Tag: school choice

More Ravitch Ridiculousness

Great post by Chris Edwards responding to historian Diane Ravitch’s op-ed in today’s Washington Post. For a good ripping apart of Ravitch’s reality-free thinking from an education-policy standpoint, check out my review of her new book over at School Reform News.

Oh, and let’s please get something straight: Ravitch has never been the one-time “strong supporter” of school choice she claims to have been. Sadly, this claim seems designed mainly to make it appear that she’s had some sort of serious “come (back) to public schools” moment. But as she writes in her new book, she had never really given much thought to choice until she joined the George H.W. Bush administration in 1991, and then she just tried to cram it into her “worldview.”

“The issue of choice had never really been important to me,” she writes, “but I found myself trying to incorporate the arguments for choice into my own worldview.”

Does this sound either like a strong supporter of choice, or someone who had really thought choice through and understood why and how it would work? Nope, and that comes right through in her simplistic conclusion that because really limited choice like charter schools and tiny voucher programs don’t make huge differences, all choice should be abandoned.

Run Away from ‘Common’ Education Standards

A couple of days ago, Fordham Institute president Chester Finn declared on NRO that conservatives should embrace new, national education standards from the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Today I respond to him on The Corner, and let’s just say it’s clear that neither conservatives, nor anybody else, should embrace national standards.

Oh, one more thing: I shouldn’t have to keep saying this to savvy Washington insiders like the folks at Fordham, but when the federal government bribes states with their own citizens’ tax money to do something, doing that thing is hardly voluntary, at least in any reasonable sense. 

For more wise thoughts on the national standards issue, check out this interview with Jay Greene, and this Sacramento Bee piece by Ben Boychuk.  Oh, and this interview with yours truly.

Ravitch-and-Hirsch-topia.

If you follow education news at all, over the last week or so — until the national-standards stories took over — you probably saw a lot about education historian Diane Ravitch’s supposedly sudden determination that school choice isn’t good after all. That’s one of the major selling points of her new book The Death and Life of the Great American School System, and just about every major newspaper has devoted a fair amount of ink to it.

Now I’ve devoted some ink — okay, pixels — to it, too. You can check out my review of Ravitch’s book on the brand-new School Reform News website. When you’re done with that, you can take a gander at my Cato Journal review of Core Knowledge guru E. D. Hirsch’s new offering, The Making of Americans. I think you’ll detect a unifying theme: Ravitch and Hirsch are excellent at their specialties — history and pedagogy, respectively — but they ignore just about everything they have lamented for decades about government schooling in order to proclaim that, um, we somehow need more government schooling.

Go figure!

The Standards Themselves Are, Frankly, Irrelevant

Three days ago I reported that draft, grade-by-grade, national curricular standards would soon be released by the Common Core State Standards Initiative. Yesterday, they were. (If you want to get a sense for what the proposed standards are follow the link to them. Don’t bother with the appendices, though, unless you really want to get into the weeds.)

Naturally, in the coming days lots of people will be offering heaps of commentary about what the standards do or do not contain. That’s not my main concern (though reading through the English standards I am dubious that mastery of them could be easily or consistently assessed). You see, the content of the standards is largely irrelevant because the main problem isn’t what the standards are, but standardization itself.

As I’ve blathered about on numerous occasions, it makes little sense to expect all kids to master all the same things at the same rates. All kids are different – they have different talents, desires, and abilities – and to impose one, “best” progression on them is simply illogical.

Another problem with imposing a single standard nationwide – and yes, this will be imposed, unless states suddenly decide they don’t like getting their citizen’s tax dollars back from Uncle Sam – is that it prevents competition between curricula. And that, in turn, kills innovation, the lifeblood of progress. So unless these standards have achieved perfection – and I’m pretty sure they haven’t – it’s a very dangerous thing to make them the end-all and be-all.

Finally, no matter how brilliant the draft standards, there is no reason to believe that they will drive meaningful educational improvement. Government schools will still be government schools, and the people employed by them will still have very little incentive to push kids to excellence, and every incentive to game the system to make the standards toothless. And no one yet has offered a decent proposal, other than school-choice supporters, for getting around that very inconvenient, public-schooling truth.

All of these problems help to explain why there is no convincing empirical evidence that national standards drive superior educational outcomes. Unfortunately, most national-standards advocates will talk themselves blue in the face about what’s in the standards, but avoid at all costs the question of whether standardization makes sense in the first place.

Arne Duncan Embraces False Friedman

In a shocking development, U.S. Secretary of Arne Duncan embraced the ideas of Milton Friedman today, championing the funding of students instead of schools! Unfortunately, it was in the context of higher education – Duncan and his boss have done all they can to destroy school choice elsewhere – and he completely misrepresented what Friedman said about higher ed, suggesting that the Nobel Laureate somehow endorsed the federal Direct Loan Program:

We will end the loans under the Federal Family Education Program and make them directly to students – just as economist Milton Friedman proposed 50 years ago, and just as the Department of Education has been doing since 1993 through the Direct Loan Program.

Were Milton Friedman still with us, I think he would be pretty miffed with Duncan. For one thing, 50 years ago there was no Federal Family Education Loan Program. Moreover, assuming Duncan is referring to Friedman’s “The Role of Government in Education,” Friedman was clearly stating that if there is going to be any higher education aid it should go to students, not schools. And then there’s this:

The resulting system would follow in its broad outlines the arrangements adopted in the United States after World War II for financing the education of veterans, except that the funds would presumably come from the States rather than the Federal government [italics added].

It’s bad enough that Duncan and his boss reject Friedman’s very wise and proven counsel when it comes to elementary and secondary education. It’s even worse that Duncan then has the gall to blatantly lie about what Friedman wrote in an effort to sell a rotten and costly piece of federal legislation, the laughably titled Student Aid and Fiscal Repsonsibility Act.

A Severe Irony Deficiency

Tomorrow night at 8:00pm, Fox Business News will air a John Stossel special on the failures of state-run schooling and the merits of parental choice and competition in education. I make an appearance, as do Jeanne Allen and James Tooley.

News of the show is already making the rounds, and over at DemocraticUnderground.com, one poster is very upset about it, writing:

When will these TRAITORS stop trying to ruin this country?

HOW can AMERICANS be AGAINST public education?

Stossel is throwing out every right-wing argument possible in his namby pamby singsong way while he “interviews” a “panel” of people (who I suspect are plants) saying things like preschool is a waste of money and why invest in an already-failing system….

I hate Stossel and I hate all of those who think the way he does.

This poster goes by the screen name “Live Love Laugh.” I guess there wasn’t enough space to tack “Hate” onto the end.

What this poster–and many good people on the American left–have yet to grasp is that critics of state monopoly schooling are NOT against public education. On the contrary, it is our commitment to the ideals of public education that compels us to pursue them by the most effective means possible, and to abandon the system that has proven itself, over many many generations, incapable of fulfilling them. I wrote about this crucial point more than a decade ago in Education Week, in a piece titled: “Are Public Schools Hazardous to Public Education.”

Fortunately, a small but steadily growing number of American liberals have already grasped this pivotal difference between means and ends, as the growing Democratic support for Florida’s school choice tax credit program evinces. Giving all families, particularly low income families, an easier choice between state-run and independent schools is the best way to advance the ideals of public education.

School Choice, Realpolitik, & Brookings

Jay Greene has responded to my review of the new Brookings Institution school choice report which he co-authored, raising a crucial issue for the education policy and research communities. Jay points out that the report is a work of realpolitik rather than scholarship, and as such contends that it must find a compromise between the policies best supported by the evidence and those that have a real chance of being implemented. He makes the related argument that incrementalism is the only realistic path to success.

I agree with Jay that it’s good for analysts to find ways of improving current policy even when the ideal policies are not politically feasible. But these realpolitik recommendations must be clearly distinguished from the ideal policies themselves. Analysts should report both viable compromise reforms AND ideal policies, explaining to policymakers the likely costs and risks associated with the compromises–the reasons why they are inferior. Failing to do this leads to two serious problems:

First, presenting only the compromises robs the public and its elected representatives of crucial information, making it more difficult to build support for the ideal policies and leading to guilt by association when the compromise policies prove disappointing for reasons that should have been – but were not – clearly laid out in advance.

Second, when analysts don’t present their ideal policies and the evidence (if any) on which they are based, there is no way for the public or policymakers to judge the wisdom of their realpolitik compromise recommendations. This is particularly problematic when the analysts’ recommendations conflict with what the available evidence shows to be ideal policy.

As to the need for incrementalism in U.S. policy reform, the evidence is not entirely one-sided. The Emancipation Proclamation did not give slaves a 50 percent share in themselves, rising gradually to 100 percent over time. When women won the franchise, it was not at a discounted rate – one female vote equal to 1/3 or 1/2 of a male vote. They won the right to vote outright. Prohibition was not undone gradually, with beverage categories being re-legalized in order of alcohol content.  I’m sure we could think of other major policy shifts in U.S. history that were not incremental.

In all of the above cases, major social movements were necessary to win the day, and if scholars and advocates who knew better had championed only half-measures instead of the policies they knew to be right, it surely would have delayed the eventual victories. Scholars who know what kind of school choice is necessary to best serve children should clearly advocate such policies, especially in any context in which they also offer any interim recommendations they deem more politically feasible. 

And even if we grant, for the sake of argument, that all school choice policies must be incremental, there are incremental policies already in existence that are highly consistent with ideal policy. Existing scholarship donation tax credits such as those in PA, FL, RI, etc., and personal use education tax credits such as those of Illinois and Iowa, are expanding organically over time. Eventually, as that expansion continues, they could be combined and thus ensure universal access to the education marketplace without needing to impose regulations on private schools that the research shows to be intrusive and counterproductive. By contrast, it is hard to see how introducing federal regulation of virtual schools (a Brookings Report recommendation) moves us close in the direction of the minimally regulated parent-driven markets supported by the evidence.

So, yes, let’s be realistic in our policy recommendations, but let’s also be clear about the ideal policies indicated by the empirical evidence, so that policymakers and the public hear a consistent message about where we need to go.