Jack Jennings Has Questions. We Answer with More Questions.

Jack Jennings, the former Democratic staffer for the House Education and Labor Committee and current head of the Center on Education Policy, has a piece on Huffington/AOL/whatever that thing is.  In case you aren’t familiar with his oeuvre you can read Greg’s “Check the Facts” on Jennings in Education Next a few years back.

In making the case for more federal spending on education and for national standards and assessments, Jennings asks:

How can the country raise academic achievement if 14,000 local school districts are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of education?

I thought about answering with evidence on how choice and competition among school districts improves educational outcomes from people like Caroline Hoxby, Henry Levin, and yours truly.  But then I remembered that evidence is not really Jennings’ thing.

It might be better to answer Jennings’ question by slightly re-wording it to fit different contexts and see if it still seemed like a reasonable question.  Here we go:

How can the country raise gross domestic product if 29.6 million businesses are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of the economy?

Or how about this:

How can the country reduce crime if there are more than 17,000 law enforcement agencies each making their own decisions on most key aspects of crime-prevention?

This is getting easy.  Here’s another:

How can the country make good laws if 535 members of Congress are each making their own decisions on most key aspects of public policy?

Why would Jennings think that he is making a persuasive argument with a rhetorical question that is rebutted by rigorous research and seems silly when transplanted to other situations?  Sadly, Jennings rhetorical question may win some converts and it does so not by being reasonable or by being consistent with research findings.  Jennings uses this rhetorical question because it appeals to people’s desire for power, not their desire for evidence or logical consistency.  When Jennings asks how we can make schools better with so many independent school districts, he is appealing to the reader’s fantasy that they or their allies might be able to dominate the enhanced central authority that would substitute for so many independent school districts.

Inside most public policy wonks is a mini-dictator, waiting to come out.  They dream about how things ought to be organized… if only they were in charge.  The drive for Common Core national standards is built on appealing to these mini-dictator fantasies.

Of course, if the mini-dictators realize that others are striving to control the central authority, they may turn against the idea if they think they are unlikely to be the ones in charge.  That is our best hope.  It is impossible to remove the thirst for power, but it is possible to (as the Founders realized) pit ambition against ambition in the hope that it will prevent tyranny.

(edited for typos)

16 Responses to Jack Jennings Has Questions. We Answer with More Questions.

  1. Greg Forster says:

    How can this country determine what opinions are or are not supported by the evidence if Jack Jennings and 1.3 million other scientists and researchers are each analyzing the data however they think best?

    Bonus question: Am I a bad man for posting another link to this?

  2. Patrick says:

    How can we raise education achievement with 40,000 bureaucrats working at the U.S. Department of Education

  3. Parry says:

    I get your point, but I’m not sure your counter-examples are entirely fair. In the case of businesses, there is much more opportunity and need for diversity in business than in public education. I doubt anyone would argue that we want to see as much disparity between schools as we see between a local McDonalds, a pet grooming salon, and a dentist’s office.

    And in terms of police, there is an incredibly high degree of standardization. We wouldn’t want 17,000 law enforcement agencies creating their own definitions of crimes or responding to the same crimes in highly varied ways. We have consistent laws and definitions of how police officers are supposed to behave. Your point is well-taken that different police agencies will develop different crime-prevention strategies, but couldn’t that be analogous to individual schools and teachers trying various instructional approaches within a larger, common curriculum framework?

    I understand your larger point—that innovation results from freedom of movement, not top-down standardization—but where would you argue is the balance point? If not at the federal or state levels, should curriculum standards be decided solely at the individual district, school, or classroom level? Where does innovation-inspiring freedom of movement turn into an educational chaos of radically different definitions of what kids should know and be able to do? A lot of those 29.6 million businesses are going to fail.


    • Hi Parry,

      Thanks for your comment. Of course you are right that none of my re-phrasings of the question are exactly analogous. But the larger point is that a great many things run much better when they are not centralized. Jennings asks his rhetorical question not because he has a consistent or evidence-backed theory of the right amount of centralization, but because he is appealing to the power-fantasies of the edupundit-class.

      My preference is to decentralize this and most other policy issues as much as is possible, but I recognize that some amount of regulation may be necessary. I just think that our first-inclination should be against centralization, while the power-seeking edupundits have the first inclination of centralization.

  4. Greg Forster says:

    There are two things that need to be distinguished:

    A) Who will organize and deliver educational services?

    B) Who will decide what those services ought to contain, and evaluate whether the service providers are delivering it?

    Radical decentralization of B, even to the point of letting each family set its own standards, does not imply “chaos” in A. To the contrary, it would clean up a lot of the chaos we have now, because it would create incentives for school systems to ensure that each classroom and school is delivering what it’s supposed to deliver.

    You’re actually far too squeamish to suggest that it would be going too far to devolve B to the “district, school or classroom level.” On the contrary, we need to devolve B much further – to the level of each individual family. That will revolutionize A – but it will do so by eliminating, not creating, chaos.

  5. Parry says:


    This is where school choice starts to get gray for me. As I understand your argument, parents now become B. But I don’t see clearly how that would play out. I don’t think that parents as K-12 consumers in an education market are analogous to, say, parents as consumers of kids’ toys. You buy a Thomas Train, your kid ignores it, and you don’t buy any more Thomas Trains. You buy a cheap Barbie knock-off, the arms come off the first time your daughter plays with it, and you avoid that brand. You buy a real Barbie, your daughter loves it, and so you buy some more.

    K-12 education decisions seem to me to be much more complex. How do parents compare schools? How do they know if their children are getting a good education?

    You say that decentralization “would clean up a lot of the chaos we have now, because it would create incentives for school systems to ensure that each classroom and school is delivering what it’s supposed to deliver.” But what are they supposed to deliver? What the customer wants them to deliver? That’s where it gets really gray for me. A significant number of the parents with whom I work—and I tend to work with some pretty smart, savvy parents—would likely have a hard time defining exactly what it is they expect from a school (at least in specific terms). A lack of curricular standardization or assessment standardization makes comparisons very difficult, and creates big problems if you want to move your child from school A to school B. For less savvy parents, I think things become even more complicated.

    I’m not arguing against school choice—my school is primarily a school of choice within a public school district, and I think the fact that we have to convince parents to choose us makes us better—I’m just not sure it is clear to me where the lines are.

    Interesting conversation, though.


  6. Greg Forster says:

    We shouldn’t expect to know what the school system will look like after it’s been transformed from a moribund government monopoly that’s organized to serve the interests of political actors into an entrepreneurial system that’s designed to serve the interests of families. This hand-wringing anxiety that says we won’t give people freedom until we’re sure we’ve mapped out what everything will look like once we do – until we get some kind of guarantee that the results will look like what we now (ignorantly) think they ought to look like – is exactly why the education system is a moribund government monopoly to begin with.

    Luke can’t hit the exhaust shaft until he turns off the targeting computer.

    As for the suggestion that parents are competent to select trinkets for their children but incompetent to select schools, I deny it. We let parents select their children’s food, yet how many parents could articulate a detailed understanding of the science of nutrition? We let parents choose how to teach their children right from wrong, but how many of them are moral philosophers? The idea that you can’t choose for yourself unless you’re an expert is inimical to basic liberty.

  7. Jess says:

    I don’t think school choice is answer – it means that families who know a lot and care about their children will choose better schools and those who don’t are left behind in the school that becomes the failing school. Schools with actively engaged students and parents do well, those with non-engaged students and parents do poorly.

  8. Parry says:


    At a philosophical level, I agree with you: whether expert or not, we are adults, and we need the freedom to make choices for ourselves. At the same time, this doesn’t mean that we always make effective choices. Yes, parents get to select their children’s food, and childhood diabetes has become a national epidemic. I don’t see that as an argument in favor of government control of child nutrition, but rather as a cautionary point that having the freedom to choose and making effective choices are two very different things.

    That having been said, books such as The Wisdom of Crowds have inclined me to believe that large groups of “amateurs” can end up making more effective choices than “experts”. But I am also persuaded by Dan Willingham (http://www.britannica.com/blogs/2009/06/what-happens-to-school-choice-if-people-arent-rational-and-choose-bad-schools/) that choosing a school is pretty complex, and humans don’t have a stellar track record with complex choices.

    While there may be a similarity at the philosophical level between choosing a child’s toy and choosing a child’s school, at the practical level there are some big differences. You can get immediate feedback about a toy, toy’s aren’t particularly expensive, you can get pretty good information beforehand about the quality of a toy, etc. My argument isn’t that parents are more competent at picking toys than they are at picking schools, my argument is larger than that: people are more competent at making simple choices with immediate feedback than they are at making complex choices with incomplete feedback.

    Again, I am a principal in a school of choice, and I see the practical benefits of school choice on a daily basis. But I am very cautious about extrapolating from my individual experiences to argue for a completely retooled system.


  9. Greg Forster says:

    Don’t take my engaging with your arguments the wrong way – I don’t mean to beat up on you. I just want to show you why I think these larger concerns are misplaced.

    The diabetes example doesn’t support your point, it supports mine. Over the period of time when childhood diabetes was growing, were parents getting more free or less free to control their children’s diets? It seems pretty cut and dried to me that they’ve been getting a lot less free.

    Very true, humans in general don’t have a stellar track record with complex choices. But having the government anoint experts to make choices for everybody else has a much worse track record.

    I don’t think the question is whether people are better at making simple choices than at making complex choices. I think the question is, given that complex choices must be made, who will be better at making them – parents or government bureaucrats?

    You mention “incomplete feedback.” Parents get incomplete feedback, but government experts get none.

    Oh, and plus: it’s not a choice between putting parents in charge of reform and having “reformers” who know what they’re doing be in charge of reform. Without the incentives provided by school choice, no reform worth the name is sustainable for the long term. “Reformers” can always be co-opted or defeated (witness the fate of Michelle Rhee).

  10. Parry says:


    No worries — I enjoy the back and forth, and I assume your goal is the same as mine: exploring ideas to push our own thinking and come up with better ways of educating kids.

    I think your point about decision-making is an important one. Parents don’t need to be stellar at making education choices, they just need to be better than the people currently making education choices. It’s a complex question. In many ways, as a principal I am making education choices for kids, and I wouldn’t consider myself a government bureaucrat. At the same time, my choices are constrained within policies, regulations, and expectations that are set by people pretty far removed from the classroom and day-to-day student learning.

    I think I’m cautious by nature in believing that there’s a better mousetrap out there. If I had to put money on it, I would bet that, 10 to 15 years from now, a combination of school choice and advancements in web-based learning will have created some real changes in K-12 education, especially at the secondary end. But I still struggle with seeing exactly what that might look like. Which is, I guess, another argument in favor of some bottom-up innovation.

    I’m looking forward to your next provocative post so we can do this again!


  11. Daniel Earley says:

    This is a great discussion. I believe, Parry, that the answer circles back to Greg’s earlier point, that if we are really serious about liberty and innovation, then we shouldn’t expect to know what education will look like in the future. Granted, giving up that control takes a bit more humility (and courage) than our natures prefer, but it strikes at the heart of Jay’s initial point: suppressing the mini-dictator inborn to each of us with a wise set of checks and balances.

    As for whether there’s a better mousetrap out there, let’s imagine we’re trying to set standards for America’s transportation needs, but it’s 1905. Rural roads would seem adequate with a packed gravel covering, cities might require stone pavers to prevent wagon ruts. No curve radius or banking would need to accommodate more than 25 mph. Given the rarity and cost of automobiles (a mere plaything for the rich) we would have little clue of the impending transportation revolution. None of us could even remotely envision the interstate freeways and network of airports we use today, let alone set standards relevant to them. Even the visionary Wright brothers were incapable of seeing beyond the horizon to jet travel. As transportation planners, we wouldn’t even know which questions to ask.

    Ultimately, the future belongs to the future. We should not feel too badly that we can’t see exactly what it might look like. The real risk is that we unwittingly shackle it with the restricted roads of our vision and machinery of our modern wagons.

  12. Parry says:


    Thanks for your comments. Your transportation analogy underscores one of the reasons why I am so cautious in my optimism about expanded school choice.

    Changes in transportation relied in large part on improving technologies. As newer and faster cars were built, as bigger and faster airplanes were built, the transportation infrastructure had to change to keep up with these improvements. In 1905, we couldn’t accurately predict our transportation needs decades down the road because we couldn’t accurately predict the improvements in transportation technologies.

    But the underlying technology of education is people. Education in 2005 looks pretty darn similar to education in 1905, not because we have a state-run public education system rather than a nationwide system of choice, but because the underlying technology hasn’t changed: a teacher in a classroom with a group of kids, trying to teach a curriculum using a series of texts. If the technology stays pretty static, then the industry is likely to stay pretty static.

    So many of the analogies that I have read that promise dramatic improvement in K-12 education in a choice-based system do so by pointing to dramatic improvements in other industries whose improvements depended in large part on technological innovations. I don’t believe that you can successfully use the transportation industry—or any industry that relies in large part on advances in technology for improvements in the industry—as an effective analogy to K-12 education because the underlying structures of the industries are so dissimilar.

    That’s what I mean when I say I am cautious about the possibility of a better mousetrap. Private schools have been around for decades competing with public schools, and yet private schools look remarkably similar to public schools. If choice and competition have the capability to be the engine that drives dramatic innovations in education, shouldn’t we already have seen some impressive innovations in private education over the last 30 years? In 1905, transportation engineers could at least look to the past and see that big changes in transportation had already occurred, suggesting that additional changes might be on the horizon (even if they couldn’t have predicted exactly what those changes would be).

    We haven’t seen dramatic changes in the basic structure of public or private education for 100 years. Putting aside web-based education for the moment (which can impact both public and private education models), what evidence exists to suggest that we should anticipate significant changes in the future, given that education is primarily a human-based business?


  13. Daniel Earley says:

    I believe I agree with you, Parry, that human biology and human nature have not changed notably in 100 years or even 100 centuries for that matter. Indeed, it may well be that models resembling the classical trivium, quadrivium of past eras would generate quantum leaps forward for many students. The point is simply to allow the freedom of such options for all.

    I’m reminded of a book we supplied for all of our students called “How to Think Like Leonardo DaVinci” at a charter high school I helped establish eight years ago. Timeless lessons, to be sure, but largely forgotten. Most education entrepreneurs I know look both forward and backward for inspiration, and they do it constantly.

    That said, granted, heritable human qualities are fundamentally static. Wouldn’t you agree though, that modern times have brought about advances in understanding the human, particularly in developmental psychology? Love them or hate them, Freud, Skinner, Jung, Kagan, Piaget, Bowlby, Erikson and many others have raised a host of good questions in merely one century. And today we stand at the brink of another revolution as we begin to map out the role of genetics on human behavior, not to mention finally collecting verifiable data on brain plasticity and development. How such information 10, 20 or 70 years from now could be blended with traditional pedagogies by education entrepreneurs is not for me to evaluate. My job is just to make sure I’m not standing in their way. 🙂

  14. […] Jay P. Greene Inside most public policy wonks is a mini-dictator, waiting to come out. They dream about how things ought to be organized… if only they were in charge… […]

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