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Tuesday, November 06, 2012

An Interesting Read from an Unlikely (for us) Source

I'm sure most of you have heard of the right-wing think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute.  Their director of educational-policy studies is Frederick M Hess who, back in Fall 2011, wrote a lengthy essay, Does School Choice "Work". 

I would grab a cup of coffee if you intend to read the whole thing but honestly, it's quite illuminating to hear from someone who I might think I wouldn't normally read for information on educational policy.  To whit:

A few years ago, the Manhattan Institute's Sol Stern — author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice — caused a stir when he backed away from his once-ardent support. Howard Fuller, an architect of Milwaukee's school-voucher plan and the godfather of the school-choice movement, has wryly observed, "I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn't been the deep, wholesale improvement in [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought." Earlier this year, historian Diane Ravitch made waves when she retracted her once staunch support for school choice in The Death and Life of the Great American School System. "I just wish that choice proponents would stop promising that charters and vouchers will bring us closer to that date when 100 percent of all children reach proficiency," she opined in her blog. "If evidence mattered, they would tone down their rhetoric." Harvard professor and iconic school-voucher proponent Paul Peterson has characterized the voucher movement as "stalled," in part by the fact that many "new voucher schools were badly run, both fiscally and educationally," and in part because results in Milwaukee were not "as startlingly positive as advocates originally hoped." Likewise, Peterson argues, "the jury on charter schools is still out."


About ed reform:
  • There has been, for instance, a tendency to vastly overpromise.
  • The question education reformers should be asking, then, is not simply whether choice "works" — because choice is neither the sole end of nor a sufficient means for bringing about successful market-based reform.
  • The questions to focus on are when, how, and why deregulation and monopoly-busting improve the quality and cost effectiveness of goods and services — and whether they can do the same for K-12 schooling. What would a vibrant market in K-12 education look like? To what degree has it really been tried? What needs to change in order to bring about such a market, and how would we assess whether it is in fact improving the education received by children in America's schools?
  • about vouchers - In remarks that proved unduly optimistic, Wisconsin governor Tommy Thompson declared in his 2001 "State of the State" address: "Nowhere in America does a parent have more choices than in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. And it's making all the difference...There is no doubt in my mind that Milwaukee will become the national model for renewing urban education in America within a few years."
Charter Schools

In July, the Institute of Education Sciences released the multi-year "Evaluation of Charter School Impacts" study, which examined student performance in 36 charter middle schools across 15 states. The study found that, on average, the charter schools were "neither more nor less successful than traditional public schools in improving student achievement, behavior, and school progress" (though admission to a charter did "consistently improve both students' and parents' satisfaction with school"). The study also found that "charter schools serving more low income or low achieving students had statistically significant positive effects on math test scores, while charter schools serving more advantaged students — those with higher income and prior achievement — had significant negative effects on math test scores." It is worth noting, too, that in order to participate in the study, the charter schools needed to have enough excess demand to require an admissions lottery — meaning that the charters evaluated were those that parents most wanted their children to attend. If oversubscribed schools are typically better than charters with available seats — which seems a perfectly plausible assumption — then the study may actually overstate charter-school quality.


Competition

It has been a mistake, in other words, to expect public schools to behave like the private sector — where competition, investor demand, and personal consequences for success or failure drive executives to press on productivity and the bottom line, and where executives have substantial leeway to remove, reward, and otherwise recognize employees based on their contributions to organizational improvement. In systems choked by politics, bureaucracy, collective-bargaining agreements, and institutionalized timidity, there is little incentive or opportunity to react to competition in these ways.

The biggest mistake pro-market school reformers have made can thus be put simply: They have mistaken choice for competition. The conviction that school choice constitutes, by itself, a market solution has too often led reformers to skip past the hard work necessary to take advantage of the opportunities that choice-based reform can provide.  


For Profit
Champions of market-based reform should stop downplaying the role of for-profit educators.

For-profits find it easier to tap private equity; they have self-interested reasons to aggressively seek cost efficiencies and to grow rapidly; and their focus on the bottom line can make them more willing to re-allocate resources when circumstances warrant a change. Of course, these same incentives can translate into corner-cutting and compromising quality; still, no one should imagine that non-profits can readily match the dexterity, capacity for rapid growth and massive scale, and aggressive cost-cutting that are hallmarks of the for-profit sector.

Markets are predicated on the assumption that consumers have the ability to make informed choices.

Today, unfortunately, it is enormously difficult for parents in most communities to get useful information on school quality.  There is a gaping need for third parties to step up and play the role of a Zagat's guide or Consumer Reports, providing accessible, independent information on K-12 schools. 

Closing
It would seem, then, that school choice "works" in some respects and in some instances — but that choice alone could never work as well as many of its champions have expected, and promised. It is time for those who would like to transform America's schools to let go of the dream that choice by itself is any kind of "solution." The goal ought to be a much more serious agenda of school deregulation and re-invention.

2 comments:

dorainseattle said...

Our state was mentioned in the Times yesterday regarding charter schools, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/11/06/education/future-of-georgias-charter-schools-on-ballot.html?pagewanted=1&_r=0.

I find it interesting that "the State Supreme Court last year struck down a previous incarnation of a state charter commission established in 2008..." The commission is similar to what is described in 1240.

In our state, this lack of oversight by OSPI would be also be considered unconstitutional.

Anonymous said...

A great big "thank you" to the drafters of Initiative 1240 for the slopply, constitutionally questionable piece of "legistlation" that it is.

What a waste of time and money.

Oompah