Choice Is Not Chaos

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Commenters on Jay’s outstanding post seem to be under the impression that the only alternative to national standards is chaos. If the national government doesn’t impose standards, there will be no standards at all. I think this is really what lies behind a lot of people’s support for that policy.

But, as we’ve discussed at some length here on JPGB, there are two ways to create order. One is to impose an order by raw power. The other is to allow people to organize their own orders around what they think works best (within just boundaries – your order isn’t allowed to include killing me, for example). Some forms of order need to be imposed – theives need to be locked up, not permitted to construct an alternative theiving order.

But content standards ought to follow the choice model. Currently, schools can’t create any kind of order or standards because they have to accomodate a great number of contituencies who don’t choose to be there. If every school were a school of choice, each school would have not only the freedom, but also the social support, to organize around a clear standard and impose it in every classroom. All the constituencies would be aligned.

Different schools would select different standards, of course. But that is not chaos. That is what ordered freedom looks like. The pretense that there is one clearly correct best approach to education, such that any deviation is illegitimate, looks a lot like religious fundamentalism – and that’s because it is religious fundamentalism. And it has the same dangerous tendency toward political authoriarianism that religious fundamentalism often creates.

To revisit an old post:

People need to be persuaded to adopt reform as part of their truth – something they experience as legitimate, necessary, and empowering.

“But wait!” I hear you cry. “That’s what we’ve been trying for decades, and it hasn’t worked!”

That’s right, so let’s ask why it hasn’t worked. I mean, isn’t it a little odd that 1) the system is so overwhelmingly dysfunctional that it’s destroying millions of children’s lives, 2) the people in the system are normal people, not psychotic or anything, people who by all accounts care about children’s education at least as much as the average person if not, you know, a lot more, and yet 3) the people in the system can’t be brought by any means to see reform as necessary?

What is it about the system as currently constituted that ensures reform is never embraced as something legitimate, necessary and empowering?

The system is moribund because it is a monopoly. When any institution has a captive client base, support for innovation vanishes. Reform requires people and institutions to do uncomfortable new things. Thus it won’t happen unless people are even more uncomfortable with the status quo than they are with change. So we need institutional structures that make the need for change seem plausible and legitimate. A captive client base ensures that such structures never emerge. An urgent need for change never seems really plausibile. An institution with captive clients can – or at least it will always feel like it can – continue to function, more or less as it always has, indefinitely. So why change, when change is uncomfortable, even painful?

This is why even small reforms that seem like they would be easy to implement have consistently failed to scale, and the attempt to impose such reforms through national command structures will fail even more spectacularly. Institutional culture in the existing system is hostile not just to this or that reform, but to reform as such, because it excludes the only institutional basis for making the need for change seem plausible and legitimate: the prospect of losing the client base.

This is what school choice advocates are talking about when they talk about the value of competition. “Competition” does not mean a cutthroat, ethics-free environment where individuals and institutions seek their own good at the expense of the good of others. Rather, competition is the life-giving force that drives institutions to become their best and continuously innovate, because it is the only way to hold institutions accountable for performance in a way that is both productive (because it aligns the measurement of institutional performance with people’s needs) and humane (because it creates accountability in a decentralized way rather than through a command-and-control power structure)…

This is the most important reason school choice has consistently improved educational outcomes for both the students who use it and for students in public schools. Studies of school choice programs consistently find that students using choice have better outcomes, and also that public schools improve in response to the presence of school choice. The explanation is simple: school choice puts parents back in charge of education, freeing the captive client base and creating an institutional environment in schools that makes the need for change seem plausible and legitimate.

Educators experience the urgency of the need for change when families not being served can leave for other schools – and they will never experience it any other way. Discomfort with change is also reduced for parents, because school choice restores their control over their children’s education.

HT People vs State

2 Responses to Choice Is Not Chaos

  1. baughan says:

    Right on target. Bravo!

  2. […] P. Greene’s Blog, which is focused on education policy, gives me a hat tip in a post by one of his friends, Greg Forster, titled “Choice Is Not […]

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