Liberating Learning

Liberating Learning by Terry M. Moe: Book Cover

Two decades after writing Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, Terry Moe and John Chubb have done it again.  With Liberating Learning they’ve written a a compelling account of what is blocking significant improvement in public education and provided strategies for overcoming those obstacles. 

The main obstacle has remained the same across the two books: teachers unions.  Organized special interests in education as in other sectors of public policy shape the policies that are made.  In the case of education the special interests are so large, well-organized, and well-funded that their influence has distorted policy significantly to the benefit of the adults working in schools and against the interests of students and their families.

In their earlier book the solution to union dominance was choice and competition.  Interest groups can control policy but they can’t easily control markets.  But in the new book Moe and Chubb (they flipped the order of the names) acknowledge that unions have been generally successful at using politics to block the creation of effective markets.  Something has to loosen the union stranglehold to allow the markets to develop and prosper.

In Liberating Learning they’ve found what they think will break that logjam: technology.  The increasing use of technology in education will transform the operation of schools and the role of teachers in education.  In general, it will reduce the need for teachers by replacing (at least to some extent) labor with capital.  It will generate tons of data, improving the transparency of schools to the public and policymakers.  And it will decentralize the education workplace, making it harder for unions to organize and control the workforce.

There are clear echoes of Clayton Christensen’s work on disruptive technologies in this new book.  But unlike Christensen, Moe and Chubb focus on the politics of public organizations rather than technology per se.  In fact, if you are looking for detailed descriptions of how technology should be used in education or hard proof of its effectiveness, you won’t find it in Moe and Chubb’s new book.  They are not trying to prove that these technologies are educationally effective or describe best practices, although it is clear that they have some ideas on these topics.  They are trying to describe the political logic of the current stagnation in education and how it might be altered.

The clear writing and tight argument will make Liberating Learning a pleasure to read for education reformers.  We might still wonder whether unions will be able to use politics to block the transformative effect of technology, but the book is sure to provoke a lot of productive discussion and thinking.

(edited for typos)

15 Responses to Liberating Learning

  1. allen says:

    I hope they have some explanation why technology’s had so little effect on America’s schools to date because absent that explanation I question the value of the book.

    Computer technology’s value for education was seen pretty early on as the Plato system, designed in the late 50s/early 60s, demonstrates. You’d think there would be some significant, and difficult to ignore, evidence of the efficacy of computer technology in education but unless Chubb and Moe have some heretofore unrevealed information, but there isn’t. Do they address themselves to the failure of repeated attempts to introduce computers into education?

    There’s more wrong with the public education system then a dusting of computer pixie dust will cure.

    • Greg Forster says:

      There’s a chicken-and-egg issue here. If the schools are so well-insulated against reform, how will you get technological change implemented well enough to produce these beneficial effects? Won’t the unions resist – adopting cosmetic use of technology but blocking us from using it in ways that would weaken them?

      Milton Friedman always saw it the other way around – the monopolistic nature of the education sector had stifled technological innovation for a century and prevented any substantial progress in improving educational effectiveness – and he expected this would continue to be the case until the monopoly stranglehold was broken.

  2. Moe and Chubb seem to be arguing that sophisticated technology is becoming so culturally pervasive that it will be increasingly difficult for the unions to block.

    • allen says:

      Remind me not to hire them when I become a zillionaire and fund Big Al’s Education Think Tank and Massage Emporium then. They obviously believe in magic.

      Being a computer pro with a long-standing interest in the use of computers in education (went to the third annual Michigan Association of Computer Users for Learning convention in 1982) the way computers are used is by the plucking of the low-hanging fruit. You go after the uses where the payoff is both greatest and most obvious.

      When computers were first used commercially they weren’t used to produce Pixar epics, they were used to replace telephone operators and file/payroll clerks. The low-hanging fruit.

      What are the analogous “low-hanging fruit” in education? What boring, predictable, necessary jobs, that teachers detest and would gladly see handed over to a computer, will be handed over to computers?

      It’s a trick question. There are no such jobs, at least not within the public education system, since a job done by computer means one less person reporting to you and what, pray tell, is the value of that efficiency to the people making the decisions? The measure of success for the people who make decisions in public education is a function of the size of their budget and the surest way to increase your budget size is to eschew all that annoying efficiency you get from the use of computers.

      Unions would certainly resist the encroachment of computers but they weren’t able to do so where organizational survival was at stake, i.e. in the private sector so obviously, organizational survival *isn’t* at stake in the public education system. Maybe what we need is the prospect of organizational extinction as a distinct possibility to provide the motivation that’s so clearly lacking in the public education system.

      And look at what Freidman hath wrought: the first public school that can go belly up if it doesn’t make parents happy – the charter. If you want to know where to look to find educational innovation, including the use of computers in education, that’s the place you’ll be looking in the next couple of years.

      Why the next couple of years? Because charters still haven’t exhausted the protective benefits of the performance umbrella provided by the public education system.

      A charter only has to be better then, say, the Detroit Public Schools to run up an impressive waiting list. That means if all they do is teach the kids to read pretty well and write pretty well and keep them from being shot the school’s a success. But sooner or later parents will start to demand more then merely not being execrable and then charters will start to look at the use of computers and it’ll be their survival that’s at stake.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Friedman would hate to see his name invoked as the reason we have charters – he hated charters.

        That doesn’t mean it’s not true, though!

        Oh, and does this mean you don’t plan to consider hiring Moe and Chubb for the massage emporium side of the business? Why rule them out so preemptively?

      • allen says:

        I was under the impression that Freidman is generally credited with developing the idea of the charter. Not? If not, cite please.

        Also, if I’m going to be picky about who works on “wonk” side of the operation I’m going to be a damned sight more picky about who works on the massage parlor side of the operation. Priorities man! Priorities!

  3. Greg Forster says:

    Well, my “citation” for the fact that Milton Friedman oppposed charter school laws was that I personally heard him say so, about a year or so before he died. But that was a longstanding position of his – I can testify to that having worked full time for three years at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice (where I’m still a senior fellow). Friedman never liked charters.

    He thought charters were just enough of a school choice reform to get labeled a “school choice reform,” but not enough of a school choice reform to actually work; hence he feared that the great lesson people would learn from charters is that school choice doesn’t work.

    Well, that’s overstating it. It’s not so much that he didn’t think they would work at all, it was more that he knew they would only work a little, and he feared that the potential of school choice would be sold radically short. And, in fact, charters do produce better results than traditional district schools, but the magnitude of the improvement is small. So it’s not a crazy concern.

    Friedman’s great anxiety was always that the fight for an education market would be lost amid the widespread conception of school choice as a charitable enterprise. Almost two centuries of monopolization had destroyed the education sector, and liberating it would produce radical improvements – but only if we created a real education market, which charters don’t do. And once you have a charter law, even a very weak, nominal one, you can say “we have school choice already” when the real school choice proposals get brought up.

    I’m not sure I agree with his political analysis all the way – Friedman was a brilliant economist but he wasn’t always quite as brilliant as a political analyst – but for what it’s worth, that was his position.

    Now, all that having been said, I think it’s true that Friedman’s influence is the reason we have charters. First, the people who dreamed up charters were inspired by vouchers, but were looking for a more politically easy alternative. And second, the threat of vouchers is the only reason charters have been so successful. Triangulating politicians find it convenient to support charters because it makes it politically easier for them to oppose vouchers (see also Obama, Barack).

  4. allen says:

    If that don’t beat all.

    I’ve always heard that Freidman was considered the architect of the charter school concept having propounded it in the 1950s so it comes as a bit of a surprise to hear he didn’t think it was a good idea. Are there any writings of his that detail his misgivings?

    What’s really ironic though is that he was dead wrong. Charters are as perfect a solution to the political problem of reforming public education as I can imagine.

    Charters provide a surprisingly neat solution to a whole range of problems related to the political aspects of reforming education from dealing with parental uncertainty to the providing a locus for the coalesnce of a constituency dedicated to putting an end to the district system.

    By *not* being too great a step from the current system they provide reassurance to politicians that they’re not taking a flier on some hare-brained scheme, merely a relatively modest variation on the idea of the school district. Charters are in a position to create educational competition since their affinity for larger cities means there’ll be a critical mass of prospective students to support a fairly large, and thus competing, group of charters. The inherently lower cost of operation of charters, not needing to support an unnecessary and expensive central administration, means they provide a means of unlocking tax funding currently going to education which would be of interest to municipal governments and municipal employee unions.

    There are some other ways in which charters are an excellent solution to the problem of the public education, superior politically even to vouchers, but even this short list suggests strongly to me that Freidman was wrong.

    I agree that vouchers are part of the reason charters have succeeded but in a twist worthy of a Greek tragedy, the charter idea is actually the greater danger to the extant public education system. All the while the unions have been concentrating on holding the line on vouchers the charter idea has spread and in spreading has sown the notion of education reform which doesn’t include the idea of the school district as an unquestionable assumption.

  5. Greg Forster says:

    Upon reflection, I think I may have been too strong in saying that he “opposed” charter laws. What he opposed was the school choice movement investing in passing them. That’s close, but not quite the same thing. (I don’t think he would have supported efforts to repeal charter laws where they were already passed.)

    I don’t know of anywhere this is written down. Charters didn’t get big until relatively close to the end of his life, when he was writing less.

    I think the jury is still out on whether Friedman was wrong. As I said, I don’t think Friedman was ever anything like the genius in politics that he was in economics. But isn’t it a bit too soon to be so confident that charters will, in fact, produce the kind of threat to the government monopoly you anticipate? Shouldn’t we wait and see?

    Charters do seem to have produced a very substantial competitive threat in DC. But that’s the easiest possible case. All the stars are aligned in your favor there. Charters have produced a more moderate competitive effect elsewhere. But can that be taken to a similar scale as what we see in DC?

    And if that ever happens, won’t the system begin to push back on charters the same way it now pushes back on vouchers, eliminating the special political protection they now enjoy from their triangulation status?

    I’m not saying you’re wrong, I’m just saying we don’t know yet.

    On another subject, why do you assert that charters are somehow more of an urban phenomenon than vouchers?

    • allen says:

      Part of the beauty of charters is that they appear inherently less threatening then vouchers.

      Since they’re entirely dependent on the political system they’re obviously vulnerable to political manipulations so they appear the lesser threat to the supporters of the status quo and legislators. Conversely, to parents charters turn out to be “just” public schools to a very large extent so they aren’t as intimidating as showing up at a private school – which isn’t a public school – with your voucher.

      Since charters are “just” public schools they also don’t represent much of a departure from the familiar, and safe, to legislators who are thus less inclined to shy away from them. To a legislator the charter represents an excellent solution to the demands for substantive change in the public education system without incurring the full wrath of the defenders of the status quo.

      Our theoretical legislator can quite honestly say that *something* has to be done besides shoveling more money in the direction of public education; the demands for substantive change are too strong to simply ignore. So what would the head of the NEA local have the legislator do? Vote for vouchers?

      The defender of the status quo, seeing the political handwriting on the wall, accepts what appears to be the lesser threat against the eventuality of the public losing interest in the education issue, as has happened several times in the past. Charters can then, over some reasonable period of time, be brought to heel goes the rationalization.

      So by virtue of their assumed vulnerability, the presence of a scarier alternative in the form of vouchers and the need to address demands for substantive change, charters win. Since charters are in forty-four states I’d say that my analysis, if not comprehensive at least catches some of the more obvious reasons why charter law has been passed so widely.

      As far as push back, that’s already happened in a variety of ways and a variety of places.

      I live in the Detroit area and a Dearborn charter had some dust-ups with city officials. Building, fire and health inspectors showed up and, according to the story, seemed more intent on finding reasons to shut the school down then the ensure that it was safe. LAUSD refused to lease empty school buildings to charters. Detroit Public Schools tried to prevent the opening of charters just outside the city limits which would’ve circumvented the limit on charters opening in Detroit.

      Big deal. That sort of stuff, you’ll pardon my vulgarity, is chicken shit. You might close a particularly vulnerable charter here and there but the bulk will have the resources to fend off those sorts of assaults. If they follow a pattern charters can band together to increase their influence and they have a fairly fearsome weapon in the form of parents who see their children’s futures tied to the success of the charter.

      The reason charters are more naturally an urban phenomenon then vouchers is simply a matter of population density. You need some minimal number of prospective students to make a charter a going proposition and that minimum is a function, at least in part, of population density. That consideration doesn’t apply as much to private/religious schools since they’re already in operation with cash students. You can add one or two or ten students to a private school but those same one or two or ten students aren’t enough students to start a separate, i.e. charter, school.

      I think there’s a further reason why charters are more likely to be viable in an urban area and I alluded to that reason in an earlier post.

      Since a hierarchical organization is likely to be wasteful, unresponsive and irresponsible in proportion to the “height” of the organizational pyramid the urban school district, with it’s attendant, massive administration, is most like to oversee large numbers of lousy schools and to stay lousy for a long time. That urban school district provides a “performance” umbrella for charters that parents, who themselves experienced the result of a lousy education in the same school district, clearly find pretty attractive.

  6. Greg Forster says:

    On the question of whether charters are able to hold off serious union opposition once it mobilizes (which it hasn’t yet, but it will if charters are as successful as you predict they will be) all I can say is I hope you’re right, but I’d prefer to wait and see rather than make majesterial pronouncements ahead of time. “Prophecy is an optional folly.”

    On the question of whether charters are more urban than vouchers, both of the reasons you adduce apply just as much to vouchers as to charters.

    You point out that vouchers can be used in existing private schools, whereas charters have to create schools, and it’s easier to create schools where there’s population density, i.e. in cities. But existing private schools are, in fact, disproportionately located in cities. Guess why.

    And you point out that urban school districts are more dysfunctional, hence there’s more of a market for alternatives. But that’s exactly why most voucher programs (though by no means all) are located in cities.

  7. Matthewladner says:


    Getting back to your original question, Christensen and Horn see technology coming as an external disruption, rather than something the public schools are likely to lead themselves, although some of the niches that technology is filling during its rats at the feet of dinosaurs stage are in the public system:

  8. Ted Kolderie says:

    For Allen:

    Reliable documents describing the origin of the chartering idea are on

    Andy Smarick in Washington is currently researching the question.

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