Phony Conflict

I don’t understand why enthusiasts of curricular or pedagogical reforms feel the need to pick fights with choice supporters.  Are they so starved for attention that they need to create a phony conflict about whether focusing on choice or curriculum is a more effective strategy for school improvement?

I say that this is a phony conflict because there is no necessary tension between expanding choice and competition in education and spreading the adoption of more effective curriculum and pedagogical practices.  In fact, the two strategies should usually complement each other nicely.  Given that the educational establishment is hostile to reforms proposed by backers of Core Knowledge, phonics-based reading instruction, etc…, the best way to expand access of students to these alternative approaches is to allow them to choose charter or voucher schools where they are more likely to find these alternatives.  We can expand access to Core Knowledge by expanding access to choice.

But curriculum reform enthusiasts often seem uncomfortable with choice.  What if people choose the wrong thing?  Wouldn’t it be much better if we just made everyone adopt the right approach?

The problem with this strategy is that it reflects an amazing amount of political naivete.  If someone were in a position to impose a single curriculum and pedagogy, through national testing, standards, and restricted choice, why would they assume that their view of the desirable curriculum would be the one to prevail?   Opponents of Core Knowledge, phonics, etc… are much better positioned politically to control national testing and standards.  Even if the reformers could gain control over those centralized institutions for a period of time, they can’t simply assume that they would remain forever in control.

It’s time for the curriculum people to suppress these periodic inventions of a phony conflict with choice supporters.  The vast majority of choice supporters are sympathetic to the goals of curriculum reformers and we can make much better progress if we work together than if we get drawn into these phony fights.

9 Responses to Phony Conflict

  1. rpondiscio says:

    Er, what conflict, Jay? As someone who toils in curriculum, from my perspective the problem is not that there’s a conflict (even a phony one) between curriculum and choice. The problem is that curriculum is not part of the ed reform dialogue whatsoever. Russ Whitehurst’s recent Brookings paper made the point quite persuasively that there is nothing about curriculum reform that conflicts with moves to improve teacher quality, write national standards, lift charter caps or other structural reforms. If you’re making the point that being pro-charter or pro-choice is by definition a curricular reform because it potentially creates a broader market for different flavors of school, including Core Knowledge schools, I agree. But in general, it seems to me that ed policy stops at the classroom door. Discussions of improving teacher quality, for example, have nothing to say about the quality of what gets taught. The word “standards” is routinely (and incorrectly) used as a synonym for “curriculum,” etc.

    The problem is not conflict between choice and curriculum, or between curriculum and any structural reform. The problem is the lack of appreciation among policymakers for how significant a lever curriculum can be.

  2. There’s plenty of this phony conflict. Just look at Sol Stern’s CJ article, Hirsch’s new book, or Diane Ravitch’s recent writings and forthcoming book. They all explicitly question the desirability of choice because people may choose the wrong thing and express a preference for just mandating the correct approach.

    Besides, saying “curriculum is not part of the ed reform dialogue whatsoever” does not mean that choice supporters are culpable. There’s plenty of room at the table for everyone. If curriculum people aren’t having as much success as they would like, they might reflect on why that is other than blaming the choice folks for consuming all of the oxygen. Maybe curriculum folks aren’t making their argument as persuasively as they should. And most likely, curriculum folks are being blocked by establishment types who oppose Core Knowledge and choice.

  3. allen says:

    You’re generalizing overmuch. I’m sure you can find proponents of curriculum reform who think choice is just peachy.

    But I can understand the objections of the people you name since choice throws the entire issue of curriculum reform into a new context and if you’re comfortable with the old way of doing business then choice is pretty threatening. Were choice to rule the roost then the sort of airy indifference to the failure of various edu-fads, among which would be curriculum fads, would carry a much heavier penalty. Who needs it? The weighty experts tell parents what’ll be done with their children and if those parents don’t like it they’re welcome to up stakes and move to a school district which meets with their approval.

    Since a vanishingly tiny percentage of parents are willing to go to that extremity the argument about curriculum is untroubled by the specter of organizational demise and can remain safely on the elevated academic plane that’s also occupied by philosophical discussions except that there’s also some pretty sweet grant money floating around if you can get a sufficiently large Greek chorus singing your lyrics.

    Nothing to lose, much to gain, no concerns about being held responsible for the defects in your ideas. Hey, who’d want to change that situation?

  4. Matthewladner says:


    I agree that there is compelling evidence to support the improvement of curriculum and teaching methods. I also agree with Jay however that the notion that there is any conflict between parental choice and curriculum reform is phony.

    It’s similar to saying there was a conflict between bullets and bombs in defeating Nazi Germany. Worse still, some of the people who seem to be most anxious to create a circular firing squad on these issues seem to be making themselves look silly by underestimating the scale of the problems we face.

    If Hirsch or some other worthy person had the opportunity to rewrite the curriculum for the Detroit Public Schools 20 years ago, just how different can we imagine DPS would be today? Would the changes have been implemented? Who would have been trying to teach them? We know there are wide variations in performance between teachers using the same materials in the same schools-what reward would anyone have had for teaching the materials well or even properly?

  5. rpondiscio says:

    You see, Mathew, I *agree* with you and Jay that any conflict between parental choice and curriculum reform is phony.

    So where’s the conflict?

    I’m not going to speak for Stern and Ravitch, but in the case of Core Knowledge, some of the best CK Schools in the nation are charters, so you’re not going to hear anything to the contrary from me or, I would imagine, Hirsch.

    If I read your Detroit comment correctly, Matthew, you’re suggesting that having a good curriculum in Detroit 20 years ago would make little difference because of resistance or poor teacher quality. That’s a fair point (it certainly would have made a difference for some students). But if you’re implying that there has to be a watershed change in teacher training or quality before curriculum matters, I disagree. A marginal teacher with a good curriculum is no prize. But it’s better than a marginal teacher with no curriculum.

  6. Matthewladner says:


    I agree with you. There is more than one way to improve outcomes and we need to be availing ourselves to all of them.

  7. Sol Stern says:

    Jay: Do you have a citation for your claim that in my CJ article I ” explicitly question[ed] the desirability of choice because people may choose the wrong thing. . “?
    Here are a couple of quotes from the CJ article that “explicitly” says the complete opposite of the sentiment you atribute to me:

    “I began writing about school choice in City Journal more than a decade ago. I believed then (as I still believe) that giving tuition vouchers to poor inner-city students stuck in lousy public schools was a civil rights imperative.”

    “What should we do about these new realities? Obviously, private scholarship programs ought to keep helping poor families find alternatives to failing public schools. And we can still hope that some legislature, somewhere in America, will vote for another voucher plan, or generous tuition tax credits, before more Catholic schools close. But does the school choice movement have a realistic Plan B for the millions of urban students who will remain stuck in terrible public schools?”

    And in my respnse in CJ to my critics from the choice movement, here is what I said about the desirability of vouchers and other market reforms:
    “In my article, I emphasize over and over again that I support the choice programs that exist, that there should be more private voucher programs, and that some incentivist reforms, such as teacher pay scales that reflect the labor market, would be helpful.”

  8. In the spirit of avoiding phony conflicts, I retract my inclusion of Sol in the above comment and apologize for mischaracterizing his support for vouchers.

  9. Sol Stern says:

    Thank you for the correction, Jay.

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