Common Core Hurts School Choice

May 31, 2013


(Guest post by Greg Forster)

In his post yesterday, Jay mentioned that the imperatives behind Common Core are hostile to school choice:

Pushing it forward requires frightening reductions in parental control over education and expansions of federal power.  These are not the unnecessary by-products of a misguided Obama Administration over-reach.  Constraining parental choice and increasing federal power were entirely necessary to advance Common Core.  And they were perfectly foreseeable (we certainly foresaw these dangers here at JPGB).

But back in the day, Jay and I were both supporters of Jeb Bush’s A+ program, which combined standards and choice. So why is Common Core anti-choice where Florida’s standards were choice-friendly?

The answer lies in the imperative to expand standards. As Jay and I have both pointed out, the whole CC project is centrally built on the assumption that there is a positive relationship between the geographic scope of standards and their academic quality. Consistently, CC advocates have used adjectives like “national” and “common” as if they were synonyms for “better.”

Why would we expect standards to be better if they are set at a higher geographic level? The implicit educational worldview behind this is a technocratic scientific progressivism: there is one best way to educate children, and an elite class of technocrats can be trusted to know what it is and get the bureaucracy to carry it out successfully (and without corruption). Consequently, we should want more uniformity across schools. If parents have diverse opinions about what is best for their children and wish to choose diverse schools, we must not permit ourselves to think that this may be because 1) there is no “one best way” because every child is unique; 2) the technocrats’ knowledge of the one best way is fallible; 3) the technocrats’ ability to get the bureaucracy to do its will is severely limited; or 4) power corrupts, and the technocrats and the bureaucracy alike are not to be trusted with monopoly power. Diverse parental desires are to be interpreted as a sign that parents can’t be trusted.

By contrast, A+ did not seek to expand standards; it only sought to impose them on one school system. The implicit logic of A+ ran as follows: if the state is going to run a school system, it ought to set standards for what that system should be doing. However, we have no illusions that the standards we are setting for our own system represent the “one best way,” so parents ought to be free to choose whether our school or some other school is best for their child. With this logic, as Jay used to say, standards and choice are like chocolate and peanut butter – two great tastes that taste great together.

(Of course, it is a comparatively recent development that all the public schools in a state are effectively one school system. Over the past half century or so, America has dramatically shifted from having many thousands of local school systems to having just fifty state systems. And that has been a bad development because it has reduced choice and thereby reduced pressure for improvement. But that’s a discussion for another day; it doesn’t change the fact that the logic behind A+ was non-expansionary.)

Now, it is logically possible for a person to favor both CC and school choice. But the arguments in favor of CC that you have to construct in order to get to that result are the intellectual equivalent of a Rube Goldberg machine. It’s like that court case a few years ago over teaching intelligent design in public schools, where the expert called to testify in favor of ID said that you don’t need to believe in God to believe in ID. That is true, at the level of logical possibilities; you can construct an argument that simultaneously affirms ID and atheism. But there is no one who actually believes that, because the intellectual contortions necessary to get there are absurd. In fact, ID is intuitively theistic even though it does not logically require theism. That fact is not an argument against its truth (unless you begin by begging the question and assuming atheism is true) but it is relevant to the consideration of how students encounter ID in public schools.

In the same way, CC is intuitively anti-choice even though it does not logically require opposition to choice.

Jeb for National School Grades

January 23, 2009


“Everybody do the FCAT! Yeah!”

HT Orlando Sentinel

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

This morning, Jeb Bush comes out for a national school grading system on NRO.

What he’s proposing is a federal grade A to F for each school, based on both performance level and improvement – kind of the way Florida schools are graded under the A+ system (though Jeb doesn’t propose federal sanctions for poorly performing schools, just a grading system). He justifies the move on grounds that the NCLB system encourages states to lower standards.

Jeb doesn’t discuss this in the article, but readers of JBGB know that a clash has been brewing between Florida’s A+ program and NCLB. Florida, which has had success with the A+ program (where improvement in performance is a factor alongside performance level), is going to run into the 2014 “everybody must be proficient” wall along with everyone else.

No doubt our own Matt Ladner, chronicler of the looming conflict in the posts linked above, will have more to say about this (hopefully including some more classy artistic illustrations), but just to put my own two cents in, I’m not clear on why there needs to be a national grade.

For that matter, I’m not even convinced we need a national test, since that sacrifices the merits of interstate competition. At both the state and federal levels, the test is being developed and implemented by a bureaucracy that is heavily colonized by the defenders of the status quo and thus will be looking for opportunities to dumb down the test or manipulate the scoring to make schools look better. But if one state dumbs down while another (under political pressure from reformers) stays the course and makes real improvement, that creates pressure on the dumb state to get with it.

The impetus for a single national test, it seems to me, is because federal rewards and punishments create an incentive to dumb down. If we’re not going to have rewards and punishments based on the scores, what’s the need for a single national test? Why not just require each state to maintain a transparent testing system of its own devising – or, if that’s not good enough, require each state to purchase and use one of the major privately developed national tests?

But we can leave that aside. Let’s stipulate the case for a national test. Still, if you’re not going to hold schools accountable with rewards and penalties, then why issue grades along with the test scores? Why not just give a test and report the results numerically, and let private organizations put together their own grading systems? That way people can decide for themselves what aspects of performance measurement matter most, rather than turning the job over to a federal bureaucracy that has an incentive to make schools look better.