Choice First, Standards Second


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

The Miami Herald and Tampa Bay Times are now reporting that Tony Bennett is expected to resign.

As I’ve said all along, this is not about Tony Bennett. This is about whether educational standards should be formulated by politicians and their allies behind closed doors and then presented as the One Best Way to which all schools ought to conform.

Does that mean there can be no standards? Of course not! It means school choice must come first, standards second. Common Core and its allies are putting the cart before the horse.

Creating standards and accountability measures requires judgment. Judgment requires trust. What trust requires is a huge metaphysical subject we don’t have space to get into today, but let’s cut to the chase – people don’t trust the government to do this job by itself, behind closed doors and with no alternatives permitted, and they are right not to do so.

That is not because one particular person or one particular party is corrupt. It is written into nature of things, it is woven into the very fabric of the universe, that human social systems don’t work that way. Not even Denethor, the most virtuous man in Gondor, could be trusted to hold the ring without using it: “If you do not trust me to endure the test, you do not know me yet.” “‘Nonetheless I do not trust you…Nay, stay your wrath! I do not trust myself in this.”

So if that’s not where standards come from, where do they come from? We obviously do have standards, for everything from technical specifications for smart phones to English grammar to the scientific method. Right now we don’t have standards for education. How do we get them?

We get them from the only place standards ever really emerge from: the open, free interaction of civil society, where people are allowed to try whatever makes sense to them and see what works.

Take the scientific method as an example. The early pioneers of modern science – Descartes and Bacon and that crowd – went down all kinds of ridiculous blind alleys. They tried things we would never bother with today. They set down rules for what you’re not allowed to do in science that we would now laugh at. Poor Bacon died from a pneumonia he caught while pursuing a cockamamie experiment, invented on the spur of the moment while travelling during the winter, to test the efficiency of snow as an agent for preserving meat.

So how did we get from there to here? Did the Royal Society convene the smartest smarties in the land and impose order on this chaos? No, we got here by giving scientists the freedom to try what made sense to them and seeing what worked.

They had endless debates. They disagreed about how to do science, about why they did science, about what science could and could not do. The debates were not a part of the chaos, the debates were the method by which order was eventually imposed on the chaos.

That’s what we need today. Instead of cooking up a One Best Way and then demonizing anyone who dissents, we need a forthright admission that we don’t have a consensus about what works, and to give people not only the freedom to experiment, but a social legitimization of their experimentation. Then we can have some really heated debates where we argue with each other over what works. This, and only this, can ultimately create consensus about what works.

I am not saying that government and political power play no role. I am saying government should play its proper role – as a servant of our civilization, not its master. I even think government has more of a job to do than simply forbidding force and fraud. That is why I favor school choice policies on their own merits, not merely as a stepping stone to “the separation of school and state,” as my libertarian friends would prefer.

A thriving marketplace of diverse options, where people are not only empowered to choose but also respected and honored for making their own choices, is the only path to standards. It is the only thing that can make standards legitimate and widely accepted. Of course this means giving up on the desire to impose them on everyone by force, but then, force is wrong and it doesn’t work anyway.

As long as the government runs a school system, it will need to set standards for that system. But it cannot even do that very effectively in the current environment, as we are seeing. A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance. Those standards could then be imposed on the government system much more effectively than at present.

People who think standards are everything must choose – is it your goal to have the law tell everyone they must use your standards, and have everyone ignore the law; or to get everyone actually using some standards, even if they’re not yours? You can’t have both.

31 Responses to Choice First, Standards Second

  1. Leslie says:

    Exceptional common sense in this post. Right on, brother. Thank you.

  2. Matthew Ladner says:


    Tensions between the standards and choice agendas are real but this sort of metaphysical animus you seem to posit between the two has strayed into folly in my opinion. It reminds me of certain standards supporters throwing their occasional temper tantrums because they think that donors aren’t paying enough attention to their plan to fix everything through accountability. I have always regarded such efforts as counter productive and self-indulgent when the standards people have engaged in them. Choice supporters should not follow their poor example.

    Over the last 20 years we have had a number of efforts to improve education outcomes and they have involved both choice and standards based efforts. I see no scenario where this would not continue to be the case. Choice supporters need to define themselves by what they favor, not by what they oppose. This was a key difference between the great Milton Friedman and the inconsequential Austrian school cranks who criticized him from the sidelines.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I am at a loss for how to respond. I say choice must come first, standards second, because choice will help us create standards, and you say I’m positing a metaphysical opposition between choice and standards. I write a whole post about why choice is good and you say I need to define myself by what I’m for, not what I’m against. I just don’t think you’re reading the post I wrote.

    • Robert Enlow says:

      Ultimately Matt you have to pick a side. I understand your arguments only too well. And while I would love to say that the two issues can exist side by side, you have to pick which one you care about more. As for me I believe parents can be very good judges of quality and standards, and in fact that they should be the first and primary judges for the status they want for their children. The government should only be about the minimum necessary to allow parents to make good choices and understand the minimum standards. when standards become too front and center, which is always the case when a government takes the lead, you lose the kind of entrepreneurship necessary to create ultimate quality. You know this better than anyone. Think of every single new product in the market right now and you will see an entrepreneur who failed times before the product was perfected, and customers bought it like crazy. Think of every single government intervention, except choice, and you will see the kind of results for you would expect. It’s not about being against minimum standards it’s about being for choices first.

      • george mitchell says:

        Another round of “accountability” legislation is coming down the pike in Wisconsin. When the details are known it will bring Robert’s arguments into sharp relief. Wisconsin, once a leader in the idea that parents can make good choices, is about to surrender that position.

  3. Matthew Ladner says:

    Neither choice nor standards are going to “come first.” Both are going to advance and/or stumble along for years and decades to come.

    • Greg Forster says:

      I agree that both types of activities will happen continuously. (“As long as the government runs a school system, it will need to set standards for that system.”) But I predict that standards will not have significant growth in their level of success (as distinct from mere activity) until after choice has had enough growth in success (again, distinct from mere activity) to establish a thriving marketplace, because a thriving marketplace is a precondition for the social legitimacy of standards.

      Although both types of activities will continue, there is one question we are in the middle of resolving now that must go either one way or the other: Will the dominant institutions of American culture label educational alternatives as innovative experiments that serve the common good by exploring what works, or as deviant behavior that should be stigmatized because we know what works and people who choose something else are stubbornly refusing to do it?

      In other words, will the dominant institutions of culture treat parents who choose nontraditional educational options more like the early scientists who created modern medicine, or more like religious extremists who reject modern medicine and refuse to give their children medical treatment? We have been making much progress toward the former, but the rhetoric of Common Core would bring us back toward the latter.

      • Matthew Ladner says:

        What makes you think we are in the middle of resolving the question you pose in your second to last paragraph, or that we must go either one way or the other? It seems far more likely to me that there will always be a diversity of opinion and never ending debate on the subject.

      • Greg Forster says:

        Admittedly, no debate of this nature is ever finally settled. I can’t remember who said that there are no finally lost causes, because there are no finally gained causes. But these debates do go through ups and downs – periods where the question is more open and actively contested, versus periods where most people regard the question as settled. I do think the CC debate is creating a significant inflection point where the question is now being hotly contested, and that kind of period is always followed by a period of dormancy. So now is the time when pushing in the right direction on this question needs to be prioritized.

  4. Alsadius says:

    I find this post terribly offensive. You’re discussing a man who tried to burn his son alive, and calling him the most virtuous in Gondor?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Admittedly, “the most virtuous man in Gondor” is problematic language. He was the most “virtuous” by one definition of that term – he had disciplined himself to obey the virtues championed by his cultural code. Even when burning himself and his son alive, he appealed – accurately – to the example of “the heathen kings of old” (i.e. the kings who ruled Gondor before the men of the West landed). Part of what Tolkein was trying to illustrate in the contrast between Denethor and Gandalf is the difference between “virtue” defined as self-discipline in obedience to a cultural order and virtue defined as conformity to the character of Eru.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Exactly. That difference is lost in the movie, where Denethor is portrayed as merely a self-pitying madman.

  5. george mitchell says:

    This should be a discussion about the facts pertaining to the Indiana school ranking. Bennett’s explanation to Hess seemed plausible. But then he resigned, which seems a bit stunning. So, again, what are the known facts?

    • Greg Forster says:

      Rick did not ask Bennett about the claims in the news reports that he sought to change the grade only for one school. Bennett has still not addressed those claims (at least not in any statements I’ve seen). I think those facts provide “important context” (a phrase we’ve heard a lot of lately) to his resignation.

  6. Matthew Ladner says:

    Fordham had a lineup of commentors yesterday, several of whom seemed to think that they knew all the facts they needed to know. I would certainly like to hear from any of them exactly how they would have dealt with a group of K-10 schools and a formula that includes AP and graduation rates. I do not believe that any reasonable person would simply say “It sucks to be you, if you want points for those categories you had better hurry up and get some new grade levels.”

    On the previous discussion with Greg, there were religious extremists who refuse medical care referenced earlier in the discussion. It is other sorts of extremists that concern me, and specifically I am concerned that they may reflect poorly on the school choice movement. For instance anti-Common Core people have been blasting emails to Arizona legislators claiming that every charter school in Arizona is going to close in 2015 because of common core and Arizona legislators must take immediate action to preserve our charter schools (!!!!!).

    The arguments you and Jason have been making regarding Common Core being damaging to school choice are obviously not of this ilk, but they are still weak overall and could feed this kind of paranoid nonsense. Let me again be careful to repeat that there are very good reasons to be skeptical of the Common Core project, but simultaneously let me note that there are a great many conspiracy theorists in the anti-CC ranks. For instance I was recently in front of an audience that contained a good number of vocal anti-CC opponents who were convicted that CC was a United Nations plot.

    Some caution therefore seems to be in order for the sorts of arguments made given on how it may reflect upon the broader choice movement.

    Almost every single charter and private choice program we have in existence today was created simultaneously with the creation of state academic standards for public schools. All 6,000 or so charter schools, all voucher programs other than the town tuition programs, all the scholarship tax credit programs. Home-schooling became legal in all 50 states simultaneously with the development of state academic standards. The ACT/SAT situation bears monitoring, but as we have previously hashed out it is unlikely to amount to much.

    Given all of this, it seems counterproductive to make arguments that public school academic standards are threatening to the choice movement. Especially given how they are likely to get used. A key aim of choice movement is to broaden the tent and gain a wider appreciation of the benefits of parental choice. This line of argument seems to me to be a danger to this project and also one of the least valid anti-CC arguments.

    • Greg Forster says:

      In the first paragraph of this comment, you once again write as though it had been established that Bennett did not seek to change the grade just for the one school, when in fact the news stories about the emails claim he did do so, and Bennett has still not denied it (at least not in any statements I’ve seen).

      Look, I don’t like being in the position of hounding the man, especially after he’s resigned, but I also don’t feel I can just stand by silently while the facts of the case are being glossed over. If we could all agree to stop talking like we know the facts when we don’t, I’d be delighted to move on to other things.

      As for the rest, I decline to withhold what I think are reasonable concerns and arguments on grounds that other people who oppose Common Core behave irresponsibly. So do many supporters of Common Core. Your resort to guilt by association does not create the impression that you have a strong case.

      I will have to look into the assertion that “almost every single charter and private choice program we have in existence today was created simultaneously with the creation of state academic standards for public schools.” That is not my impression, but I admit I don’t have all the dates to hand. And a lot depends on what you mean by “simultaneously.” If you mean in the same decade, that’s a weak claim; if you mean in the same year, that’s a strong claim and one I look forward to checking.

      Final note: State standards and Common Core are not the same issue. I’m not against state standards (as I’ve repeated several times).

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        Greg, while you’re checking out Matt’s claim that choice programs always come along with accountability reforms, note that New Hampshire’s school choice law came with no additional regulations on the public schools or private schools. I look forward to seeing what you discover re: the other states. He’s certainly correct re: many states, but I wonder if that trend is weakening.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      I’m at a loss trying to figure out how reasonable skepticism of Common Core could “feed paranoid nonsense.” What concerns me much more is when people with impressive titles at supposedly respectable institutions make claims that are patently untrue. Their falsehoods are much more damaging because they are much more likely to be taken seriously by policymakers than some screwballs ranting about the UN takeover of our education system.

      Moreover, I find it absurd to suggest that one shouldn’t take a given position, no matter how reasonable, solely because some other group of people has reached a similar conclusion in an irrational manner.

      Finally, I will reiterate my previous understanding of your argument: “Common Core only threatens school choice if it is implemented as its primary advocates intend it to be, but it probably won’t be implemented that way.” I certainly hope you’re right, but I think there is more cause for concern than you will admit, especially since the new head of the College Board was an architect of Common Core and they’ve stated that they will be CC-aligned. To the extent that you don’t think CC-aligned really means anything, then why are we implementing CC at all?

  7. Matthew Ladner says:

    There were either 13 grades changed or one. The news story was written as if it were one, Tony claimed it was 13. This is a crucial piece of empirical data.

    On the other point, I am not engaging in guilt by association, but note that many film critics hold George Lucas responsible for special effects driven drek like Twister, fairly or not. Likewise when reputable choice supporters make weak arguments that get twisted into bat-guano crazy arguments it will reflect poorly on the movement.

    Whether in the same year or the same decade seems irrelevant to me, as it is pretty clear that the development of state academic standards is utterly irrelevant to the development of school choice programs and always has been. What exactly states decide to do with their academic standards is also irrelevant to school choice so long as we maintain a level of vigilance to preserve the independence of private options that we need to be doing regardless.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      Matt, you simultaneously argue that we should “maintain a level of vigilance to preserve the independence of private options” while pooh-poohing (valid) concerns about threats to the independence of private options.

      Perhaps you aren’t engaging in guilt by association, but when do you call the argument that one shouldn’t argue Reasonable Position X because others might twist it into Crazy Position X’.

      And again, I’m less concerned about crazies twisting reasonable arguments than supposedly respectable people making false statements to push their agenda. Certainly I wouldn’t lump you in with them (and I appreciate that you haven’t lumped Greg, Jay, and I in with the crazies), but to the extent that our arguments have any impact whatsoever on the crazies, wouldn’t your arguments likewise encourage those who are lying to promote CC?

      • Matthew Ladner says:


        In my view the threat to the independence of private options exists regardless of CC. I don’t want private schools to take AIMS, and I don’t want them to take PARCC. I honestly don’t see any ADDITIONAL threat to our choice programs if Arizona adopts PARCC. I have no idea whether Arizona will ultimately stick with CC or not but ultimately it is of little concern to our choice programs. Charter schools already have to abide by a set of state standards and tests and the Arizona Charter School Association supports CC. Our choice programs don’t have any testing requirement in them at all and if and when they do we need to make sure that it is only of the NNR variety.

        On your last point, my concern is the parental choice movement, not CC. People who are in the school choice movement should think long and hard about whether they want to divert energy and resources and align themselves with conspiracy theorists to fight CC. There is an opportunity cost here in terms of money, staff time and ability to persuade people who are not currently under our tent.

        In addition, there is a very, very real danger that the fate of CC will be decided by other factors.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        To the extent that federally “incentivized” conformity is a threat to the diversity of options that we want to exist for parents to choose from, then I see it as reasonable (if unfortunate) that school choice advocates expend resources to combat it. Whether there are also conspiracy theorists taking a similar position should not factor into the equation at all.

    • Greg Forster says:

      There were either 13 grades changed or one.

      Everyone agrees 13 grades were ultimately changed. I’m asking whether the changing of 13 grades was, or was not, preceded by a failed attempt to change only one grade.

  8. Matthew Ladner says:


    If it were much of a threat, it would be worth diverting resources. Since it isn’t, it isn’t, but even if you disagree on that point I hope that you will agree that maintaining the reputability of the movement is important in and of itself.

  9. Jason Bedrick says:

    I agree that the reputation of the movement is important in and of itself. As I’ve previously stated, the falsehoods emanating from certain established institutions are more damaging to the movement’s reputation than some Birchers ranting about the UN.

    • Matthew Ladner says:

      I understand what you are saying. I just want the threat of being associated with Birchers ranting about the U.N. to be recognized.

      • Jason Bedrick says:

        It’s not a threat when it comes to reasonable people because we’re not making anything even approaching a similar argument to the Bircher types.

        The only reason it might be a problem is because unscrupulous pro-CC advocates are lumping all reasonable critics of CC with the tinfoil hat crowd. And instead of handwringing, we should be vigorously decrying such intellectually dishonest tactics.

        FWIW, I doubt you’re going to quiet down your support for school choice because some racists want to send their kids to schools with fewer blacks, even though some unscrupulous opponents of school choice lump us all together.

  10. Matthew Ladner says:

    Nope but I am happy to design choice programs to advantage the disadvantaged.

  11. Duncan Frissell says:

    Is it possible, that “educational reform” is impossible? We’ve been chasing it since the 2nd half of the 19th century and yet literacy is lower today than it was when we started.

    • sstotsky says:

      1. Can we go back to square 1, first? I recall this academic argument from a long time ago. Where has choice led to diversity? And then to consistent standards for a state?

      2. Literacy will continue to get lower in the 21st century. It’s been declining since the beginning of the 20th century. See my latest essay on What American Kids Read, in the summer issue 2016 of Academic Questions. There is nothing to suggest that any multi-state ed reform will strengthen the schools. MA may have been sui generis and no one wants to talk about it at all. The last federal effort that improved overall academic achievement was in 1862 (and afterwards) with the Morrill Land Grant Acts.

  12. […] of Arkansas Professor Jay P. Greene, has lately verged on the senseless. Earlier this month, in a commentary on Greene’s eponymous blog about former Indiana Supt. Tony Bennett’s resignation as […]

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