COOL CLASSES: “Education Reform in America: Politics and Policy”

COOL CLASSES: “Education Reform in America: Politics and Policy”

Class name: “Education Reform in America: Politics and Policy”

Taught by: Associate Professor of Political Science Zachary Oberfield


Here’s what Oberfield has to say about his course:
This course is designed to help students gain a deeper understanding of the politics of school choice and the efficacy of recent American education reforms, like charter schools and school vouchers. To understand the context of these reforms, we begin by considering the history of public education in the U.S. and which factors are thought to shape student learning. From there, we examine the liberal and conservative perspectives on public education reform and evaluations of various school-choice programs. The course closes by considering a few new directions in educational reform and what they imply for the future of public education.

We are taking several field trips to local schools: Lower Merion High School, Overbrook High School, and Freire Charter School. We also have former superintendent of public schools for Trenton, N.J., James “Torch” Lytle, coming to speak to the class. The goal of these visits is for students to get a sense of each school’s learning environment, infrastructure, and resources. In addition, we meet with school leaders to discuss various aspects of school life. During these conversations, students get to ask questions of leaders regarding challenges and opportunities facing their schools. I hope that these interactions heighten student understanding of how the politics of public education, in theory, compares with the politics of public education, in practice.

I started off my career studying street-level bureaucrats—the relatively low-level civil servants at the front lines of government who implement public policy—and how they develop over their careers. Based on this research, I wrote a book called Becoming Bureaucrats: Socialization at the Front Lines of Government Service, which charted the development of two sets of entering street-level bureaucrats (police officers and welfare caseworkers) for the first two years of their careers. After finishing that project, I started getting interested in privatization—the use of market forces and quasi- or non-public organizations to deliver public services—and how it might affect who street-level bureaucrats are, and how they act. In pursuing this topic, I ended up studying charter schools, a new-ish form of public education in which schools are publicly funded but privately managed. From that research I wrote my second book, Are Charters Different? Public Education, Teachers, and the Charter School Debate. That book got me interested in the politics that lead to reform and deeper questions about what works, and doesn’t, in improving public education. Hence, this course!


See what other courses the Department of Political Science is offering this semester.

Cool Classes is a recurring series on the Haverblog that highlights interesting, unusual, and unique courses that enrich the Haverford College experience. 

Photos from the recent class trip to nearby Lower Merion High School by Holden Blanco ’17.

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