Brookings School Choice Task Force

I’m a co-author on the Brookings School Choice Task Force report that was released yesterday in DC, following briefings on the Hill.  Andrew Coulson has already raised concerns about the report because he fears expanding the federal role in education even if it is in expanding choice.

I’m sympathetic to Andrew’s position but I should note that he wrote his post prior to the release of the report.  After reading it he might have a lot less to be concerned about.  The Task Force did not recommend a large federal program on school choice.  Instead, we emphasized improving the quality of information and providing incentives for states and localities to expand choice.  And we conceived of choice broadly, including vouchers, charters, virtual learning, magnets, inter-district, etc…

These measures are nowhere near the kind of choice that Andrew and I would ultimately like to see, but we have to understand political realities and embrace incrementalism.  I think there are a lot of sensible ideas in the report but you should read it and judge for yourself.  It can be found here.

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3 Responses to Brookings School Choice Task Force

  1. Daniel Earley says:

    Having now read the Brookings report in addition to Andrew’s concerns, here’s my take. Given the audiences I’m assuming it is intended to affect, it operates within the boundaries of the Overton Window and could even help nudge it incrementally. I can see how going further would merely be preaching to the choir.

    That being said, one common thread connecting each of Andrew’s concerns is that we might drift toward using a “single set of rules” to measure standards of quality. Alas, the problem is not just providing complete data or even presenting it comprehensibly and without bias, but rather: leading the public to assume that the right questions were asked when collecting data in the first place. Oftentimes, it is not, but lending authority to it leads to interpretive distortions, and in turn, “conformity distortions” in the market that stifle innovation. Consider the power of Consumer Reports when collecting product data. It’s the varied nuances in their questions that dictate the fate of the reviews, and inevitably–despite the best of intentions–bias creeps in. No matter how concrete and apparently objective the numbers, data is always subject to the context of the question. Always.

    I recognize the safeguards against this which were built into the recommendations (i.e., competing “parent portals” of information) and I also realize the popularity of relying upon “standardized testing” for everything today except choosing a spouse. The concern, however, is precisely that. For many parents, choosing a school is indeed like choosing a spouse. There’s at least as much qualitative comparison as quantitative.

    Perhaps 20 years from now a randomized longitudinal study could be performed comparing voucher recipients in Milwaukee and Ohio to their public-schooled peers to compare crime rates, divorce rates, earning power, self-education habits, minutes reading to their children, voting rate, substance abuse, donations to charity and other quality of life and societal benefits a parent would care about. Yet these can become obscured by fueling the public focus on government collected standardized metrics.

    On the other hand, I’m still a fan of metrics and such data will certainly be used. And those competing parent portals? They’re much closer you realize. I’ll just say that the most important questions–those that arrive at data points truly relevant to the parent market–are showing some surprises and you may see public demand veer in an unexpected direction. Never forget that the marketplace is organic, and it can evolve much more quickly than government. That’s all I can say for now.

  2. I understand your concersn, Daniel, but think of this like the government’s role in making economic data available. Yes, the government may focus attention on the wrong things by having a data collection and distribution function, but it also facilitates tons of private sector analysis and re-distribution of data. We could do the same in education. Given privacy constraints on private collection of education data based on individual students, the government role is really necessary.

  3. Daniel Earley says:

    I think we can agree on this critical role of government in collecting and publishing data. Unfortunately it may not be possible to prevent them from using the bully pulpit to offer interpretations that lend undue authority and credibility to those agencies spouting what it allegedly means, so that burden will undoubtedly be carried by the rest of us to rise up and keep it honest and valuable. What I probably prefer is government keeping the data as raw as possible and that any standards that arise from it are not defined and imposed by a centralized authority. That’s a well-trodden path with centuries of stories with unhappy endings. :)

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