Give Pluralism a Chance Sol

December 19, 2016

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Over at City Journal Sol Stern revives his complaint that billionaires should be busily imposing his favorite curriculum on as many people as possible rather than supporting parental choice. I’ve explained previously how choice mechanisms serve as the main vehicle for advancing this sort of curriculum in my neck of the cacti. The dream of the one true way however apparently dies hard.

I actually share Sol’s curricular preferences, but I’m happy to note that AZ’s charter school 8th graders went to the wire with Massachusetts on the three 8th grade NAEP exams while spending far less per pupil and with a far more diverse student body than MA public schools. Attendance at such schools is delightfully voluntary, with the only problem being long wait lists at high demand schools- something that billionaires could help with far more easily that wresting control of curriculum away from the Blob. Arizona charter schools are still growing, MA’s widely admired academic standards alas are no longer with us. I may be missing something here, but it looks to me like an embrace of pluralism represents a more effective strategy than yearning for benevolent technocrats who share your preferences indefinitely despite the unrelenting hostility of powerful incumbent interests.

Sol’s piece is silent on just how the bad curriculum is to be overthrown, but giving people more choice seems like a swell method to me, albeit one that needs speeding up. Sol relates a tale of the famously centralized French K-12 system adopting damaging progressive curriculum to the detriment of students. This sounds like par for the course with central planning to these ears. The fact that well-meaning people like Sol want E.D. Hirsch curriculum means little-Sol is almost always going to find himself outnumbered in the universe of people deciding these sort of things.

The fact that parents beat down the doors to get a classical education when offered through choice mechanisms however represents a viable path forward imo.

Stop the National Standards Train

November 16, 2009

As I’ve said before (here, here, and elsewhere), I can’t understand the enthusiasm of education reformers for national standards and testing.  Advocates for the status quo and/or pure nonsense are much better positioned to control the process of national standard-setting and test-writing than are advocates for meaningful reform grounded in evidence-based approaches.

In case you had any doubts, the current round of national standards and testing craze is once again being hijacked by the Dark Side.  My colleague, Sandra Stotsky, has an excellent piece in the current issue of City Journal ringing the alarm bells:

A distinct lack of interest in allowing mathematicians a major voice in determining the content of the high school mathematics curriculum isn’t confined to educational research publications or presentations. A new effort is under way to develop national math standards for K–12. The two organizations running the effort—the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with support from both the Department of Education and the National Education Association—have not yet invited a single mathematical or science society to ensure that the high school mathematics standards and “college-readiness” standards they propose in fact prepare American high school students for the freshman calculus courses that serve as the basis for undergraduate majors in engineering, science, and mathematics (as well as other mathematics-dependent majors and technical/occupational programs). The effort, which is being pushed very quickly, seems determined to do an end run around the country’s mathematical and scientific organizations and the panel’s recommendations on the major topics for school algebra.

Who controls this process?  Advocates of “constructivism” and  “cultural-historical activity theory” do.  If you don’t know what this gobbledy-gook means, Sandy helpfully explains: 

Two theories lie behind the educators’ new approach to math teaching: “cultural-historical activity theory” and “constructivism.” According to cultural-historical activity theory, schooling as it exists today reinforces an illegitimate social order. Typical of this mindset is Brian Greer, a mathematics educator at Portland State University, who argues “against the goal of ‘algebra for all’ on the grounds that . . . most individuals in our society do not need to have studied algebra.” According to Greer, the proper approach to teaching math “now questions whether mathematics as a school subject should continue to be dominated by mathematics as an academic discipline or should reflect more fully the range of mathematical activities in which humans engage.” The primary role of math teachers, constructivists say in turn, shouldn’t be to explain or otherwise try to “transfer” their mathematical knowledge to students; that would be ineffective. Instead, they must help the students construct their own understanding of mathematics and find their own math solutions.

We need to stop this national standards train before we all go off the rails.

California vs. Texas Part Deux

November 2, 2009

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

William Voegeli joins the fun in City Journal.

Money quote:

Bill Watkins, executive director of the Economic Forecast Project at the University of California at Santa Barbara, has calculated that once you adjust for population growth and inflation, the state government spent 26 percent more in 2007–08 than in 1997–98. Back then, “California had teachers. Prisoners were in jail. Health care was provided for those with the least resources.” Today, Watkins asks, “Are the roads 26 percent better? Are schools 26 percent better? What is 26 percent better?”


UPDATE: Great minds think alike as Kotkin brings the pain in Forbes.

JPG in CJ on SEV

July 29, 2009

Translation:  I have an article in the special summer issue of City Journal on special education vouchers.

Here is a taste:

Rather than compelling families with disabled children to contend with obstinate public school systems, we should give them the option of purchasing the services they need for their children from a private provider. That is, we should give them special-ed vouchers—good for the same amount of money that we already spend on them in the public school system—that they could then use to pay for private school. Not only would this bring better services to disabled New York students; it could also save the public money.

Many parents of disabled students have a lot of trouble ensuring that public schools give their kids an appropriate education. The parents have to know what they’re entitled to, and most do not. They must negotiate services from the local schools—but the schools are experienced in these negotiations, while the parents generally aren’t, so the schools often get away with minimizing their responsibilities. And even if parents win at the negotiating table, getting the schools actually to deliver on their promises is enormously difficult.

In the end, the only way to compel schools to keep their promises is for parents to engage in ongoing legal battles with the same people who take care of their kids each school day. Most parents have neither the resources nor the stomach to do that. Schools, on the other hand, see little downside in promising few services and delivering fewer. The worst that can happen is that courts will step in and order them to do what they were originally supposed to do; there are no punitive damages in special ed. Research by Perry Zirkel at Lehigh University also shows that courts tend to sympathize with school districts and that schools win most legal challenges from parents. And since children age, delays work to the schools’ advantage.

For all these reasons, most parents of disabled kids simply resign themselves to whatever the schools deliver—or fail to deliver.

Is CPSIA the New Fahrenheit 451?

February 15, 2009

Walter Olson over at City Journal and his blog,, has uncovered a frightening and probably unintended effect of the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.  Children’s books made before 1985 are essentially being removed from the market.  Olson writes:

“under a law Congress passed last year aimed at regulating hazards in children’s products, the federal government has now advised that children’s books published before 1985 should not be considered safe and may in many cases be unlawful to sell or distribute. Merchants, thrift stores, and booksellers may be at risk if they sell older volumes, or even give them away, without first subjecting them to testing—at prohibitive expense. Many used-book sellers, consignment stores, Goodwill outlets, and the like have accordingly begun to refuse new donations of pre-1985 volumes, yank existing ones off their shelves, and in some cases discard them en masse.”

He continues:

“CPSIA imposed tough new limits on lead in any products intended for use by children aged 12 or under, and made those limits retroactive: that is, goods manufactured before the law passed cannot be sold on the used market (even in garage sales or on eBay) if they don’t conform…. Not until 1985 did it become unlawful to use lead pigments in the inks, dyes, and paints used in children’s books. Before then—and perhaps particularly in the great age of children’s-book illustration that lasted through the early twentieth century—the use of such pigments was not uncommon, and testing can still detect lead residues in books today. This doesn’t mean that the books pose any hazard to children. While lead poisoning from other sources, such as paint in old houses, remains a serious public health problem in some communities, no one seems to have been able to produce a single instance in which an American child has been made ill by the lead in old book illustrations—not surprisingly, since unlike poorly maintained wall paint, book pigments do not tend to flake off in large lead-laden chips for toddlers to put into their mouths.”

This doesn’t just hit used book-sellers hard, it also applies to any individual trying to sell a book on Ebay and even to public libraries.  We will have to discard countless classic children’s books, many of which are no longer in print, to avoid something that has never been shown to be harmful.

But don’t worry.  I’m sure we won’t actually burn the books.  It might produce harmful toxins!  Instead, I bet we are preparing a facility near Yuca Mountain to safely dispose of Make Way for Ducklings and Anne of Green Gables so those books will no longer harm our children.  Better that they should sit in front of the TV.

(edited to change photo)

Vouchers: Evidence and Ideology

May 8, 2008

(Guest post by Greg Forster)


Lately, Robert Enlow and I at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice have had to spend a lot of time responding to the erroneous claims Sol Stern has been making about school choice. I honestly hate to be going up against Sol Stern right at the moment when he’s doing important work in other areas. America owes Stern a debt for doing the basic journalistic work on Bill Ayers that most journalists covering the presidential race didn’t seem interested in doing.


But what can we do? We didn’t choose this fight. If Stern is going to make a bunch of false claims about school choice, it’s our responsibility to make sure people have access to the facts and the evidence that show he’s wrong.


That’s why Enlow and I have focused primarily on using data and evidence to demonstrate that Stern’s claims are directly contrary to the known facts. It’s been interesting to see how Stern and his defenders are responding.


I’ve been saddened at how little effort Stern and his many defenders are devoting to seriously addressing the evidence we present. For example, all the studies of the effects of vouchers on public schools that were conducted outside the city of Milwaukee have been completely ignored both by Stern and by every one of his defenders I’ve seen so far. Does evidence outside Milwaukee not count for some reason? Since most of the studies on this subject have been outside Milwaukee, this arbitrary focus on Milwaukee is hard to swallow.


And what about the studies in Milwaukee? All of them had positive findings: vouchers improve public schools. Unfortunately, Stern and his critics fail to engage with these studies seriously.


Stern had argued in his original article that school choice doesn’t improve public schools, on grounds that the aggregate performance of schools in Milwaukee is still bad. His critics pointed out that a large body of high quality empirical research found that vouchers have a positive effect on public schools, both in Milwaukee and elsewhere. If Milwaukee schools are still bad, that doesn’t prove vouchers aren’t helping; and since a large body of high quality empirical research says they do help, the obvious conclusion to reach – if we are going to be guided by the data – is that other factors are dragging down Milwaukee school performance at the same time vouchers are pulling it upward.


If an asthma patient starts using medicine, and at the same time takes up smoking, his overall health may not improve. But that doesn’t mean the medicine is no good. I also think that there may be a “neighborhood effect” in Milwaukee, since eligibility for the program isn’t spread evenly over the whole city.


There’s new research forthcoming in Milwaukee that I hope will shed more light on the particular reasons the city’s aggregate performance hasn’t improved while vouchers have exerted a positive influence on it. The important point is that all the science on this subject (with one exception, in D.C., which I’ve been careful to take note of when discussing the evidence) finds in favor of vouchers.


In Stern’s follow-up defense of his original article, his “response,” if you can call it that, is to repeat his original point – that the aggregate performance of schools in Milwaukee citywide are still generally bad.


He disguises his failure to respond to his critics’ argument by making a big deal out of dates. He says that all the studies in Milwaukee are at least six years old (which is actually not very old by the standards of education research), and then provides some more recent data on the citywide aggregate performance of Milwaukee schools. But this obviously has nothing to do with the question; Stern’s critics agree that the aggregate data show Milwaukee schools are still bad. The question is whether vouchers exert a positive or negative effect. Aggregate data are irrelevant; only causal studies can address the question.


Of course it’s easy to produce more up-to-date data if you’re not going to use scientific methods to distinguish the influence of different factors and ensure the accuracy of your analysis. If you don’t care about all that science stuff, there’s no need to wait for studies to be conducted; last year’s raw data will do fine.


Weak as this is, at least it talks about the evidence. The response to our use of facts and evidence has overwhelmingly been to accuse school choice supporters of ideological closed-mindedness. Although we are appealing to facts and evidence, we are accused of being unwilling to confront the facts and evidence – accused by people who themselves do not engage with the facts and evidence to which we appeal.


Stern, for example, complains at length that “school choice had become a secular faith, requiring enforced discipline” and “unity through an enforced code of silence.” Apparently when we demonstrate that his assertions are factually false, we are enforcing silence upon him. (We’ve been so successful in silencing Stern that he is now a darling of the New York Times. If he thinks this is silence, he should get his hearing checked.)


Similarly, when Stern’s claims received uncritical coverage from Daniel Casse in the Weekly Standard, Enlow and Neal McCluskey wrote in to correct the record. Casse responded by claiming, erroneously, that Stern had already addressed their arguments in his rebuttal.


Casse also repeated, in an abbreviated form, Stern’s non-response on the subject of the empirical studies in Milwaukee – and in so doing he changed it from a non-response to an error. He erroneously claims that Stern responded to our studies by citing the “most recent studies.” But Stern cites no studies; he just cites raw data. It’s not a study until you conduct a statistical analysis to distinguish the influence of particular factors (like vouchers) from the raw aggregate results – kind of like the analyses conducted in the studies that we cite and that Stern and Casse dismiss without serious discussion.


Casse then praised Stern’s article because “it dealt with the facts on the ground” and accused school choice supporters of “reciting the school choice catechism.”


Greg Anrig, in this Washington Monthly article, actually manages to broach the subject of the scientific quality of one of the Milwaukee studies. Unfortunately, he doesn’t cite any of the other research, in Milwaukee or elsewhere, examining the effect of vouchers on public schools. So if you read his article without knowing the facts, you’ll think that one Milwaukee study is the only study that ever found that vouchers improve public schools, when in fact there’s a large body of consistently positive research on the question.


Moreover, Anrig’s analysis of the one Milwaukee study he does cite is superficial. He points out that the results in that study may be attributable to the worst students leaving the public schools. Leave aside that this is unlikely to be the case, much less that it would account for the entire positive effect the study found. The more important point is that there have been numerous other studies of this question that use methods that allow researchers to examine whether this is driving the results. Guess what they find.


Though he ignores all but one of the studies cited by school choice supporters, shuffling all the rest offstage lest his audience become aware of the large body of research with positive findings on vouchers, Anrig cites other studies that he depicts as refuting the case for vouchers. Like Stern’s citation of the raw data in Milwaukee, these other studies in fact are methodologically unable to examine the only question that counts – what was the specific impact of vouchers, as distinct from the raw aggregate results? (I’m currently putting together a full-length response to Anrig’s article that will go over the specifics on these studies, but if you follow education research you already know about them – the notoriously tarnished HLM study of NAEP scores, the even more notoriously bogus WPRI fiasco, etc.)


But Anrig, like his predecessors, is primarily interested not in the quality of the evidence but in the motives of school choice supporters. He spends most of his time tracing the sinister influence of the Bradley Foundation and painting voucher supporters as right-wing ideologues.


And these are the more respectable versions of the argument. In the comment sections here on Jay P. Greene’s Blog, Pajamas Media, and Joanne Jacobs’s site, much the same argument is put in a cruder form: you can’t trust studies that find school choice works, because after all, they’re conducted by researchers who think that school choice works.


(Some of these commenters also seem to be confused about the provenance and data sources of these studies. I linked to copies of the studies stored in the Friedman Foundation’s research database, but that doesn’t make them Friedman Foundation studies. As I stated, they were conducted at Harvard, Princeton, etc. And at one point I linked to an ELS study I did last year that also contained an extensive review of the existing research on school choice, but that doesn’t mean all the previous studies on school choice were ELS studies.)


What is one to make of all this? The more facts and evidence we provide, the more we’re accused of ignoring the facts and evidence – by people who themselves fail to address the facts and evidence we provide.


I’m tempted to say that there’s a word for that sort of behavior. And there may be some merit in that explanation, though of course I have no way of knowing. But I also think there’s something else going on as well.


One prominent blogger put it succinctly to me over e-mail. The gist of his challenge was something like: “Why don’t you just admit that all this evidence and data is just for show, and you really support school choice for ideological reasons?”


I think this expresses an idea that many people have – that there is “evidence” over here and then there is “ideology” over there, and the two exist in hermetically sealed containers and can never have any contact with one another. (Perhaps this tendency is part of the long-term damage wrought by Max Weber’s misuse of the fact/value distinction, but that’s a question for another time.)


On this view, if you know that somebody has a strong ideology, you have him “pegged” and can dismiss any evidence he brings in support of his position as a mere epiphenomenon. The evidence is a distraction from your real task, which is to identify and reveal the pernicious influence of his ideology on his thinking. Hence the widespread assumption that when a school choice supporter brings facts and evidence, there is no need to trouble yourself addressing all that stuff. Why bother? The point is that he’s an ideologue; the facts are irrelevant.


But, as I explained to the blogger who issued that challenge, evidence and ideology are not hermetically sealed. Ideology includes policy preferences, but those policy preferences are always grounded in a set of expectations about the way the world works. In fact, I would say that an “ideology” is better defined as a set of expectations about how the world works than as a set of policy preferences. (That would help explain, for example, why we still speak of differences between “liberal” and “conservative” viewpoints even on issues like immigration where there are a lot of liberals and conservatives on both sides.) And our expectations about how the world works are subject to verification or falsification by evidence.


So, for example, I hold an ideology that says (broadly speaking) that freedom makes social institutions work better. That’s one of the more important reasons I support school choice – because I want schools (all schools, public and private) to get better, and I have an expectation that when educational freedom is increased, schools will improve. My ideology is subject to empirical verification. If school choice programs do in fact make public schools better – as the empirical studies consistently show they do – then that is evidence that supports my ideology.


Even the one study that has ever shown that vouchers didn’t improve public schools, the one in D.C., also confirms my ideology. The D.C. program gives cash bribes to the public school system to compensate for lost students, thus undermining the competitive incentives that would otherwise improve public schools – so the absence of a positive voucher impact is just what my ideology would predict.


Other evidence may also be relevant to the truth or falsehood of my ideology, of course. The point is that evidence is relevant, and truth or falsehood is the issue that matters.


Now, as I’ve already sort of obliquely indicated, my view that freedom makes things work better is not the only reason I support school choice. But it is one of the more important reasons. So, if you somehow proved to me that freedom doesn’t make social institutions work better, I wouldn’t immediately disavow school choice, since there are other reasons besides that to support it. However, I would have significantly less reason to support it than I did before.


If we really think that evidence has nothing to do with ideology, I don’t see how we avoid the conclusion that people’s beliefs have nothing to do with truth or falsehood – ultimately, that all human thought is irrational. Bottom line, you aren’t entitled to ignore your opponent’s evidence, or dismiss it as tainted because it is cited by your opponent.


UPDATE: See this list of complete lists of all the empirical research on vouchers.


Edited for typos