Bedrick BOOOOM at Bradley

May 1, 2017

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

As the inevitable breach between technocratic and choice reforms looms larger and larger, seems like a great moment for an ICYMI on Jason’s appearance at the 2017 Bradley Symposium. Jason argues that – well, that a breach between technocratic and choice reform is inevitable, and we ought to embrace choice fearlessly. Check it out!


Justice, Equal Opportunity, Diversity and School Choice

March 21, 2017

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This weekend I was delighted to participate in an hour-long school choice debate on Moody radio’s coast to coast network. The experience left me all the more convinced that choice advocates must continue to de-emphasize the rhetoric of markets and competition, and emphasize instead justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom. In that order.

The proponent of the other side had come armed with empty, superficial anti-market talking points. Her argument against choice was basically “we want justice, equal opportunity and diversity, not markets and competition.” So when I opened my case with “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom, and here’s how school choice delivers them,” and didn’t use the words market or competition, she was flummoxed.

Her superficial talking points would have been highly effective if I had said “we want justice, equal opportunity, diversity and freedom so we ought to embrace competition and markets.” That is, sadly, because reason and logic are not the only forces in public debate. Her strategy (consciously or unconsciously) seems to have been to use certain trigger words and phrases to prompt emotional responses in the audience – responses unrelated to logic. This is, as JPGB readers know, the nearly universal strategy of choice opponents.

If we stop using the words that allow them to do this to us, we take their toy away.

Of course the quesiton of why choice improves public schools did come up, and here it was necessary to make the point that choice prevents schools from taking students for granted. The body of empirical studies on choice and what they find also came up a number of times. One can make these points without 1) making them the be-all and end-all, or 2) using the specific trigger words that allow the other side to work their emotional trickery.

A final point: personal experience, unfortunately, trumps data. I talked about having visited several private schools in Milwaukee whose existence depends on the voucher program, and the amazing things these particular schools are doing. Then I mentioned the studies finding that choice is impoving education in Milwaukee. I played this card again when a caller raised the inevitable racist talking point “parents in the suburbs are involved with their children’s education but people in those neighborhoods aren’t.” Instead of saying “the data show urban parents make good choices for their kids; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading” I said “my experience in urban neighborhoods leads me to believe they care about their children as much as other parents; that’s a stereotype we shouldn’t be spreading.” And then I tried to squeeze in a mention of the data.

Of course if there were a clash between my experience and the data, I’d have to go with the data. But we have to limit our appeals to data when speaking in public. In general, we should present opinions based on experience and then briefly validate them with appeals to data.


Pondiscio: Choice Is Not About Test Scores

March 6, 2017

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(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

In case you missed it, in today’s U.S. News & World Reportthe inimitable Robert Pondiscio gently chides fellow school choice advocates for getting caught up in a debate over test scores, which are ancillary to the true value of school choice:

Wonky battles over research studies can be illuminating. They can also be irrelevant or premature. While [school choice] advocates are correct that the preponderance of evidence tends to favor school choice, this entire debate puts the cart before the horse. When we look to test-based evidence – and look no further – to decide whether choice “works,” we are making two rather extraordinary, unquestioned assumptions: that the sole purpose of schooling is to raise test scores, and that district schools have a place of privilege against which all other models must justify themselves.

That’s really not what choice is about. Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values. If diversity is a core value of yours, for example, you might seek out a school where your child can learn alongside peers from different backgrounds. If your child is a budding artist, actor or musician, the “evidence” that might persuade you is whether he or she will have the opportunity to study with a working sculptor or to pound the boards in a strong theater or dance program. If your child is an athlete, the number of state titles won by the lacrosse team or sports scholarships earned by graduates might be compelling evidence. If faith is central to your family, you will want a school that allows your child to grow and be guided by your religious beliefs. There can be no doubt that, if you are fortunate enough to select a school based on your child’s talents or interests or your family’s values and traditions, the question of whether school choice “works” has already been answered. It’s working perfectly for you.

Deciding whether or not to permit parents to choose based on test-based evidence is presumptuous. It says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing. Worse, our evidence-based debate presumes that a single, uniform school structure is and ought to be the norm, and that every departure from that system must justify itself in terms of a narrow set of outcomes that may not reflect parents’ – or society’s – priorities. Academic outcomes matter, of course, but so do civic outcomes, character development, respect for diversity and faith and myriad others.

This isn’t to say that the research on the effect of school choice on test scores is meaningless. But it has to be read and understood in the broader context. Test scores are important, but they’re far from what’s most important about exercising educational choice. As Pondiscio concludes:

School choice proponents who seek to prove that vouchers, tax credits and scholarships “work” by citing test-score-based research have allowed themselves to be lured into argument that can never be completely won. They have tacitly agreed to a reductive frame and a debate over what evidence is acceptable (test scores) and what it means to “win” (better test scores). This is roughly akin to arguing whether to shop at your neighborhood grocery store vs. Wal-Mart based on price alone. Price is important, but you may have reasons for choosing the Main Street Grocery that matter more to you than the 50 cents per pound you’d save on ground beef. Perhaps Main Street’s fresh local produce and personal service are more important to you.

If we limit the frame of this debate to academic outputs alone, every new study provides ammunition, but never a conclusion. The real debate we should be having is, “What kind of system do we want?” Answer that question first, then use evidence to improve the school designs, policies and programs we have agreed deserve public support.

Amen, brother!


Trump and School Choice

December 14, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

I was grateful to be included in this Washington Post article on Trump and school choice yesterday. My post on Trump’s racism and illiberalism gets a mention, but the Post is right that another division is also important:

Free-market purists believe that parents know best, that they can choose the best schools for their children without intervention, something that could force poor-quality schools to close. On the other end of the spectrum are those who believe that intensive oversight and regulation are necessary to ensure that the schools from which parents are choosing are high-quality.

As long as Mike is taking his lumps out in the wild, wild west of Arizona, maybe he could rethink which side of this unavoidable civil war – unavoidable because opponents of parent choice have made it so – he really wants to be on.

Another point: I don’t blame the Post for describing advocates of parent choice as “free-market purists” while describing opponents of parent choice more neutrally. It is we in the parent choice camp who have chosen to make deep investments in “free market” ideological rhetoric. Everything we’re saying about markets is in fact true, but it’s a bad idea for us to make “markets” and “competition” the main points in favor of choice.

This was one of the main arguments of my recent series on “the next accountability.” As I wrote at the end of the series:

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.

Is this too much to ask of a highly polarized education reform movement, strongly committed to moral narratives that center on either markets or test scores? I’m looking forward to finding out.


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

November 30, 2016

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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!


The Next Accountability – Individuals and Communities

November 17, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

EdChoice has published Part 4 of my series on The Next Accountability, in which I argue that an understanding of human nature and the American experiment in freedom and diversity is needed to ground a new approach to education in a pluralistic society:

The whole beauty and glory of America is that it seeks to respect differences and protect people’s freedoms and rights without giving up this shared life. Any idiot could have created a plan for a pluralistic society in which people with different views were kept in separate cultural compartments that didn’t share a common civic identity, marketplace and justice system. In fact, such systems are not uncommon in global history. What took a world-historical level of genius (and audacity!) was to construct a social order in which diverse people would share all these things, while remaining diverse.

To create new accountability systems, we must figure out how schools fit into this tapestry of pluralistic community. Schools are educating students who come from this unique social environment, and who will, upon graduation, go out into it to live the lives schools are preparing them for.

At a time when our choice seems to be globalist technocracy or tribalistic nationalism, a recovery of this vision is more needed than ever.


The Next Accountability – Failure of Technocracy

September 28, 2016

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(Guest post by Greg Forster)

EdChoice just posted Part 3 of my series on The Next Accountability. Having discussed what we want from education and how schools best deliver it, I now turn to why technocratic accountability systems get in the way – and, by their nature, always must:

The logic of technocracy is simple: Let’s forget about the things that we strongly disagree about, and focus on the things that everyone ought to be able to reach agreement about pretty easily. As a result, technocracy effectively narrows down the agenda for the head to reading and math scores, keeps the agenda for the hands hopelessly vague (“critical thinking”) and keeps silent about the heart. What makes this so tempting is the illusion that we can avoid uncomfortable, potentially divisive questions about what is good and right…

Whatever its intentions or motives, technocracy in practice imposes a vision of the good for education that includes everything that is widely agreed to be good, and effectively excludes—treats as not essential to good education—everything that is subject to serious disagreement.

I also have a word (as I often do) for my friends in the school choice business:

Technocracy can only be countered by a better, truer and more attractive vision of the human good that education can serve. We are a free and diverse country, a community where neighbors live together while disagreeing about what is good, true and beautiful. But that very truth—that we are a free and diverse country, a community where neighbors live together while disagreeing about what is good, true and beautiful—moves us in deep and powerful ways as we contemplate it. Our shared goal for education can be precisely the cultivation of that kind of free community.

This is why, as I emphasized in the introduction to this series, talking points and canned rhetoric about “markets” and “competition” are woefully inadequate to the needs of the present moment. The claims many of us have made about the benefits of markets are true. But we must ground our case in what it means to be human in what the head, the hands and the heart need from education. We need a humane vision of what education is for that is more attractive than the technocratic vision.

Your thoughts, questions, comments and rotten vegetables are (as always) appreciated!