The Political Virtue of Choice

May 13, 2014

We’ve been offering much strategic advice to ed reformers on this blog lately.  I’ve warned about the dangers of over-reach, recommending instead an incremental and decentralized approach.  Greg has warned that a national system of standards without control over implementation provides license to every quack, crackpot and anti-Semite to un-accountably pursue their own agendas while claiming that national standards made them do it.  Matt has nicely documented how heavy regulation of private choice programs, especially requiring private schools to administer the state test, defeats the very purpose of  expanding choice by driving 2/3 of private schools out of the program while forcing the remaining 1/3 to teach the state curriculum.  You can choose any McDonalds franchise you like and they will compete to make the best burger — too bad if you are a vegetarian.  And Matt has balanced my call for incrementalism with a warning that reforming too slowly fails to land a winning blow.

All of this is, I think, very sound advice.  But these may all be smaller pieces of what I believe is the big advice ed reformers need to hear — there is political virtue in pursuing choice as a reform strategy over top-down reforms, including standards, accountability, curriculum, and pedagogy.

Choice does not depend on policymakers being brilliant or benevolent.  With top-down reforms the people selecting the standards, designing the tests, setting the cut-scores, devising consequences for performance, writing the curriculum, and picking the instructional methods have to get it just right.  They also have to be right for many different kinds of kids who may need different approaches.  And they have to be right over and over again as circumstances and information change.  Oh — and they have to somehow ignore their own interests and pressure from other interested groups of adults that may pull them away from making the right decisions for kids.

People will also make mistakes in choice systems.  But when they do, those mistakes do not affect thousands or millions of kids.  They are also less likely to make those mistakes because the people choosing, usually parents, are closer to the children and more likely to know what those children need.  Parents have interests that are also more likely to be aligned with those of their own children and interested groups are incapable of capturing all of them to influence decisions.

More importantly, from a political perspective, choice has the virtue of creating its own constituency.  As families get the ability to choose, they develop an interest in keeping that ability.  So, they will fight efforts to roll-back or restrict choice.  As more people get to choose, the constituency for choice grows and the ability to protect and expand those programs gets stronger.

Top-down reforms, on the other hand, are the most popular on the day they are adopted and steadily lose their constituency over time.  To get adopted, top-down reforms usually have to maintain some level of ambiguity about what they will do to attract a winning coalition.  As they get implemented they have to make more clear what will and won’t be taught, who will and won’t experience consequences, etc….  The losers discover who they are and begin to organize against top-down reforms once they are implemented.

Elites outside of the education system may support accountability testing, merit pay, or mandated curriculum, when they are abstractions being considered for adoption.  But once they are put into place and opposition grows stronger, who remains as the champions of these top-down reforms?  This is why top-down reforms are so easily blocked, diluted, and co-opted.  They have no natural constituencies and gain none as they are implemented over time.

Choice does, however, have three major political vulnerabilities.  First, choice program may be easier to protect once they are adopted, but they are harder to adopt in the beginning.  Their opponents are fully mobilized against them when they are proposed and their potential beneficiaries do not yet know who they are.  This is why the expansion of choice has been relatively gradual.  But each new victory gets easier as the constituency of choosers grows.  And setbacks are very rare because only un-elected judges have repealed programs — politicians won’t cross the swelling ranks of empowered parents.

Second, even if choice tends to be a one-way ratchet where victories are permanent and defeats are temporary, the programs are vulnerable to slow-motion strangulation by regulation.  Rick Hess and Mike McShane had an excellent piece in USA Today recently warning about this.  But again, the natural and growing constituency of choice parents and schools can provide a useful check on excessive regulation.  This is not perfect — sometimes people are too willing to trade away their liberty for the promise of security — but freedom is very attractive and people tend to fight to keep it once they have it.

The third vulnerability is that when people get to choose, some of them will make mistakes and some providers will be bad actors.  Opponents will seize upon these bad outcomes, even if they are rare, and use them to argue for strangling regulation or even repeal.  Of course, top-down systems contain plenty of mistakes and bad actors — in fact they are more likely to have them for the reasons discussed above.  Because choice grows its own constituency, it can generally hold back calls for strangling regulation or repeal stemming from individual cases of bad decisions or bad actors.

The central political virtue of choice over top-down reforms is that choice gains more supporters as it grows while top-down reform lose supporters as they grow.

As if guided by Greg’s Invisible Hand…

May 8, 2014
(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)
First George Will stole Greg’s money as a movie star, and now it appears that Jonah Goldberg — in the very same Fox News segment! — had intended to make the same point that Greg made earlier this week.
Here’s Greg:

Folks, from the moment you set yourself up as the dictator of the system,you officially own everything that happens in the system. This is not a new phenomenon. This is simply what you get when you announce that you have set a single standard for a huge, sprawling, decentralized system with literally millions of decision-makers, very few of whom have much incentive to do what you want, but very many of whom have some pet project they’d like to push through using your name to do it.

And here’s Jonah:

One of the problems the Obama administration faces with regard to Obamacare is that basically any adverse changes to health care will be blamed on Obamacare, even if the law has little to nothing to do with it. That’s because Obama and the Democrats vowed that Obamacare would transform the entire health-care sector. As a result any changes in that sector can be chalked up to Obamacare. In other words, Obama broke it, now he owns it. At least for public schools in 45 states, the same will likely hold true for Common Core. Not every stupid decision by a school administrator should be laid at the feet of Common Core, but because Common Core is transforming public education it will be easy to blame it for any bad decisions.

Not only that, but they both used the same example to buttress their point: California superintendent Mohammad Z. Islam blaming the Common Core for the ridiculous decision to have students write a paper taking sides on the question of whether the Holocaust occurred.
Greg, there is yet hope for your future as a talking head!

The Ultimate Portland Photo

May 5, 2014

Yup.  He’s wearing a Darth Vader costume and a kilt while riding a unicycle and playing the bag pipes with fire coming out of it.

But as Andrew Coulson noted: “Vader would never wear short sleeves. How inauthentic!”

A belated May the 4th to everyone.

(H/T Keep Portland Weird)

Show Them the Money!!!

April 30, 2014

(Guest Post by Patrick J. Wolf)

In the 23 years since the first charter school law was passed in Minnesota, charter schooling has gained substantial public legitimacy and support. Public charter schools enrolled more than 2 million school children in over 6,000 schools in 41 states plus the District of Columbia in the 2012‒13 school year.  The three most recent U.S. presidents and their respective Secretaries of Education all have been vocal supporters of charter schooling. When the popular new mayor of New York City, Bill De Blasio, recently threatened to exclude public charter schools from space they shared with traditional public schools in the city, his popularity plummeted, leading him to beat a hasty retreat from the proposal.

Since public charter schools are becoming increasingly popular politically and therefore common in the U.S., we might expect that they would be funded at levels comparable to traditional public schools. We would be mistaken. An expert research team that I organized and Larry Maloney led systematically collected and reviewed audited financial statements from the 2010‒11 school year for the 30 states and the District of Columbia with substantial charter school populations. We carefully tracked all the revenues committed to public charter and traditional public schools from every source, public and private.

We identified a funding gap of 28.3 percent, meaning that the average public charter school student in the U.S. is receiving $3,800 less in funding than the average traditional public school student. Since the average charter school enrolls 400 students, the average public charter school in the U.S. received $1,520,000 less in per-pupil funding in 2010‒11 than it would have received if it had been a traditional public school. The gap is even higher in major cities where charter schools are more commonly found.  Kudos to the Volunteer State of Tennessee, however, as it is the only state that provides equity in charter school funding.

The fact that some students attending public schools receive less funding than others, merely because the word “charter” is in the school’s name, may seem shocking. Isn’t all public school funding within a state or locality based on a common student formula? Actually, no. As detailed in our study, both public charter schools and traditional public schools receive much of their revenue from sources outside of per-pupil state allocations. These include federal categorical aid programs that can include both public charter schools and traditional public schools or just one and not the other, plus local funding raised through property taxes, as well as private sources such as philanthropies and bank interest.

Of the four major sources of revenue for public schools, local funding, or rather the lack of it, is the largest factor in the charter school funding gap. Public charter schools receive only an average of $1,819 per pupil from local government sources while traditional public schools receive a whopping $5,222. On average, charters get somewhat more state money than traditional public schools, while receiving somewhat less federal money. Although there is a perception that public charter schools are handsomely funded by private sources, our research shows that traditional public schools received slightly more private funds per-pupil in 2010‒11 than public charter schools.

The first systematic study of charter school funding equity, Charter School Funding: Inequity’s Next Frontier, conducted by the Fordham Institute in 2005, revealed that per-pupil funding was 21.7 percent lower in public charter schools relative to traditional public schools. A follow-up study, Charter School Funding: Inequity Persists, by Ball State University in 2010, found a funding gap of 19.2 percent remained. Many of the same researchers who conducted those pioneering studies were re-assembled for this latest project and discovered to great surprise that the inequity in public charter school funding has actually grown of late.

This is a careful study of the documented sources and amounts of revenue received by public charter and traditional public schools nationally, within individual states, and in major cities within states. It is a descriptive report of the financial realities in the two public school sectors. Although the report tells us conclusively that public charter schools tend to receive less money, and local government funds are most clearly responsible for the inequity, it cannot tell us in all cases exactly why local governments provide students in public charter schools with so much less money for their education than they provide students in traditional public schools.  Still, policy makers need to confront the reality that public school students are getting short-changed, financially, if they happen to attend public charter schools.  Charter students are superstars just like district students.  Show them the money!

You Must See “Short Term 12″

April 28, 2014

Short Term 12 may be the best movie released in 2013 and I had never heard of it before watching it over the weekend.  It’s a great story, wonderfully acted and beautifully filmed.  You must see it.

Short Term 12 is the name of a temporary group foster home.  The trailer may feel a bit like an after-school special, but the movie is deeper and more authentic than that.  The ensemble cast has a host of great performances, including Brie Larson as the head staffer who is barely one step ahead of the troubled children for whom she works, John Gallagher, Jr. as her co-worker and boyfriend,  and Keith Stanfield as a young man about to “age out” of the system.

The movie is story-telling at its best.  There are no explosions, no chase scenes (well, except for the opening and closing parts), no futuristic dystopia — only real human drama.  If only the Weinsteins had produced the film or it had been done with British accents, it would have received an Oscar.  Instead, you have to hear of this one through the grapevine.  And you’ll be very glad you did.

File:Short Term 12.jpg

(edited for accuracy and to add the image)

Bo Bartlett

April 25, 2014

Bo Bartlett


Last night I met Bo Bartlett and Betsy Eby at a Crystal Bridges dinner.  They are great American artists who are in town to screen their film, SEE: An Art Road Trip, at Crystal Bridges tonight.  Bo’s painting, The Box, was the one we used to measure critical thinking on our field trip study.  Bo was very supportive and gave us permission to use the image of his painting.  And both he and Betsy were very interested in discussing the study and what we learned.

Pictured above you can see Bo posing with me, Brian Kisida, and Anne Kraybill, who is holding up a copy of the Education Next article featuring The Box.  We’re sorry we didn’t have our other co-author, Dan Bowen, with us.

Shakespeare’s Birthday and the Death of Humanities

April 23, 2014

Today is being recognized as the 450th anniversary of Shakespeare’s birth.  Harold Bloom helpfully suggests that our continued interest in Shakespeare has something to do with Shakespeare’s particular insight into what it means to be a human being: “Shakespeare not only invented the English language, but also created human nature as we know it today.”

This may also help explain the declining interest in Shakespeare in schools and among some of the more prominent ed reform movements — they don’t really care about teaching children about what it means to be a human being (otherwise known as “the humanities”).  They increasingly view school as a mechanism for improving students’ economic prospects.  And of course, training students to earn a living is an important component of school, but it is not the only or even most important element of education.

We aren’t gorillas, for whom zoo-keepers seek to optimize food, shelter, and longevity.  Unlike gorillas we are inclined to reflect on what our existence means and try to give that existence purpose.  Education should help guide us in doing that, not just train us to optimize food, shelter, and longevity by becoming the best future workers we can be.  To reflect on what it means to be a human being we need to learn the humanities, including history, literature, and art.

Who is against the humanities?  Few will say it out loud, but it is the dominant thrust in the 21st Century Skills movement, which is backed by the same people who gave us Common Core, with its shift away from literature to “informational texts.”  When confronted with their manifest disinterest in the humanities, 21st Century Skills folks tend to respond that of course they are also for art, history, and all that stuff.  But I challenge you to find where the humanities are in their “framework for 21st century learning.”  See if you can find it in this graphic they say represents the “key elements of 21st century learning“:


Did you find the humanities?  Is it in in “Life and Career Skills”?  Does poetry fit in “Information, Media, and Technology Skills”?  It can’t be in the “4Cs” or “3Rs” because history doesn’t start with an R or C.  Anyone who thinks that alliteration constitutes a persuasive argument is likely to be an uncultured barbarian.

Remember that Microsoft and the Gates Foundation are important supporters of the “Partnership for 21st Century Skills.”  And Bill Gates himself seems to have a low opinion of the art and humanities, or at least museums devoted to those subjects:

“Quoting from an argument advanced by moral philosopher Peter Singer, for instance, [Gates] questions why anyone would donate money to build a new wing for a museum rather than spend it on preventing illnesses that can lead to blindness. ‘The moral equivalent is, we’re going to take 1 per cent of the people who visit this [museum] and blind them,’ he says. ‘Are they willing, because it has the new wing, to take that risk? Hmm, maybe this blinding thing is slightly barbaric.'”

To which Terry Teachout, the Wall Street Journal’s art and theater critic, replied masterfully.  Let me take the liberty of quoting him at length:

Where to start sifting through the nonsense? For openers, Mr. Gates would do well to find a better guru than Mr. Singer, whose greatest-good-for-the-greatest-number approach to moral philosophy (if you want to call it that) has led him to advocate, among other horrific things, what he politely calls “permissible infanticide.” It strikes me that Mr. Gates might possibly want to be a bit more careful about the intellectual company that he keeps.

More to the point, though, it seems clear to me that Mr. Gates thinks it immoral for rich people to give money to museums instead of medical projects, presumably those that have received the official Bill Gates Seal of Moral Approval. To be sure, he deserves full credit for putting his own money where his mouth is: The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation gives away some $4 billion a year, much of which is used to support health-related initiatives in developing countries, including a world-wide initiative to stamp out polio.

Good for him—but when it comes to art, he’s got it all wrong, and then some.

It almost embarrasses me to restate for Mr. Gates’s benefit what most civilized human beings already take to be self-evident, which is that art museums, like symphony orchestras and drama companies and dance troupes, make the world more beautiful, thereby making it a better place in which to live. Moreover, the voluntary contributions of rich people help to ensure the continued existence of these organizations, one of whose reasons for existing is to make it possible for people who aren’t rich to enjoy the miracle that is art. If it weren’t for museums, you wouldn’t get to see any of the paintings of Rembrandt and Monet and Jackson Pollock (and, yes, Francis Bacon). Instead they’d be hanging in homes whose owners might possibly deign to open their doors to the public once a year. Maybe.

As long as folks who have little appreciation for the arts and humanities are dominating ed reform discussions, we are unlikely to make much progress in reviving those topics in schools.  We may be celebrating Shakespeare’s birth, but what he stood for is dying.

Teacher Evaluation Lake Woebegon Hasn’t Been Fixed By Central Planners

April 23, 2014

(Guest Post by James Shuls)

There may not be an actual town of Lake Wobegon, “where all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average.” There is, however, a profession that comes very close – A profession where everyone is effective, meets expectations, and is an all-around great person. It is the teaching profession.

In 2009, The New Teacher Project brought attention to the Lake Wobegon effect in education. Their report analyzed teacher evaluation practices in 12 districts in four states and found that almost universally teachers received good marks. In districts that use a broad scale to rate teachers, 94% received one of the top two ratings. In districts that used a binary scale, 99% were rated as satisfactory. They concluded, “A teacher’s effectiveness – the most important factor for schools in improving student achievement—is not measured, recorded, or used to inform decision-making in any meaningful way.”

This practice of marking all teachers above average is not isolated to a few districts. Education Week reporter Stephen Sawchuk noted:

The figures are resoundingly similar. In Michigan, 98 percent of teachers were rated effective or better under new teacher-evaluation systems recently put in place. In Florida, 97 percent of teachers were deemed effective or better.

Principals in Tennessee judged 98 percent of teachers to be “at expectations” or better last school year, while evaluators in Georgia gave good reviews to 94 percent of teachers taking part in a pilot evaluation program

More recently, Sawchuk reported the results of Indiana’s new teacher evaluation system. He wrote:

 …similar to other states, the results are almost entirely rosy.

The Associated Press reported that 88 percent of teachers and administrators were rated as either effective or highly effective under the system; only about 2 percent need improvement, and less than a half a percent were deemed ineffective. About 10 percent of teachers weren’t rated because their collective-bargaining agreements hadn’t been updated yet.

Now, I love teachers as much as the next guy (I used to be one and I married one), but these reports are troubling. We know, from personal experience and from objective data, that not all teachers are wonderful and effective.

A number of studies have documented the tremendous variation in teacher quality. Economist Eric Hanushek writes:

…the magnitude of variation in the quality of teachers, even within each school, is startling. Teachers who work in a given school, and therefore teach students with similar demographic characteristics, can be responsible for increases in math and reading levels that range from a low of one-half year to a high of one and a half years of learning each academic year.

Sadly, Lake Wobegon doesn’t exist and not every teacher is above average. Centrally imposed evaluation systems, however, are not the answer for this problem. As the results from Michigan, Florida, Tennessee, Georgia, and Tennessee have made clear, these plans often turn out to be meaningless – most  likely, because these teacher evaluation systems tend to be “blocked, diluted, and co-opted” by the education establishment, just like merit pay plans.  Centrally imposing an evaluation system deemed optimal by the scientists and experts has not solved the Lake Woebegon problem.

If we want meaningful evaluations of teachers, we don’t need to mandate the evaluation. Rather, we need to give school leaders the ability and motivation to make their evaluations mean something. If school leaders actually had the authority and proper incentives to make positive pay or firing decisions based on teacher performance, we might start seeing some teacher evaluation systems that reflect reality.


James Shuls is the Director of Education Policy at the Show-Me Institute. Follow on Twitter @shulsie

Maranto and Crouch on Single Parenthood and Inequality

April 21, 2014

My colleagues, Bob Maranto and Michael Crouch, have an oped in the Wall Street Journal today arguing that single parenthood is a major contributor to poverty and inequality and yet receives remarkably little attention from scholars and media elites.  They write:

Suppose a scientific conference on cancer prevention never addressed smoking, on the grounds that in a free society you can’t change private behavior, and anyway, maybe the statistical relationships between smoking and cancer are really caused by some other third variable. Wouldn’t some suspect that the scientists who raised these claims were driven by something—ideology, tobacco money—other than science?

Yet in the current discussions about increased inequality, few researchers, fewer reporters, and no one in the executive branch of government directly addresses what seems to be the strongest statistical correlate of inequality in the United States: the rise of single-parent families during the past half century.

Their critique of political science and education researchers’ neglect of this issue is particularly devastating:

In the past four years, our two academic professional organizations—the American Political Science Association and the American Educational Research Association—have each dedicated annual meetings to inequality, with numerous papers and speeches denouncing free markets, the decline of unions, and “neoliberalism” generally as exacerbating economic inequality. Yet our searches of the groups’ conference websites fail to turn up a single paper or panel addressing the effects of family change on inequality.

The piece is certain to generate a variety of strong reactions.  It is already the #1 article in today’s WSJ.  But just so that you don’t caricature the authors as nanny-state moral police, they understand that the solution has to flow from a gradual and non-coercive national discussion:

The change must come from long-term societal transformation on this subject, led by political, educational and entertainment elites, similar to the decades-long movements against racism, sexism—and smoking.  But the first step is to acknowledge the problem.

And in a further departure from stereotype (and to make sure he angers more people), Bob has repeatedly written in defense of gay marriage, including here and here and here.

The Greene-Polikoff Wager

April 21, 2014

Morgan Polikoff thought my posts last week on the Paradoxical Logic of Ed Reform Politics were “a tad premature for the ‘CCSS are dead’ hysterics.”  I had written:

The unraveling of Common Core makes this flop the most obviously ill-conceived and doomed-to-fail reform effort since the Annenberg Foundation threw $500 million away in the 1990s.  I assure you that while the money was flowing from Annenberg that effort had plenty of defenders, just as Common Core does today.  After Common Core fails, everyone will say how they knew it was flawed, just as they currently do with Annenberg.  Victory has a thousand fathers while defeat is an orphan.

Morgan noted that “At last count, 1 state out of 45 has repealed the standards.”  I responded: “I’m sure gay marriage opponents felt similarly triumphant in 2004. How many states have effectively implemented Common Core?”

So, we have agreed upon a wager.  In ten years, on April 14, 2024, I bet Morgan that fewer than half the states will be in Common Core.  We defined being in Common Core as “shared standards with shared high stakes tests-even if split between 2 tsts.”  Given 51 states and DC, Morgan wins if 26 or more states have shared standards and high stakes tests and I win if the number is 25 or less.  The loser has to buy the winner a beer (or other beverage).

According to Heritage’s count, 15 states have already refused to join Common Core, paused implementation, or downgraded or withdrawn from participation in national tests.  I just need all of these states to continue toward withdrawal from Common Core and 11 more to join them over the next ten years.  I like my chances.



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