kitchen table math, the sequel: Sol Stern article online

Thursday, January 17, 2008

Sol Stern article online

School Choice Isn't Enough

I began writing about school choice in City Journal more than a decade ago. I believed then (as I still believe) that giving tuition vouchers to poor inner-city students stuck in lousy public schools was a civil rights imperative. Starting in the 1980s, major empirical studies by sociologist James Coleman and other scholars showed that urban Catholic schools were better than public schools at educating the poor, despite spending far less per student. Among the reasons for this superiority: most Catholic educators still believed in a coherent, content-based curriculum, and they enforced order in the classroom. It seemed immoral to keep disadvantaged kids locked up in dismal, future-darkening public schools when vouchers could send them to high-performing Catholic ones—especially when middle-class parents enjoyed education options galore for their children.

But like other reformers, I also believed that vouchers would force the public schools to improve or lose their student “customers.” Since competition worked in other areas, wouldn’t it lead to progress in education, too? Maybe Catholic schools’ success with voucher students would even encourage public schools to exchange the failed “progressive education” approaches used in most classrooms for the pedagogy that made the Catholic institutions so effective.

“Choice is a panacea,” argued education scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe in their influential 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools. For a time, I thought so, too.

[snip]

During the 15 years since the first voucher program got under way in Milwaukee, university researchers have extensively scrutinized the dynamics of school choice and the effect of competition on public schools. The preponderance of studies have shown clear benefits, both academically and otherwise, for the voucher kids. It’s gratifying that the research confirms the moral and civil rights argument for vouchers.

But sadly—and this is a second development that reformers must face up to—the evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making public schools better.

[snip]

Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tried in any urban school district in the country, Milwaukee’s public schools still suffer from low achievement and miserable graduation rates, with test scores flattening in recent years. Violence and disorder throughout the system seem as serious as ever. Most voucher students are still benefiting, true; but no “Milwaukee miracle,” no transformation of the public schools, has taken place.


incentivists versus instructionists

But does the school choice movement have a realistic Plan B for the millions of urban students who will remain stuck in terrible public schools?

According to Hoxby and Peterson, perhaps the two most respected school choice scholars in the country, no such plan is necessary. In their view, the best hope for education improvement continues to be a maximum degree of parental choice—vouchers if possible, but also charter schools and tuition tax credits—plus merit-pay schemes for teachers and accountability systems that distinguish productive from unproductive school principals.

That “incentivist” outlook remains dominant within school reform circles. But a challenge from what one could call “instructionists”—those who believe that curriculum change and good teaching are essential to improving schools—is growing, as a unique public debate sponsored by the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education revealed.

[snip]

[I]n early 2007, members [of the Koret Task Force] did agree to hold a debate at the group’s home, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University: “Resolved: True School Reform Demands More Attention to Curriculum and Instruction than to Markets and Choice.” Hirsch and Ravitch argued the affirmative, Hoxby and Peterson the negative.

[snip]

While the arguments about school choice and markets swirled during the past 15 years, both Ravitch and Hirsch wrote landmark books (Left Back and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, respectively) on how the nation’s education schools have built an “impregnable fortress” (Hirsch’s words) of wrong ideas and ineffective classroom practices that teachers then carry into America’s schools, almost guaranteeing failure, especially for poor minority children. Hirsch’s book didn’t just argue this; it proved it conclusively, to my mind, offering an extraordinary tour d’horizon of all the evidence about instructional methods that cognitive neuroscience had discovered.

If Hoxby and Peterson were right in asserting that markets were enough to fix our education woes, then the ed schools wouldn’t be the disasters that Hirsch, Ravitch, and others have exposed. Unlike the government-run K–12 schools, the country’s 1,500 ed schools represent an almost perfect system of choice, markets, and competition. Anyone interested in becoming a teacher is completely free to apply to any ed school that he or she wants. The ed schools, in turn, compete for students by offering competitive prices and—theoretically—attractive educational “products” (curricula and courses). Yet the schools are uniformly awful, the products the same dreary progressive claptrap. A few years ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality, a mainstream public education advocacy group, surveyed the nation’s ed schools and found that almost all elementary education classes disdained phonics and scientific reading. If the invisible hand is a surefire way to improve curriculum and instruction, as the incentivists insist, why does almost every teacher-in-training have to read the works of leftists Paolo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, and William Ayers—but usually nothing by, say, Hirsch or Ravitch?

[snip]

Those who put their faith in the power of markets to improve schools must at least show how their theory can account for the stubborn persistence of the thoughtworld.

Instead, we increasingly find the theory of educational competition detaching itself from its original school choice moorings and taking a new form. Vouchers may have stalled, but it’s possible—or so many school reformers and education officials now assure us—to create the conditions for vigorous market competition within public school systems, with the same beneficent effects that were supposed to flow from a pure choice program.

Nowhere has this new philosophy of reform been more enthusiastically embraced than in the New York City school district under the control of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein. Gotham’s schools are surging ahead with a host of market incentives, including models derived from the business world.

[snip]

the Bloomberg administration and its supporters are pushing markets and competition in the public schools far beyond where the evidence leads. Everything in the system now has a price. Principals can get cash bonuses of as much as $50,000 by raising their schools’ test scores; teachers in a few hundred schools now (and hundreds more later) can take home an extra $3,000 if the student scores in their schools improve; parents get money for showing up at parent-teacher conferences; their kids get money or—just what they need—cell phones for passing tests.

[snip]

While confidently putting their seal of approval on this market system, the mayor and chancellor appear to be agnostic on what actually works in the classroom. They’ve shown no interest, for example, in two decades’ worth of scientific research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that proves that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness is crucial to getting kids to read in the early grades. They have blithely retained a fuzzy math program, Everyday Math, despite a consensus of university math professors judging it inadequate. Indeed, Bloomberg and Klein have abjured all responsibility for curriculum and instruction and placed their bets entirely on choice, markets, and accountability.


in Massachussetts
Those in the school reform movement seeking a case of truly spectacular academic improvement should look to Massachusetts, where something close to an education miracle has occurred. In the past several years, Massachusetts has improved more than almost every other state on the NAEP tests. In 2007, it scored first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. The state’s average scale scores on all four tests have also improved at far higher rates than most other states have seen over the past 15 years. The improvement had nothing to do with market incentives. Massachusetts has no vouchers, no tuition tax credits, very few charter schools, and no market incentives for principals and teachers. The state owes its amazing improvement in student performance to a few key former education leaders, including state education board chairman John Silber, assistant commissioner Sandra Stotsky, and board member (and Manhattan Institute fellow) Abigail Thernstrom. Starting a decade ago, these instructionists pushed the state’s board of education to mandate a rigorous curriculum for all grades, created demanding tests linked to the curriculum standards, and insisted that all high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam.

[snip]

Now a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, Stotsky sums up: “The lesson from Massachusetts is that a strong content–based curriculum, together with upgraded certification regulations and teacher licensure tests that require teacher preparation programs to address that content, can be the best recipe for improving students’ academic achievement.”

...........................

The Hoxby/Peterson position is here.

I'm with Stern.

I think the terms used to describe this phenomenon are path dependence and relative autonomy.

Unfortunately, I'm not remotely confident that accountability has worked or will work, either, Massachusetts miracle aside, although I continue to support NCLB.

What I can't figure out is whether bad accountability, which is mostly what we have, is better than no accountability. If the state standards are fuzzy or trivial, is it better not to have standards at all?

Sol Stern in City Journal
pause for reflection

18 comments:

Catherine Johnson said...

oops - just saw that Independent George is in the midst of writing a Sol Stern post - IG: just go ahead and post yours, too!

(sorry!)

SteveH said...

Choice can't be worse than no choice.

The question is whether there is enough choice. How easy it is to create choices? (Our state has a moratorium on charter schools.) You can't point to a few charter and Catholic schools and say that there is choice. You can't force parents to take advantage of choice, but for some parents and kids, it means everything. Choice may not guarantee that public schools will improve, but no choice is not a better incentive.


"But a challenge from what one could call “instructionists”—those who believe that curriculum change and good teaching are essential to improving schools—is growing..."

Since when is this an either/or debate? I can ask for choice AND demand better curricula. But I think it's quite naive to think that education schools will respond any better to Hirsch or Ravitch input than choice.


"Vouchers may have stalled, but it’s possible—or so many school reformers and education officials now assure us—to create the conditions for vigorous market competition within public school systems, with the same beneficent effects that were supposed to flow from a pure choice program."

Show me a large school district that offers a choice of curriculum and I might start to believe. We at KTM have been wondering for a long time why public schools will not provide a choice of math curricula. There is no process or force that will cause this to happen. You can talk all you want about a focus on curriculum, but talk is cheap. Schools pick whatever they want and then require research and proof for change. There is nothing new about trying to change curricula.


"Indeed, Bloomberg and Klein have abjured all responsibility for curriculum and instruction and placed their bets entirely on choice, markets, and accountability."

What about choice of curriculum? What are the choices now? School A with Everyday Math or School B with Everyday Math?


"In the past several years, Massachusetts has improved more than almost every other state on the NAEP tests."

Small, relative changes on a simple test. Individual opportunity matters, not statistics. It's a Massachusetts Miracle of Relativity. Most schools are probably still using Everyday Math. What's happening in MA is good, but don't expect me to jump up and down.



"What I can't figure out is whether bad accountability, which is mostly what we have, is better than no accountability."

NCLB is bad accountability because it's just a minimum cutoff proficiency. Success on low cutoffs get translated into "High Performing" ratings and no incentive to do better. Resources get shifted to the low end.

No accountability is no accountability. Require all kids to take the SSAT in 8th grade and post their scores on the school's web site, no strings attached. Is this accountability? Yes and no, but there has to be some sort of accountability in some fashion.

Independent George said...

Catherine - No apologies necessary; It's really for the best. I only started writing that post because I have a massive project due tomorrow morning.

Catherine Johnson said...

Since when is this an either/or debate?

It's an either-or debate within high-falutin' policy circles.

Which do not include us.

Catherine Johnson said...

That's one of my more-favorite ironies in this situation.

We've either got ed schools telling us how our kids have to be educated or ed reform task forces and the like telling us how our schools have to be reformed.

Catherine Johnson said...

There's not a whole hell of a lot of democracy involved.

Catherine Johnson said...

We at KTM have been wondering for a long time why public schools will not provide a choice of math curricula. There is no process or force that will cause this to happen.

That's where I am.

There is no process or force that will cause this to happen.

They do what they do.

Catherine Johnson said...

I got an email from a parent who spent years wrangling with the district over the math tracking in the middle school.

She said, "I've given up. They will do what they do and I will make my decisions accordingly."

Catherine Johnson said...

Yes and no, but there has to be some sort of accountability in some fashion.

So your vote is for continued lousy accountability?

That seems to be my vote.

This reminds me of my grandfather in the Depression. He was working at a gas station & when the govt passed the minimum wage law his boss reduced his wages to the minimum.

ElizabethB said...

Both Rudolph Flesh (I think it was him, I've read so many books about education and phonics and reading I can't always remember where I read what) and I think Blouke, but someone for sure from "Let's Kill Dick and Jane" by Henderson said that part of the reason for the atmosphere in Ed Schools was because they don't require any foreign languages. I've found my foreign language background of immeasurable help for my phonics tutoring and an understanding of the English language and how to teach reading.

Catherine--I've got a ton of replies for your old posts when I get some time later in the evening, in the meantime, I think you'll enjoy these pages from my website:

Why Johnny doesn't like to read: http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Reading/aliterate.html

The History of Reading Instruction: http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Phonics/historyofreading.html

My thoughts on dyslexia (includes a bit about the syllabic nature of sound which I think you'll find interesting. I'm currently teaching my daughter with the syllable method from Webster's Speller with outstanding results, she's reading and spelling way, way above grade level (there should be no grade levels with 100% phonetic teaching that teaches with syllables, just reading or not reading, but that's a whole other thought I can go into later.) And yes, working on spelling has improved her reading!): http://www.thephonicspage.org/On%20Reading/dyslexia.html

Catherine Johnson said...

Hi Elizabeth - Thanks!

And welcome (I'm thinking you haven't been here before --??)

That reminds me -- there's another blog I haven't visited.

Is it Dawn's?

I wish comments were searchable.

Catherine Johnson said...

part of the reason for the atmosphere in Ed Schools was because they don't require any foreign languages

That's interesting.

I, too, learned quite a lot of what grammar I do know from taking Spanish.

Have you read David Mulroy's War Against Grammar?

Mulroy convinced me that I missed out terribly in not having studied grammar formally (including sentence diagramming).

Catherine Johnson said...

If you have thoughts on whether spelling instruction affects and/or improves reading, I'd love to hear them.

ElizabethB said...

I haven't read his "War Against Grammar." I did get formal grammar in elementary school, we even diagrammed sentences. However, by the time I took foreign languages in high school and then college, I had forgotten almost all of it. I relearned a little grammar with each new language I studied, and then I found a book called "English Grammar for students of German." That made it all click. They make the same book for several other languages.

I'm looking forward to relearning more grammar when I teach my children grammar. I haven't yet decided when we'll start with grammar or what programs we'll do. I do plan on doing some mad-libs--that was the only grammar I remember that was actually fun.

You're right, I just found the blog last night and it looked like I've found a lot of kindred spirits to discuss education issues with! I'm raising up the next generation to work on this, too, but they are still too young to be intellectually stimulating, although it is interesting to watch how they learn.

I think you can search comments, just do a Google search for the domain of the blog, I think comments are included in the archived text. I've found my own comments from other blogs when my searches have included obscure terms that I tend to use.

VickyS said...

They do what they do.

Example A: My district is trying to close my neighborhood school (actually, the term is "repurpose"...they are going to boot out the elementary kids and consolidate seven special programs into it called such things as "Alternatives to Suspension" and including Level III and Level IV EBD kids...but that's another story).

Anyway, neighborhood wants to save neighborhood school. District responds that 40% of attendance area kids are choosing non-district schools (charter, private) and says: okay, if you can come up (in one month--seriously!) with a program that will attract students back into the district, maybe school can be saved. I raise my hand and ask: if you are serious about attracting neighborhood kids back, will you free this school from district programming constraints, most particularly, Everyday Math? Here is district's response:

9. Consider alternative curricula: could district free Homecroft from required EveryDay
Math—alternatives: Singapore Math.

The district has a successful Math Curriculum that is aligned from PreK to 12 grade. This curriculum is EveryDay Math. We do not recommend a change in Elementary Math curriculum due to the fact that it has shown great success with all students and the district
has invested a great amount of dollars in materials and professional development. Our district Professional Development Center records indicate that a total of twenty-one teachers [at the school] have received this training. In addition, the last two years District Math Coach/Program Manager has been working with some teachers at the school.

EveryDay Math comes with comprehensive District support with regard to professional development and on-going coaching. The district is currently funding a Math Coach for this school.


They do what they do.

elizabethB said...

OK, I've finally written up some of my thoughts and research about the spelling/reading connection, I've put them in the post "Does Good Spelling Help Reading?":

http://kitchentablemath.blogspot.com/2007/09/does-good-spelling-help-reading.html

SteveH said...

"The district has a successful Math Curriculum that is aligned from PreK to 12 grade. This curriculum is EveryDay Math."

EVEN when they want YOU to come up with a way to save the school. Do they even have any idea why parents leave?

Any sort of internal public school choice won't be choice at all. It's like "balance" in math. They define the details. They're in charge. You're not. It's a turf thing.

Doug Sundseth said...

Shorter response from District to VickyS:

"We will do anything you want that doesn't actually involve educating children. What do you think we are -- teachers?"