The Next Accountability: Choice, Polity and a New Definition of Reform

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today EdChoice has released the final installment of my series on The Next Accountability. A while back Matt said he was curious how I would “land the plane” after the lofty heights to which the early installments soared – canvassing big questions about the meaning of life and the future of democratic pluralism.

Well, here’s how I land it: The next accountability should be grounded in:

  • Empowering parents through school choice and local information systems
  • Devolving polity so principals and local districts govern schools close to communities
  • Reforming our movement’s principles to describe education the right way

The last one will probably be the hardest for the movement to grasp but may be the most important in the end:

Markets and competition as drivers of efficiency and performance are important. But they do not provide the moral norms and narratives needed to inform the next accountability. The best case for universal school choice does not center on them. These should be secondary, not primary themes.

We should develop ways of articulating these principles as the basis of the next accountability:

  • The purpose of education is to help children develop the knowledge, skills and virtues they need to live a good life—achieving and appreciating the true, good and beautiful—and to live as good citizens of a community where we disagree about what is good.
  • To cultivate these, we need teachers who are wise professionals (possessing the qualities they seek to instill, and guided by an independent professional ethic) and schools that are free communities (where shared purpose, not the arbitrary dictates of distant authorities, shape a shared life).
  • Teachers and schools can educate the individual student for free pursuit of the good life as he or she sees it, and also for good citizenship and respect for others’ rights in a diverse community, because of what we share in common as human beings and as fellow Americans.
  • Teachers and schools should be held accountable to do this by parents and local communities—the more local the better—because they are in the closest moral and social connection to schools, and can therefore hold them accountable in ways that support their social fabric rather than disrupting it.

Of course, this series is only a down payment on what needs to be a long-term change in the way we think and speak about accountability. But I had a huge amount of fun writing it and I’m convinced that something like this direction is the only real hope for educational accountability after the coming collapse of technocracy.

As always, I’d love to hear your responses. Thanks for reading!

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9 Responses to The Next Accountability: Choice, Polity and a New Definition of Reform

  1. Jefff Kwitowski says:

    Very well done, Greg. I’ve enjoyed reading. and shared your articles with many.

  2. harriettubmanagenda says:

    In abstract, the education industry is a highly unlikely candidate for State (government, generally) operation.
    The arguments against collectivized agriculture apply with even greater strength against collectivized education. Humans are not standard. Children vary enormously in their interests and aptitudes. No planner can predict the career paths that will open before the next generation as society evolves.
    For every locality __A__ the term “the government of A” names the largest dealer in interpersonal violence in that locality (definition, after Weber).
    A law is a threat by a government to kidnap (i.e., arrest), assault (subdue), and forcibly infect with HIV (imprison) someone, under some specified circumstances.
    Markets and federalism institutionalize humility on the part of State actors. If a policy dispute turns on a difference in taste, competitive markets in goods and services and numerous local policy regimes leave room for the expression of varied tastes, while the contest for control of a State-monopoly provider of a good or service must create unhappy losers (who may comprise the vast majority; imagine the outcome of a State-wide vote on the one size and style of shoes we all must wear). If a policy dispute turns on a matter of fact, where “what works?” is an empirical question, competitive markets and numerous local policy regimes provide more information than will a State-monopoly provider of goods and services. A State-monopoly provider is like an experiment with one treatment and no controls, a retarded experimental design.
    The State (government, generally) cannot subsidize education without a definition of “education”. The State cannot operate schools without a definition of “school”. The State cannot employ teachers without a definition of “teacher”. Students, parents, real classroom teachers, and taxpayers are then bound by the State’s definitions.
    On-the-job training is education as much as shop class is education. Minimum wage laws, child labor laws, and compulsory school attendance laws put on-the-job training off limits to most children.

  3. ciro curbelo says:

    I love this blog but take issue with this post a bit. The second prong (letting principals and local districts govern schools close to communities) and the first prong (parent choice) conflict with each other.

    e.g., I love having a choice in my coffee shops. Starbucks is my fave. But Starbucks is the antithesis of local control. Same is true for most multi-site organizations.

    Education organizations need scale to affordably provide families a quality product. Many high performing charters (even multi site ones) are still not at scale – they rely on foundation funding help with operations. However, scale comes at cost of local control.

    Sure the Starbucks manager does have some local decision rights, but if she wants the benefits that come from being part of a larger organization, she has to follow the policies that the central organization has standardized/centralized.

    I don’t want an uninformed and unaccountable state or federal agency making rules for kid. But I don’t want a local one doing that either. However, if I can choose where to go, and happen to love the model that is run by someone in Singapore – I want the ability to go for it.

    Choice is about caregiver choice – full stop. Local control has nothing to do with choice and confuses the messaging.

    • Greg Forster says:

      The scale argument isn’t borne out in practice; there’s no empirically observable positive relationship between the size of governance units and education outcomes. To some extent there’s an observable negative relationship.

      Starbucks can achieve scale benefits because most of what it does can be commoditized or standardized. But kids aren’t coffee beans.

      • ciro curbelo says:

        By advocating for local control, you are advocating for high cost, mom/pop organizations. I doubt that we can mom and pop our way to providing quality education to tens of millions of kids. Parent choice is enough. demanding local control puts a constraint on the service providers.

        Every multi-site organization needs to find the optimal trade off between scaling and quality. They localize what needs to be localized and standardize and scale what can be scaled. A freely developing enterprise accountable to its customers will find the optimal balance for each function in its organization.

        Fair point re: starbucks. Should we take urgent care organizations as a non commoditized example? Same dynamic holds true there. Local control is a red herring when you have parent control.

      • Greg Forster says:

        On the contrary, urgent medical care is almost entirely standardized.

    • Per pupil costs rise and State-level NAEP 4th and 8th grade Reading and Math scores fall as school districts increase in size. Use NCES __The Nation’s Report Card__ for NAEP scores. Use the NCES __Digest of Education Statistics__ for per pupil costs and district-level enrollment. I have done this. A far more statistically literate economist, Caroline Hoxby, used more detailed data to examine the effects of school district aggregation. Per pupil costs rise as districts increase in size.
      Beyond a very low level there are no economies of scale at the delivery end of the education business as it currently operates.

      Local control has a lot to do with choice. Parents choose from locally available education options. If local education service providers do not determine what services they offer, then remote authorities make this determination. Until competing textbook publishers run schools, meaningful school choice will require local control of school.

      • ciro curbelo says:

        yes there are no economies of scale in districts today. but that is a reflection of government control (which is mostly local, btw).

        there is no need to require local control if you have genuine parent choice. if a parent wants to go with a nationally run, multi-site chain, who am I to block that?

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