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.
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.
[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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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