In an exchange I had with Charles Murray earlier this month, he complained that there was no bulletproof scientific research documenting miraculous improvement in student achievement attributable to great schools like those of Ben Chavis.
At the time, that objection was beside my point, which is that there is copious evidence that competitive market education systems yield very substantial (if not “miraculuous”) improvements over the status quo government monopoly. We don’t need miracles to prove that there is a much better way of organizing and funding schools.
But that wasn’t enough for Ben Chavis. He called yesterday to pass along a proposition to Charles: come perform the research yourself. In fact, Ben offered to put Charles up in his own house.
I don’t know if Charles will go for this, but I wish he would (or find a grad student who will). And here’s why: I think Charles is so skeptical of the results of great schools and teachers because he has not come across any mechanism in his studies that could adequately explain those results. But I contend that there is such a mechanism: a school culture so strong and conducive to academic effort that it can overcome the absence of an academically supportive culture in the home.
If you read Jay Mathews’ wonderful book Escalante, or Ben’s Crazy Like a Fox, this becomes immediately clear. The school environment in these rare cases becomes a much more powerful influence on students’ willingness to work and expectations of success than is normally the case. These great schools tap into a fundamental human desire to belong to a team that offers them support and to which they feel an obligation to be supportive in return. It’s the same impulse that leads soldiers to put their lives on the line for their buddies in combat, and that sustains the insane work ethic in high tech startups.
This is one reason why free enterprise education systems excel all others: they offer the greatest freedom and most powerful incentives for excellent schools to replicate their cultures on a grand scale.