A Thought Experiment Gone Terribly Wrong

On Tuesday, Adam Schaeffer began to tackle an article by Manhattan Institute Senior Fellow Sol Stern, a long-time school choice supporter who, in the latest edition of the Institute’s City Journal, declares that school choice is not the cure for what ails American education, and joins some well-known neoconservatives in declaring that standards and accountability imposed by government is the key to fixing our broken schools.

Anyone, of course, is welcome to reexamine their beliefs and change their opinions. Indeed, if we don’t challenge what we believe, we cannot grow in our understanding of the world. Unfortunately, while Stern certainly changed his opinion on school choice, his article suggests that in challenging his old beliefs he made very little effort to actually defend them.

Adam has already addressed one of the first flaws in Stern’s thinking, or at least in what he wrote. Stern begins his choice critique by pointing out that choice hasn’t spread nearly as quickly as he would have liked. It’s a good point: Choice has grown slowly, largely due to massive opposition from powerful groups that benefit directly from the public schooling monopoly, and many Americans who truly believe that government-run schools are the best way to provide education. But as Adam has pointed out, as slow as progress has been, it’s not been nearly as glacial as Stern suggests.

Unfortunately, Stern displays a seeming inability to discern reality not just when it comes to how much choice currently exists. The inability lies at the very heart of his loss of enthusiasm for choice, and he’s not alone. A failure to acknowledge political reality plagues neoconservative, especially those Stern credits for bringing him around to the “instructionist” view of reform, a view that focuses on using government to impose strong standards and accountability on schools. Stern relates a pivotal moment in his conversion, when leading instructionist and education historian Diane Ravitch offered a “thought experiment” in a debate against school choice supporters:

Say that one school system features market incentives and unlimited choices for parents and students, but no standard curriculum. Then posit another system, with no choice allowed, but in which the educational leadership enforces a rich curriculum and favors effective instructional approaches. In the market system, Ravitch predicted, “most schools will reflect the dominant ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training, so most schools will adopt programs of whole language and fuzzy math… . Most students under a pure choice regime will know very little about history or literature or science.” The system with the first-rate curriculum and effective pedagogy, Ravitch argued, would produce better education outcomes.

What convinced Stern that “rich” curricula and “effective instructional approaches” imposed by centralized “educational leadership” will produce outstanding results, while free choice will render students helpless victims of progressive educators? Largely, that currently schools of education are dominated by progressive ideas despite the fact that prospective teachers have over a thousand ed schools from which to choose:

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.

Now, forget for a moment that we live in a free society and many people find value in progressive ideas. Does it follow, based on how the public schooling system works, that teacher education is really a free market? Of course not! As Andrew Coulson notes, most people attending education schools are there to become public school teachers, and that requires achieving certification controlled by government, certification that is most easily attained by completing a degree at a progressive school of education.

But what of alternate routes to certification that, theoretically, let prospective teachers bypass education schools altogether? As the neoconservative Fordham Foundation made clear in a recent report, such programs are typically onerous to go through and often force students right into the education schools they wanted to avoid.

How about letting prospective teachers skip all education programs, as some reformers might like, by passing a test demonstrating that they can teach? No-go there, either: Most of the tests now used to assess teachers-the ones for which ed schools prepare their students, by the way-require knowledge of progressive pedagogy. As Fordham Foundation president Chester Finn wrote in 2003:

Praxis and many state-specific tests are heavy on pedagogy, thin on content, and generally hostile to the view that teachers possess knowledge and skills that children need to learn. In other words, they embrace the usual “progressive” assumptions about children as wild flowers (who bloom when and where they’re ready, so one mustn’t expect to cultivate them) and teachers as “guides on the side.”

Clearly, it’s not the market that’s keeping progressivism dominant in teacher education, as Stern argues, but government.

Sadly, Stern’s reality-blind analysis of the education school problem is just a microcosm of the overall absurdity of Ravitch’s thought experiment.

Look at the assertion that in a system based on choice kids will learn nothing. It’s a baseless conclusion, and Stern himself points to a real-life example that disproves it:

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.

That’s right-Roman Catholic schools kept rigorous curricula alive for decades after the public schools had gone whole-hog progressive. Of course, as Stern points out, Catholic school enrollment is shrinking rapidly, but that’s not because choice doesn’t work. A number of factors are at play, but one of the biggest is that Catholic schools have to compete with taxpayer-supported, tuition-free public schools, and that’s simply too expensive an obstacle for most Catholic schools to overcome. And the decline of Catholic schooling does nothing to disprove the reality that Ravitch and Stern utterly ignore when reaching their conclusions about school choice: Far from abandoning a traditional curriculum, Catholic schools, chosen by parents, embrace it.

Next, let’s dissect Ravitch’s conclusion that a choice-free, dictator-imposed system featuring a “rich curriculum” and “effective instructional approaches” would produce high-quality education. If one were to ignore the loss of freedom, or that when push comes to shove very few people agree on what’s “rich” or “effective,” one could argue that Ravitch’s utopia would be great. But, of course, it would still be a utopia, an ideal state that does not now, nor ever will, exist.

In contrast to utopianism, political reality has proven time and again that no matter how much neoconservatives want to ignore it, government control of education means special interest and progressive control.

Ravitch’s own historical research makes abundantly clear that centralized education governance enabled progressives to establish their dominion over schooling. As she writes in Left Back: A Century of Battles Over School Reform-which Stern calls a “landmark” book-“progressive reformers created centralized school bureaucracies and civil service systems in urban districts that minimized lay participation in education policy.” The main weapon against progressive hegemony, conversely, was decentralized, local control of education, which allowed communities to hold out against progressive dictators. Ultimately, though, the force of centralized government was overwhelming:

Progressive reformers pressured high schools to serve as custodial institutions that met miscellaneous socio-personal needs, kept idle youth off the streets, provided a range of nonacademic curricula, and deemphasized the importance of the academic curriculum for all but the college-bound….

The strong allegiance of parents and teachers to the academic curriculum slowed the implementation of radical changes even after superintendents announced them. Teachers knew that they had to go along, join study groups, and give outward signs of compliance to their supervisors. But they could always close the classroom door and teach the subject they knew best. What they could not do, however, was to revive subjects that were dropped from the curriculum altogether.

So centralized governance ultimately separated children from the academic curricula their parents would have chosen for them. Reality, again, is the opposite of what Ravitch concluded in her experiment.

Despite this, neoconservatives, and now Stern, call ever-more loudly to give more power to government. They’re convinced that if they just try hard enough, they can take over the system that’s frozen them out for over a century and achieve the Shangri-La promised by Ravitch’s experiment.

To defend this proposition, Stern points to Massachusetts, writing that:

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….

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….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.

Unfortunately, just as he did nationwide, Stern downplays how much choice is actually at work in the Bay State. According to the Center for Education Reform, Massachusetts has 62 charter schools enrolling nearly 23,000 students-not a huge presence, but bigger than many states-and a charter law that’s among the best in the nation. In addition, Boston has 20 charter-like “pilot” schools enrolling about 6,400 students. And Massachusetts has much smaller, more localized districts than many states. Using Census data and the Digest of Education Statistics, we see that the average Massachusetts district serves a population of only about 18,000, compared to nearly 37,000 in California, and over 50,000 in South Carolina. Add to its small districts the fact that the people in Massachusetts tend to be among the nation’s wealthiest, and it’s clear that in addition to charters and pilots, Massachusetts offers more Tiebout choice-people choose where they live based on what municipalities offer, forcing schools to compete-than almost any other state.

Even with all that, Stern is almost certainly right that choice doesn’t explain Massachusetts’ academic improvement over the last decade or so, at least not all of it. Much of the growth could indeed be linked to the Bay State having higher standards than other states. But that makes Massachusetts the exception, not the crummy-standards rule, and we need go no further than the Fordham Foundation’s recent assessment of state standards to see it. As Chester Finn wrote in 2005:

We asked independent experts to update earlier reviews of state K-12 school standards in math and English. They found that only Massachusetts, California, and Indiana merited “A” grades in both core subjects, even as three other states…earned “F’s” for both. Mediocrity was the norm.

So Massachusetts is just one of three states with decent standards. Should we really make the public school monopoly’s stranglehold even tighter based on only six percent of states having acceptable standards? Would you play Russian Roulette if you only had a six-percent chance of getting the unloaded chamber?

Even if all the political stars align and a state is able to implement “good” standards, there’s another problem: stars keep moving, and their alignment is often a once-in-a-century phenomenon. Indeed, with the election of Governor Deval Patrick in 2006, forces started moving to weaken the system neocons love so much in Massachusetts.

“Frustrated teachers, students, and school officials, buoyed by Governor Deval Patrick’s pledge to improve the MCAS tests, urged lawmakers yesterday to stop denying high school students a diploma based solely on high-stakes tests,” reported the Boston Globe in June 2007. “ ‘The political reality is different now,’ Representative Carl M. Sciortino, Jr., a Medford Democrat and bill cosponsor, said in an interview.”

Perhaps the most notable standards and accountability “achievement” has been the No Child Left Behind Act, which supposedly forces states to have and meet high standards. But again, as documented by the very neoconservatives who championed the law, NCLB has proven an utter failure because those people who don’t want to be held to high standards control the public schools and sabotage rigor at every turn. As Finn and Fordham vice president Michael Petrilli have admitted:

Consider the states’ reaction to NCLB. Evidence is mounting that they are responding by lowering their standards, making their tests easier, and shielding their schools from accountability….One sign of this quiet rebellion is the growing disparity between student performance on state exams and on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP)….from 2003 to 2005 at least 20 states posted gains on their own 8th-grade reading exams, yet none of these showed progress at the “proficient” level on NAEP. While there could be explanations for this discrepancy, one must suspect that states are finding subtle ways to make their own tests easier.

So, in the face of overwhelming evidence that government-control of education simply does not work, what do neoconservatives do? Pull their blinders up a little further and declare that we must have national standards! The only way to beat stagnation caused by centralized, government control is to have more centralized, government control. Finn again:

[M]ost states continue to muck up the standards-setting process-and we see no end to it. The time has come to revisit the contentious but powerful alternative known as national standards and tests….Yes, national standards face similar perils as state standards. If written by committee, or turned over to K-12 interest groups, they could turn out to be vague, politically correct, encyclopedic, and/or fuzzy. If linked with real consequences for schools, they could be pressured downward. They could even wind up doing more harm than good.

Done right, however, they could put the whole country on the sturdy path to standards-based reform. And if great standards can be written in Sacramento or Indianapolis or Boston, perhaps they could be created in Washington, D.C.

And so, the thought experiment reaches its ultimate conclusion, ending with the same absurdity with which it began, the same absurdity that Stern, for some reason, found so compelling: Despite the overwhelming evidence that choice and decentralized control are the strongest bulwarks against progressive education, and that big government has been progressivism’s most powerful ally, we are told that we should ignore reality and pin our hopes not on more school choice, but greater government control.

Neoconservatives, and now Sol Stern, need to take good, hard looks at reality-reality that they themselves have helped bring to light-before they pooh-pooh school choice again, or declare top-down standards and accountability the solution to our educational woes. If they do that-if they really absorb reality-they will almost certainly see just how terribly wrong their experiments have gone.