(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)
Last week on NRO Kathleen Porter Magee wrote what reads like a lament for the death of the center-right education reform coalition:
(W)e must resist the centrifugal forces that threaten to pull apart the core policies that together have made the conservative reform movement so successful. Narrowing the scope of this tradition by removing standards and accountability from the theory of change would be a remarkably shortsighted decision, with far-reaching consequences for everyone seeking reform.
I also regret the current controversies, but one has to expect a fight under the tent here and there. Since actions speak louder than words, I’m guessing it is going to take more than broad expressions of regret to stop this one, even after the current Common Core controversy fades from relevance.
The choice movement is a structural approach. It relies on markets to improve outcomes, not venturing to offer guidance on precisely what the schools should be teaching. Such guidance would go against the “genius of the market” approach, which is to refrain from top-down interference with curriculum. Stern shows—rightly, I believe—that this is a fundamental failing of the choice movement.
Ironically enough, Dr. Hirsch fails to recognize that a great many schools that have opted in to his benevolent guidance are choice schools of various sorts. This seems truly odd given that these schools are listed on his own website. More than a few leading lights of the standards movement, while undoubtedly learned, seem to lack a basic understanding of pluralistic interest group competition. Who drove the classics out of the American public school curriculum in the first place? Why would you expect it to be different in the future?
Here in Arizona the Great Hearts schools have revealed an almost insatiable parental demand for a rigorous classical education- they have 6,000 students, 10,000 students on waiting lists, and every time they open a new school their waiting list grows rather than shrinks. If you are having trouble understanding why the districts were basically oblivious to this demand before the advent of the dastardly “structural reform” some remedial course work in political science is in order. To the limited (but growing) extent that a classics based approach is proceeding in Arizona districts it is because the combination of parental demand and (**gasp**) charter schools and even more wildly liberal home-schooling movement has created the incentive to move in that direction.
KPM to my knowledge is not responsible for any of this, and this is all in the past. More recent stuff like this however certainly does not help. State testing may be a near total disaster in a great many states, but that’s no reason not to apply it to choice programs. Egads.
The tension between the standards and choice movements boils down to one between centralization and decentralization. It is not impossible to reconcile these urges, but a necessary if not sufficient step on the part of the standards tribe will be to show greater respect for diversity and self-determination. Until such time, remember whose tribe wanted this fight.