In this essay David Cohen explores the effects of a growing belief that the key to school reform is political and procedural change, rather than substantive improvement. He argues that the recent interest in "accountability" arises from disappointment with the reform efforts of the 1930s and 1960s and examines reforms based on the view that substantive improvements will not work unless the power of professionals is reduced and the power and participation of families and communities increased. Suggesting that there are serious social and economic barriers to the success of such participatory reforms, he argues that the political power of private and politically unaccountable agencies is at least as serious an obstacle to democratic control as the power of school professionals and bureaucrats who are formally accountable. He examines the barriers to participatory reforms and the problems of private government and assesses the prospects for alternative approaches to reforming school politics.

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