We’ve been offering much strategic advice to ed reformers on this blog lately. I’ve warned about the dangers of over-reach, recommending instead an incremental and decentralized approach. Greg has warned that a national system of standards without control over implementation provides license to every quack, crackpot and anti-Semite to un-accountably pursue their own agendas while claiming that national standards made them do it. Matt has nicely documented how heavy regulation of private choice programs, especially requiring private schools to administer the state test, defeats the very purpose of expanding choice by driving 2/3 of private schools out of the program while forcing the remaining 1/3 to teach the state curriculum. You can choose any McDonalds franchise you like and they will compete to make the best burger — too bad if you are a vegetarian. And Matt has balanced my call for incrementalism with a warning that reforming too slowly fails to land a winning blow.
All of this is, I think, very sound advice. But these may all be smaller pieces of what I believe is the big advice ed reformers need to hear — there is political virtue in pursuing choice as a reform strategy over top-down reforms, including standards, accountability, curriculum, and pedagogy.
Choice does not depend on policymakers being brilliant or benevolent. With top-down reforms the people selecting the standards, designing the tests, setting the cut-scores, devising consequences for performance, writing the curriculum, and picking the instructional methods have to get it just right. They also have to be right for many different kinds of kids who may need different approaches. And they have to be right over and over again as circumstances and information change. Oh — and they have to somehow ignore their own interests and pressure from other interested groups of adults that may pull them away from making the right decisions for kids.
People will also make mistakes in choice systems. But when they do, those mistakes do not affect thousands or millions of kids. They are also less likely to make those mistakes because the people choosing, usually parents, are closer to the children and more likely to know what those children need. Parents have interests that are also more likely to be aligned with those of their own children and interested groups are incapable of capturing all of them to influence decisions.
More importantly, from a political perspective, choice has the virtue of creating its own constituency. As families get the ability to choose, they develop an interest in keeping that ability. So, they will fight efforts to roll-back or restrict choice. As more people get to choose, the constituency for choice grows and the ability to protect and expand those programs gets stronger.
Top-down reforms, on the other hand, are the most popular on the day they are adopted and steadily lose their constituency over time. To get adopted, top-down reforms usually have to maintain some level of ambiguity about what they will do to attract a winning coalition. As they get implemented they have to make more clear what will and won’t be taught, who will and won’t experience consequences, etc…. The losers discover who they are and begin to organize against top-down reforms once they are implemented.
Elites outside of the education system may support accountability testing, merit pay, or mandated curriculum, when they are abstractions being considered for adoption. But once they are put into place and opposition grows stronger, who remains as the champions of these top-down reforms? This is why top-down reforms are so easily blocked, diluted, and co-opted. They have no natural constituencies and gain none as they are implemented over time.
Choice does, however, have three major political vulnerabilities. First, choice program may be easier to protect once they are adopted, but they are harder to adopt in the beginning. Their opponents are fully mobilized against them when they are proposed and their potential beneficiaries do not yet know who they are. This is why the expansion of choice has been relatively gradual. But each new victory gets easier as the constituency of choosers grows. And setbacks are very rare because only un-elected judges have repealed programs — politicians won’t cross the swelling ranks of empowered parents.
Second, even if choice tends to be a one-way ratchet where victories are permanent and defeats are temporary, the programs are vulnerable to slow-motion strangulation by regulation. Rick Hess and Mike McShane had an excellent piece in USA Today recently warning about this. But again, the natural and growing constituency of choice parents and schools can provide a useful check on excessive regulation. This is not perfect — sometimes people are too willing to trade away their liberty for the promise of security — but freedom is very attractive and people tend to fight to keep it once they have it.
The third vulnerability is that when people get to choose, some of them will make mistakes and some providers will be bad actors. Opponents will seize upon these bad outcomes, even if they are rare, and use them to argue for strangling regulation or even repeal. Of course, top-down systems contain plenty of mistakes and bad actors — in fact they are more likely to have them for the reasons discussed above. Because choice grows its own constituency, it can generally hold back calls for strangling regulation or repeal stemming from individual cases of bad decisions or bad actors.
The central political virtue of choice over top-down reforms is that choice gains more supporters as it grows while top-down reform lose supporters as they grow.