are better than ever before. But he sees that there are obstacles to innovation — for example, union inflexibility, which he feels slows or prohibits innovation.

Understanding the Workplace

Docking wants teachers to clearly understand the current workplace and the world their students will enter after graduation. He agrees with most advocates of market‐​driven education that there is a huge gap between the skills of most high school graduates and the skills the workplace requires of them. Docking adds that although federal programs have made a good‐​faith effort to improve this situation, schools need to better communicate and cooperate with employers.

Docking is convinced that when there is parent involvement, leadership, teacher innovation, and a clear understanding of employers’ needs — all carried out in a climate of discipline — it is a recipe for success. “There are no regulations that prevent you from doing this. None. But there are lots of excuses for why it isn’t being done.” Leaders, he explains, “know they can’t do it by themselves. And they do exist in every kind of school district in this state, and there are no government prohibitions on their success. None.”

We asked Dr. Docking how, specifically, schools can achieve a climate of discipline. He says it is a matter of setting a few simple, fair rules, clearly enunciated, understood by all, and consistently enforced. “When necessary,” Dr. Docking adds, “[parents] must know that going to school is a privilege that can be withheld from the child.” Teachers must enforce the rules in every class, to ensure internal consistency. He also believes that parental support is essential to maintaining discipline and that “parents and students must understand that there are consequences” for breaking the rules.


Docking believes that meaningful change can take place within the present system through the actions of teachers and administrators: He identifies parent involvement, school leadership, and innovation as keys to change. Market‐​based reformers believe that the system itself is an obstacle to change and that there are no incentives for teachers and administrators to change: They identify competition, choice, and accountability as the keys.

The debate promises to be fierce. Complicating it will be the lack of clear information about what works — nationwide, past reforms made within the current system have been deemed unsuccessful, and experiments with free‐​market reforms so far show mixed results. Without clear information to guide reform efforts, the need for thoughtful analysis on which to base decisions becomes critical. We hope that before any systemwide changes to Michigan schools are made, time will be taken to thoroughly and thoughtfully examine the issues and carefully weigh the risks.

1Michigan State Board of Education. Strategic Planning Session Report, draft, April 1995.
2Comments of Lloyd E. Reuss to the State Board of Education Strategic Planning Session, April 17, 1995.
3For more information on using SAT and other standardized text scores as measures of education achievement, see RAND’s Student Achievement and the Changing American Family (Santa Monica, Calif.: RAND), (301) 451‑7002.
4Ruff, Craig. “The Context of the Political Devolution Revolution.” Public Policy Advisor (May 5, 1995).