Tag: school choice

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.

Government-Run Monopolies or School Choice Competition?

Cato’s Isabel Santa uses school choice as an example of why competition is better than government-imposed monopolies. The video explains that government schools cost more and deliver less, which is exactly what one might expect when there is an inefficient monopoly structure. The evidence about the school-choice systems in Sweden, Chile, and the Netherlands is particularly impressive.

There are many other reasons to support school choice, including diversity and innovation. There also is no need for fights over school prayer and sex education when parents can choose schools that reflect their values.

Perhaps most important, school choice should be the civil rights issue of the 21st century. Many minority families live in areas where the government school monopoly does a scandalously poor job of educating children, even though these often are the school districts with higher-than-average per-pupil spending.

For more information about education issues, see what Cato’s scholars have written.

Thoughts on the New Brookings School Choice Report

A new Brookings Institution report suggests ways for the federal government to promote school choice. On the eve of its release, I voiced some practical and constitutional objections to the idea. Now that the report is out, contributing author Jay Greene asks if I’m still apprehensive. The short answer is yes.

Brookings assembled an impressive group of scholars to write the report, and their education policy recommendations deserve serious consideration. Their goal of ensuring more and better access to more and better educational choices is one that I share, and I hope the following comments will help advance that goal.

Good policy, like good science, is grounded in concrete evidence. Only where evidence is lacking is it wise to fall back on theory. The Brookings report relies on theory in a couple of important areas where extensive evidence is available to show us the way. In particular, the authors acknowledge that U.S. experience with alternative school systems is minimal, but (with a single exception — see below) they do not discuss the vast wealth of evidence from other nations that have more extensive and longer-running experience with school choice systems.                   

Some have argued that we can learn little about school governance from other nations because cultural and economic factors affect educational outcomes too greatly. This criticism does not apply to within-country comparisons of alternative school systems — and virtually all of the literature comparing alternative school systems is within-country. A comparison of government-run, government-funded private, and parent-funded private schools within India, for instance, is not muddied by cultural or economic differences between India and the United States.

What’s more, if we see the same pattern of inter-sectoral results manifested within many different countries, we can be even more confident that the observed differences are truly systemic than if we had inter-sectoral results for only a single nation. A thorough review of the worldwide within-country comparative school governance research is thus essential to optimal education policy design.

It’s also worth noting that openness to non-U.S. research is the norm in engineering and in other scientific fields. If an Indian computer programmer develops an improved sorting algorithm, his American counterparts don’t discount it for cultural reasons. Nor do U.S. civil engineers disregard what can be learned from French bridge projects. Nor do physicians ignore the results of high quality genetic or drug research performed in Iceland or England. As long as the methodologies employed control for cultural and other mitigating factors that might affect the results, American scientists and engineers are not, as a rule, parochial. Education seems the sole exception.

The one bit of foreign school choice evidence discussed in the new Brookings report is a paper by Hsieh and Urquiola reporting results from Chile’s highly regulated voucher-like system. More than a dozen studies of Chile’s voucher system have been conducted, the majority finding that private voucher schools significantly outperform public schools after suitable controls, or that the competition engendered by the program has improved overall academic achievement, attainment, or ultimate earnings of graduates.

Seeming to deviate from this pattern, Hsieh and Urquiola found that the regions in which private school enrollment grew most quickly had overall achievement (of public and private students) that was no better or was even worse than in regions where it grew more slowly. Hsieh and Urquiola concluded from this that increased competition did not improve achievement. But their evidence also supports a quite different conclusion: that regions with bad and worsening public schools drove families more quickly into the private sector.

Hsieh and Urquiola looked at the first 16 years of the program, during which time public schools still enrolled the majority of students (though that share was falling continuously and has since dropped below 50 percent). Overall academic performance was thus still chiefly a function of public school performance, and public schools are protected from private sector competition by receiving extra municipal funding that is not tied to enrollment and to which the private voucher-receiving schools do not have access. So it was never reasonable to expect, based on the design of the Chilean system, that public schools would show significant gains from competitive forces, because those forces never really touched them.

Given the evidence just presented and the fact that the bulk of studies of the Chilean program contradict Hsieh and Urquiola’s conclusion, it seems likely that they did indeed misinterpret their findings.

More importantly, Hsieh and Urquiola’s conclusion is not only an aberration within the Chilean research, it is also an aberration within the worldwide literature on the relative merits of market and monopoly provision of education. When I reviewed this research for the Journal of School Choice last year, I found 65 studies reporting 156 separate statistical comparisons of public and private school achievement. When truly market-like programs are compared to monopolistic ones such as U.S. public schooling, the statistically significant results favoring markets outweigh the results favoring monopolies by a margin of 15 to 1 (and they also handily outnumber the insignificant findings).

By offering only the uncharacteristic Hsieh and Urquiola study out of the vast literature just described, the Brookings paper is apt to give readers a mistakenly negative perception of the worldwide evidence. This is particularly true because the authors are avowed supporters of school choice.

In the absence of the international evidence, the Brookings authors are forced to resort to theory on several crucial policy issues, such as the need for and merits of state regulation of the marketplace (e.g., with respect to virtual schools) and state information services to supply a perceived gap in information available to parents. Consulting that evidence leads to the conclusion that government regulatory efforts to improve the quality of educational services are ineffective at best and counterproductive at worst (see the paper linked above for the evidence supporting that pattern, and see James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree for an explanation of its cause). It shows, furthermore, that even illiterate parents in the poorest slums of the third world are not only capable of making wise educational choices for their children in the absence of government advice, but that they are already doing so in massive numbers.

In addition to the above concern, the practical and constitutional issues I raised in advance of the Brookings report’s publication still apply now that I have read it in full.

That said, this is one of the most benign sorts of disagreements scholars can have, rooted as it is on our having developed our policy recommendations from different data sets. I look forward to hearing how the authors of the Brookings report think the worldwide evidence bears on school choice policy.