(Guest Post by Mike McShane)
Over the weekend, Washington Post education writer Jay Matthews posed a great question on his Class Struggle blog. He asks, in not so many words: why do education reformers fight so hard for test-based accountability systems that the charter schools they also support do not use? If these systems are so great, the argument goes, why don’t charter schools use them?
The best way I can think to respond is to put it in terms of college football.
As a diehard Notre Dame fan I cheer for two teams every weekend, the Fighting Irish and whoever is playing Michigan. I share the same view as an education reformer who most directly supports school choice as the means for reforming the system. I like charters, vouchers, tuition tax credits and anything that works to dislodge the entrenched interests that prevent leaders from giving people choice.
As I have written elsewhere, the American education system has seen decades of middling performance at ever increasing cost because of the reform-resisting iron triangle formed between teachers unions, the state and local bureaucrats charged with their oversight, and the elected officials that are supposed to represent the interests of the community. To meaningfully reform the system, we need to disrupt this power structure.
To borrow from Paul Manna’s insightful 2006 book School’s in: Federalism and the National Education Agenda, if you want to upset the power of an interest group, you can either decrease its license or its capacity. A group’s license is its argument for action. A group’s capacity is its ability to act.
Teachers have traditionally enjoyed substantial license. In fact, in the recent Phi Delta Kappan/Gallup Poll, 71% of Americans had “trust and confidence in the men and women who are teaching children in the public schools”.
Why are teachers so popular? There are many reasons, but it doesn’t hurt that when evaluated under current systems 99% of them are rated as satisfactory. Informally, parents might have an understanding of whose classroom they would like their child in, but they lack any kind of systematic performance evidence to make their case.
When teachers are more accurately evaluated and parents are made aware that their children will be assigned to that school or classroom regardless of their wishes, it should encourage them, and the greater public, to demand more options for students. To put a finer point on it, more accurate evaluation decreases the iron triangle’s license. Does it decrease license as well as choice does? Not at all. Does the iron triangle have ample opportunity to water-down or co-opt it? Absolutely. But it is a step in the right direction.
Look, I’m no great fan of the one-size fits all accountability systems that many urban school reformers are implementing, but I’m not a fan of Ohio State either. However, on that Saturday in November when the Buckeyes take on the Wolverines in the Horseshoe, you can believe that I’ll answer “–IO” to anyone that starts “OH-“, because cheering for the Buckeyes (like supporting evaluation systems) is better than the alternative.