Petrilli’s Regulatory Porridge

January 28, 2016


(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

Fordham’s Michael Petrilli offers new taxonomy for school choice tribes dividing the school choice world in three: Purists, Nannies, and Realists.

First, as Matt noted, this is not Mike’s first foray into Hemisphere Fallacy territory. (Or the second. Or even the third.) Like the guy who thinks anyone who is more religious is crazy and anyone who is less religious is a heretic, Mike thinks he has found the Perfect Goldilocksian Mean and everyone else is wrong. In Mike’s view, those who support more regulation than he does are paternalist Nannies, and those who support less regulation are utopian Purists, but the temperature of his regulatory porridge is just right.

Second, as I noted on Twitter, it’s adorable that Mike thinks he’s not a Nanny. He decries their “micromanagement” but he supports forcing private schools to administer the state test (de facto determining what is taught when and even how), as well as price controls that economists will tell you leads to shortages and obliterates the essential price signal (without which we may have competition, but we most certainly do not have a functioning market). He may fancy himself a “Realist” but, if these categories really mean anything, he just has minor disagreements with his fellow Nannies.

Third, Mike is engaging, once again, in the Means and Ends Fallacy. It goes something like this:

I think X is a problem. I believe Solution Y solves X. Group A opposes Solution Y, therefore Group A must not think X is really a problem.

Of course, this is a fallacy because it is entirely possible (as is the case here) that Group A agrees that X is a problem but doesn’t think Solution Y actually solves it. Mike thinks his preferred regulations solve the problem of bad schools, but we think those regulations are more likely to have adverse effects. More on that in a moment.

Mike accuses the “Purists” (those who, like Milton Friedman, conclude based on the evidence from nearly every other industry that markets spur innovation and lead to greater quality and efficiency) of being utopian. He writes:

Start with the Purists. I’m skeptical of all utopian visions, including theirs—one imagining that a full-fledged system of choice (perhaps through universal Education Savings Accounts) will yield greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction—and produce better-educated young people to boot.

But there’s nothing utopian about that. We see that ESAs have already begun to produce greater innovation, productivity, and customer satisfaction. We don’t yet have any data on test scores or graduation rates, but we have no reason to believe that ESAs will underperform the many voucher programs that have produced positive results. No one in the free-market crowd is expecting miracles. We’re expecting the sort of incremental improvement that the market regularly brings about through the process of experimentation, evaluation, and evolution.

(For that matter, the most utopian schemes in education come from the Nannies. Can you imagine a more fantastically utopian scheme than “No Child Left Behind”? Is there a more utopian slogan than that anywhere in education policy? And did anyone in the administration really believe we’d ever achieve 100% proficiency in any state, let alone every state? Either they set up the nation to fail or they were delusional. Or perhaps they just set up the DOE for a naked power grab. But I digress.)

Mike’s central challenge to the Friedmanite crowd is the Payday Lender Problem. What do we do about bad private schools?

First of all, Mike doesn’t have a whole lot of evidence that the government does a better job ensuring quality than the market. Indeed, the Louisiana debacle should give him great pause about that article of faith.

Second, eliminating the least-bad option doesn’t guarantee a better option. Payday lending serves an important function in the market (in the Third World, we call it “microlending,” a concept for which Muhammad Yunus won a Nobel Peace Prize). Poor people who need funds to cover rent or buy food while waiting for payday often turn to payday lenders. If they repay the loan on time, the fees are generally marginal. If they repay late, the interest rates can be exorbitant, especially if (misleadingly) expressed in annual terms. (The interest is so high both because the loans are so small and because the rate of default is so high, which is why banks generally just refuse to lend to the poor.) But eliminating the payday lenders can have serious unintended consequences that make the poor even worse off. The payday lender may charge a steep fee for late payment, but at least Rocky Balboa doesn’t come break your legs.

Kicking a school with poor test scores out of a voucher program doesn’t guarantee those poor kids a seat at a better school. Rather, the state just eliminates that kid’s least-bad alternative. Even in Louisiana, where the voucher schools appear to be doing much worse on the state test than the district school alternatives, the families who chose those schools may well have had good reasons for doing so. Perhaps they were safer. Perhaps they had higher graduation rates. We don’t know. But those families chose them for a reason and they may well be worse off overall if deprived of that choice.

Third, as Michael McShane explained previously, the market process has proven time and again to significantly improve absolute quality (and efficiency) over time:

Cars today are uniformly better than cars in 1950. They are safer. They are faster. They are more comfortable. They are more fuel efficient.  But it wasn’t a clear upward-sloping line to get here. People bought Edsel’s in the 50’s, Corvairs in the 60’s, Chevettes in the 70’s, Yugo’s in the 80’s, Suzuki Sidekicks in the 90’s, and Pontiac Aztecs in the 00’s. These were bad cars.

But “bad” has two meanings in this case, an objective one and a relative one. There are relatively bad cars out there today. That is, my hail-damaged ’05 Kia Spectra with no cruise control and a blown-out right front speaker is worse than Jay-Z’s Maybach on almost every calculable measure, relatively speaking. But my Spectra, which is still purring like a kitten after over 100,000 miles with darn near nothing more than oil changes, tires, and brake pads is a helluva lot better than the burn-out-after-five-years cars that automakers made for decades.  That’s absolute quality.

Markets work when the spectrum of relative quality drives improvements in absolute quality.  Someone sees my little tin can driving down the road and says “I want to buy a car that doesn’t look like it’s going to blow away in a stiff breeze” and cars get less tin-canny.  Someone buys a Ford Excursion and then gas prices go up and says, “I’m never doing that again” and cars get more fuel efficient. It’s a slow winnowing process, but over time it is superior to centralized systems, that, for example, made the Trabant in an essentially unchanged manner for over three decades.

Rather than thinking we can regulate bad schools out of existence, a better goal is to develop a system that continuously improves what we think a “bad” school is.

Mike Petrilli is right to be worried about kids who are in bad schools today, but the regulations he proposes to ensure that those students are attending relatively good schools interfere with the market process that could otherwise be driving up absolute quality for everyone (and, as Louisiana has shown, those kids may end up in low-performing schools anyway).

Imagine if government officials, following Mike’s logic, had decided decades ago that every low-income family should have access to a phone. Now, these Realist officials aren’t Nannies — they’re not going to have the government make the phones or micromanage the specs. They’re just going to ensure that everyone has access to a good phone, so they create a phone voucher but prohibit companies selling phones from charging more than the value of the voucher. What would have happened?

Well, there’s the seen and the unseen. We would have seen, perhaps, that everyone would have had access to a phone and many would have applauded that (although given the price controls, it’s likely that supply would not have met demand). But what we wouldn’t have seen was that the iPhone had not been invented. With no way to charge more than the meager voucher, there’d be no market for expensive smartphones. And that wouldn’t just have harmed the wealthy, it would also have harmed the poor. After all, Walmart now sells a $10 smartphone that has better specs that the original iPhone. Innovations that at first benefit the wealthier early adopters tend to benefit even the poor after a while.

In short, Mike’s admirable passion to help the poor immediately through state action may well harm them in the medium-to-long run without any guarantee of actually helping them in the short run. That doesn’t sound very Realist to me.





January 27, 2016


No drink, drank or drunk…no pointing….and you have to take a shot with each triangulation hemisphere fallacy!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Mike Petrilli created a taxonomy of school choice factions which is kind of fun. I agree with a good deal of it, especially the part about the interesting conversations now being between choice supporters rather than between choice supporters and opponents. Some of Mike’s take however strongly evokes Greg’s classic series of Hemisphere Fallacy posts: Faction one claims that the earth is a sphere, faction two insists that the earth is flat, so the real answer is obviously that the world is actually a hemisphere! Somewhere along the way these posts turned into a drinking game.

So in the taxonomy, Mike identifies JPGB as an oasis for “Purists,” identifies a more nebulous group of “Nannies” and then others as “Realists.” Mike identifies himself in the “Realist” camp.

Triangulation nudges one to exaggeration in order to create middle space to inhabit. Mike describes Purists as holding charter schools with suspicion, but a quick search through the JPGB archives will reveal dozens of reviews of charter school research, celeNAEPtion posts etc. for every “get off my lawn kid and take that Recovery School District with you!” post. Mike also describes ESA supporters as “utopian.” Someone put a link in the comments if you have seen otherwise, but I think the consistent theme in the ESA discussion has been their virtues vis a vis older models. I’ve made a consistent effort to describe our unfolding ESA experiment as a learning experience. I see an entirely reasonable path for real benefits, but I have never promised anyone a Workers Paradise or the New Jerusalem.

Or **ahem** “No Child Left Behind.”

I see questions over regulation within a system of parental choice to be an entirely appropriate topic for discussion and debate. It’s worth noting that from the very outset of the parental choice movement Milton Friedman called both for standardized testing and a certain degree of regulation. So in my mind thinking about this as a spectrum would make sense, but if I made a taxonomy it would look like:

Separation of School and State Extremists

Jeffersonian Freedom Fighting Sons of the Great Milton Friedman

Nanny State Busy Bodies

After careful consideration I place myself in the Jeffersonian Freedom Fighting Sons of the Great Milton Friedman…what?!? I did WHAT?!? Oh fine…




Five Answers for Mike Petrilli, Technocratic Progressive

September 5, 2014


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Yesterday I highlighted Rick Hess’ five “half-truths” (really non-truths) of CC advocates. Now, Mike Petrilli has five questions for Rick. I don’t know how Rick would answer, but here’s how I would – consider it a cheat sheet on the nature of technocratic progressivism.

1) You dispute that the Common Core standards are “evidenced based” because “what the Common Core’s authors did falls well short of what ‘evidence-based’ typically means.” By your definition, would any set of standards be considered evidence-based? Such as those previously in place in the states? Or any set of education standards one might develop in the future? (Or, for that matter, in myriad other fields?) If no, then what’s your point? Do you think we should abandon standards-based reform?

No, no set of standards can be evidence based, because we don’t have anything like the level of evidence we would need for that designation to be meaningful. We need at least a generation of robust school choice and educational entrepreneurship before we will have the slightest idea “what works.” Technocratic progressivism always starts from the pretense that we know more than we really do.

2) Relatedly, would you consider elements of the Common Core to be evidence-based? Such as their focus on scientifically-based reading instruction in the early grades, or the demand for fluency in arithmetic, or the admonition to delay calculator use? Would you disagree that those decisions were based on evidence? Do you think states should go back to standards that don’t include these evidence-based expectations?

Designating these policy decisions – for that is what they are – as “evidence based” suggests that they are the One Best Way for all students, and disagreement is illegitimate. The next step for technocratic progressivism, after pretending that we know more than we really do, is to take policy decisions that involve the exercise of a wide-ranging human judgment, upon which wise and well-informed people might therefore be expected to disagree, and reframe them as mere technical questions that have one objectively right answer.

3) You complain that the Common Core standards don’t include calculus. Do you think states should expect all students to learn calculus? If not, where would you set the bar for “college and career ready”?

This question reveals the fundamental bankruptcy of the whole CC enterprise. It requires a single authority to take control of the content of education for all students at a detailed level. Who died and put Rick Hess in charge of when my daughter should learn calculus? And who says the right answer is the same for all students? Technocratic progressivism, having presented policy questions requiring complex human judgment as technical issues that have a single right answer to be determined straightforwardly by evidence, delivers unlimited power to an elite class of politicians posing as scientists.

4) You say that it’s hard to judge the “rigor” of standards. OK. So do you think other standards are more rigorous than the Common Core? Ohio, for example, is having a debate about whether it should repeal the Common Core and deploy the old Massachusetts standards instead. Do you think the old Massachusetts standards were more rigorous than the Common Core? Or is it impossible to know?

I had thought everyone paying attention to the discussion was aware by now that the old Massachusetts standards were more rigorous than CC, but if Mike wants to remind us of this unflattering comparison, who am I to stop him? It is especially helpful because the overthrow of superior standards in Massachusetts demonstrates that CC is not only a floor but also a ceiling (as all “floors” must be by their very nature). Technocratic progressivism, by putting all power in the hands of politicians posing as scientists, undermines the functioning of the very systems it intends to improve.

5) You call us at the Fordham Institute “avidly pro-Common Core.” Do you think it’s possible that we are “avidly pro-Common Core” precisely because we think the standards are so strong? We also support the concept of national standards for science, but we’re not “avidly pro-Next Generation Science Standards.” We’ve recommended that states not adopt those standards because they are mediocre. How would you explain that position?

It’s strange that the observation that Fordham is “avidly pro-Common Core” should set off this defensive and oversensitive reaction. That Fordham is avidly pro-Common Core is obvious to all. Just look at their snide and juvenile piece on Bobby Jindal. And everyone knows Fordham is avidly pro-Common Core because they believe the CC standards are strong; Rick wasn’t suggesting otherwise. Why does Mike feel the need to snap back when people point out that he and his organization are for what they are for? Here we see the first stage of the final development of technocratic progressivism. The first stage (seen here) is guilty conscience. At future stages, the conscience will no longer feel guilty, having become accustomed to living in a false reality and being surrounded by the kind of unscrupulous people power attracts. That is when the really nasty stuff begins to happen.

If you want to move from the crib sheet to the Cliff’s Notes, start here. The primary source text can be found here.

Update: Mike writes in: “I think you missed my point on the Fordham Institute, though it was subtle. I thought Rick implied (unintentionally, as it turns out) that we gave the Common Core high marks because we were avidly pro Common Core. In fact, the reason we are so supportive of the effort is because the standards turned out so well. We would certainly never dispute that we are “avidly pro-Common Core.” We are, and proudly so!”

Kill Us Both, Mike

August 15, 2014

kill us both, spock

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I’m not sure what alternate universe this version of Mike Petrilli is visiting from. Here on Earth Prime, we already have all the tools we need to evaluate our schools using high standards. That was sort of the whole point of my article.

Wait, it gets better. The tools I used in my article compare the US to other countries, measuring how we’re doing against our global peers and competitors. That’s the kind of comparison we need most, for a variety of reasons. Common Core isn’t internationally benchmarked; its standards were cooked up in smoke-filled rooms by politicians and their cronies, not by education experts. So to the extent that political power forces us to pay more attention to CC and thus less attention to the tools we’re using now, we will know less than we did before about how we’re doing relative to other countries.

Beam me up, Jay, there’s no intelligent life down here.

More Abracadabra

July 31, 2014

conceptual image of an alarm clock showing that you are too late

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Further to Jay’s point about the magical thinking behind Common Core: In his response to that Politico story, Mike Petrilli seems to concede the point that whatever the origins of Common Core, the Feds are determined to colonize and control it – and there is really not much that can be done about that at this point:

In my view, the federalism concern is the one that carries the most urgency, since it’s driving almost all of the backlash on the right…But frankly, it’s also the hardest one to fix. We can’t go back and undo Race to the Top; we can’t take away the millions of federal dollars that have already flowed to PARCC and Smarter Balanced. And, as has become painfully clear, Arne Duncan and his minions—not to mention the White House—seem all but uncontrollable in their passion to make Common Core resemble their creation even when it wasn’t.

Far from predicting these efforts will diminish, Petrilli thinks the Feds are only going to work harder to take over Common Core:

Secretary Duncan…may be about to make matters worse. Will the Department now revoke Oklahoma’s ESEA waiver because the state no longer has “college- and career-ready standards”—even though this requirement is never mentioned in ESEA and is probably illegal if not unconstitutional?…By punishing Oklahoma (or any other jurisdiction) for repudiating the Common Core, they would cement the view—and the reality—that the federal government is driving this train.

Another looming disaster is the Department’s plans to “peer review” the new assessments under development—PARCC and Smarter Balanced but also the other exams that some states plan to use to assess student performance in relation to the Common Core.

So what is to be done? Petrilli makes it clear there is only one option: appeal to Arne Duncan’s “good sense.” Other than that, there’s nothing to be done. But thankfully, Duncan’s good sense will save us. (Apparently Arne Duncan is now Captain Hammer.)

In other words, it’s far too late at this point for CC to end up as anything other than a wholly controlled tool of the Feds.

Oh, if only someone had warned them that once federal power has been used to promote CC, the federal connection is irreversible!

Talk about a day late and a dollar short.

Say It All Together Now Class: TESTING ≠ ACCOUNTABILITY

March 28, 2014

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

So I tuned into the Fordham Foundation podcast yesterday, only to find that Fordham is stubbornly holding onto a misapprehension that their own research ought to have disabused them of long ago, namely that standardized testing equates to “accountability.”

This came up in a discussion of the Arizona ESA court ruling.  Broad misunderstandings of the program were on display, especially regarding the term “accountability.”

Sigh. Let’s start with the basics. The dictionary defines the word accountability as:

the quality or state of being accountable; especially :  an obligation or willingness to accept responsibility or to account for one’s actions.

Standardized testing is widespread in education, but “accountability” is scarce indeed.  So in my state more or less every public school student takes the AIMS test, but you would struggle to find anyone who is held “accountable” for the results.  Forty percent of 4th graders in Arizona scored below basic on the 2013 NAEP reading test, but good luck finding a policymaker, superintendent, teacher or parent who was held “accountable.”  Strangely enough, no one accepted responsibility for this sad state of affairs, making this a very unique form of accountability one where no one  is ever held responsible.

So what Mike and Michelle seem to actually be talking about is academic transparency to the public.  Arizona’s ESA program is indeed lacking in any form of academic transparency to the public.  There are a variety of forms this could take, some much more sensible than others, and Arizona policymakers would do well to pick one of them.  If they don’t pick one of the reasonable models, one must assume that an unreasonable model will be imposed sooner or later.  I’ve testified on a number of occasions at the Arizona legislature that policymakers should embrace transparency in the program. I will keep on doing it in the future.

Now let’s discuss the difference between faux and vrai accountability.

Kathy Visser, the mother of Jordan Visser, an ESA student featured in the above video, testified before the Arizona legislature regarding accountability recently.  She more or less noted that for all this shallow talk of “accountability” in this particular hearing (holding the same flawed understanding of the term displayed by Fordham) that there is in fact accountability in the ESA program. Everyone who educates Jordan is directly accountable to her.

Good luck getting that level of accountability in the public school system.

I followed up with Ms. Visser in a subsequent conversation. She experienced a number of difficulties in the public school system that are sadly common for special needs families. She had an open enrollment request denied without explanation with a public school official going so far as to hang up the phone on her. She consulted a specialized attorney who helps special needs families, but found the $15,000 retainer financially out of reach.  Fortunately the attorney told her about the ESA program.

Ms. Visser first tried a private school for Jordan.  She related that Jordan did not have a terrible experience in the private school, but that she decided to try the customized education approach with private tutors and therapists featured in the video above. Ms. Visser agreed that with a school voucher like the McKay Scholarship Program, she would have been able to hold the public schools accountable for the services they provided Jordan.  With an ESA, she can hold all providers accountable private schools, tutors, therapists, you name it.

That my friends is true accountability, you know, the kind where people actually get held responsible for their results.   Not the largely phony kind of accountability where states administer dummied down academic exams with massive item exposure, dropping cut scores, and all sorts of statistical games and tricks and other problems that I have read about in Fordham reports with most states obscuring things further behind fuzzy labels whose scale almost no one understands.

The type of “accountability” that Fordham is talking about however has proven to be baloney in most states for decades now.  Even in states with the most useful testing systems, like Massachusetts and Florida, you won’t find any parents wielding the type of authority exercised by Kathy Visser. It’s long past time for us to recognize the difference between genuine accountability and mere bullshit accountability.

UPDATE: In the interest of fairness please note that Mike did say he supports the ESA program in the podcast and expressed that we should let this experiment play out.  My point is not to claim that the ESA program is perfect (it isn’t) but rather that our notions of what constitutes “accountability” badly need a reboot.

Wonks of the World Unite!

January 22, 2014

Ah the undergrad years….ok, yes, that’s me with the lampshade hat. Hook ‘Em Horns!

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

My email inbox has been filling up since Mike P. let loose with the “comrade” reference.  Bob Bowden interviewed me over differences in dogma between myself and Commissar Petrilli here, wherein I attempt to correct ересь in an effort to restore harmony within the Politburo. Glasnost and perestroika must continue comrades, but with a human face.


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