Thursday, March 06, 2008

Beyond School Choice

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.


Unknown said...

Please explain "rigorous, content-based curriculum" and how our standards do not reflect this.

Scott Hinrichs said...

Read Stern's entire article. That should give you a clue.

Unknown said...

I read it when it was released and see only the following statement related to actual curriculum standards:

"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."

But this is little more than an opinion - an unsupported assertion, perhaps.

Our state core standards include history, literature, and science objectives, as well as phonemic awareness and computation-based knowledge.

I remain unclear as to how our Utah state core does not reflect a "rigorous, content-based curriculum." Are you perhaps suggesting we should adopt Mr. Hirsch's Core Knowledge statewide? What should I ask the State Board of Education to change?

Scott Hinrichs said...

There are many measures available that show where Utah can improve curriculum and performance. As I have noted many times previously, in standardized testing Utah ranks about average nationally. But when considered with other states with similar demographics, Utah ranks dead last. We aren't doing as well as we could.

One measure is provided by Achieve, Inc.. Achieve's American Diploma Project is admittedly skewed, since it focuses primarily on preparing students to achieve college degrees. Some measures shown in their report for Utah assume that drops in percentage of students attending college and students graduating with a four-year degree fail to consider the fact that due to a booming economy in the years measured, many people opted out of college to take advantage of other promising opportunities.

Still, as shown here (Survey Results tab), Utah can do much better in aligning curriculum to properly prepare students for college and the workplace.

A couple of years ago the D-News published this article that discusses the rigor of Utah's curriculum. In accordance with some of the issues discussed in the article, students that entered ninth grade this year have enhanced math and english requirements. This will bear fruit in a few years.

The point of my original post is that school choice alone won't cut it. Our policies are beginning to recognize rigor. There's still more to be done in this arena. We need to make sure that courses are relevant as well as rigorous. Properly preparing our teachers to instruct the more rigorous and relevant curriculum should be at the top of our list.