Sol Stern has long been a proponent of school choice. He has written passionately about it in the City Journal for at least two decades.
Economists have long known that promoting free trade — people acting disparately in their own interests — results in a self-organizing society that efficiently produces superior results to controlled trade. They also know that trying to control markets results in inferior products, higher costs, and rationing.
The whole idea behind school choice — such as Utah’s school voucher law that dramatically failed on referendum last November — is that it would create market pressures that would result in across-the-board improvements in education.
In this WSJ op-ed article, Stern takes a serious look at how school choice has actually worked over the past two decades, and he’s not pleased with the results. He calls for “education reformers … to resist unreflective support for elegant-sounding theories, derived from the study of economic activity, that don't produce verifiable results in the classroom.”
School choice, argues Stern, simply isn’t enough when it comes to achieving real improvements in education. Although some children that have escaped bad public school situations have certainly been helped, the competitive environment created has not resulted in significant positive changes in public schools. The basic problem, claims Stern, simply isn’t adequately addressed by school choice alone.
So, what is that basic problem? The culprit is instructional content, claims Stern. Schools — even most private and charter schools — ultimately use the same instructional content. This stems from the nature of the instruction provided at the nation’s 1,500 ed schools, where our teachers receive their teaching education.
Although ed schools “represent an almost perfect system of choice, markets and competition,” writes Stern, “the schools are uniformly awful, the products the same dreary progressive claptrap.” For example, a recent study found that “almost all elementary education classes [at the ed schools] disdained phonics and scientific reading.”
Why don’t ed schools respond to actual student needs? Because they have become ideological institutions rather than institutions focused primarily on instructional quality. Stern writes, “Professors who dare to break with the ideological monopoly--who look to reading science or, say, embrace a core knowledge approach--won't get tenure, or get hired in the first place. The teachers they train thus wind up indoctrinated with the same pedagogical dogma whether they attend New York University's school of education or Humboldt State's.”
Even administrators intent on promoting a rigorous curriculum face an uphill battle trying to get decent instructional material and trying to hire qualified teachers to teach it.
However, Stern cites Massachusetts as a model to follow. Its improvement in student performance over the past few years is “something close to an education miracle,” he says. But it came about due to the efforts of “a few key former education leaders” that “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.”
As an example of market-based education gone awry, Stern puts forward the New York City system. “Everything in the system now has a price,” he says. This includes $50K bonuses to principles for raising their school’s test scores, and rewarding kids with “cell phones for passing tests.” No evidence exists that any of this actually improves educational outcomes. It certainly incentivizes fudging on test scores.
“Don't get me wrong:” writes Stern, “Market-style reforms are sometimes just what's necessary in the public schools.” But, he asserts, 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” of ed school indoctrination.
No doubt that part of the problem of the school choice experiments over the past two decades is that the sampling is simply too small. Only a few thousand students nationwide are involved, as opposed to the 50 million that are not. That’s like trying to impact the entire economy of the USSR by having a few free market tourist spots on the Crimean coast.
After two decades of pushing hard for school choice reforms, few programs have actually been adopted and some of those are in trouble because many inner city Catholic schools (the main available option) are closing down. For school choice to be effective, about half of our students would need to be involved. Stern begs us to face the reality that this simply isn’t going to happen in the foreseeable future.
Ultimately, Stern is most interested in what actually works — factors that actually improve our kids’ educational outcomes. School choice efforts shouldn’t be abandoned, but by itself, school choice simply isn’t enough to substantially improve our education system.
We should put our efforts where we’ll get the most bang for the buck. Ed schools need reform so that we can get teachers qualified to instruct rigorous content-based curriculum. Since public schools are subject to political pressure, we need to demand of our politicians and boards of education the implementation of such curriculum at every level of the K-12 experience. We need to look at what really works and then do it.