School Choice Researchers Unite in Ed Week

February 22, 2012

Pictured (L to R): Rick Hess, Jay Greene, Greg Forster, Mike Petrilli and Matt Ladner

(Guest post by Greg Forster)

Today, Education Week carries a joint editorial signed by nine scholars and analysists. We came together to agree that Mom and apple pie are good, Nazis and Commies are bad, and the empirical research supports the expansion of school choice:

Choice’s track record so far is promising and provides support for continuing expansion of school choice policies…Among voucher programs, random-assignment studies generally find modest improvements in reading or math scores, or both. Achievement gains are typically small in each year, but cumulative over time. Graduation rates have been studied less often, but the available evidence indicates a substantial positive impact. None of these studies has found a negative impact…Other research questions regarding voucher program participants have included student safety, parent satisfaction, racial integration, services for students with disabilities, and outcomes related to civic participation and values. Results from these studies are consistently positive…

In addition to effects on participating students, another major topic of research has been the impact of school choice on academic outcomes in the public school system…Among voucher programs, these studies consistently find that vouchers are associated with improved test scores in the affected public schools. The size of the effect in these studies varies from modest to large. No study has found a negative impact.

We have diverse viewpoints on many issues, but we share a common commitment to helping inform public decisions with such evidence as science is legitimately able to provide. We do not offer false certainty about a future none of us knows. But the early evidence is promising, and the grounds for concern have been shown to be largely baseless. The case for expanding our ongoing national experiment with school choice is strong.

This may well be the most important part:

The most important limitation on all of this evidence is that it only studies the programs we now have; it does not study the programs that we could have some day. Existing school choice programs are severely limited, providing educational options only to a targeted population of students, and those available options are highly constrained.

These limitations need to be taken seriously if policymakers wish to consider how these studies might inform their deliberations. The impact of current school choice programs does not exhaust the potential of school choice.

On the other hand, the goal of school choice should be not simply to move students from existing public schools into existing private schools, but to facilitate the emergence of new school entrants; i.e., entrepreneurs creating more effective solutions to educational challenges. This requires better-designed choice policies and the alignment of many other factors—such as human capital, private funding, and consumer-information sources—that extend beyond public policy. Public policy by itself will not fulfill the full potential of school choice.

Although I also feel particularly strongly about this:

Finally, we fear that political pressure is leading people on both sides of the issue to demand things from “science” that science is not, by its nature, able to provide. The temptation of technocracy—the idea that scientists can provide authoritative answers to public questions—is dangerous to democracy and science itself. Public debates should be based on norms, logic, and evidence drawn from beyond just the scientific sphere.


Kenneth Campbell is the president of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, in Washington.

Paul Diperna is the research director for the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, in Indianapolis.

Robert C. Enlow is the president and chief executive officer of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Greg Forster is a senior fellow at the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice.

Jay P. Greene is the department head and holder of the 21st-century endowed chair in education reform at the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville, and a fellow in education policy at the George W. Bush Institute, in Dallas.

Frederick M. Hess is a resident scholar and the director of education policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute, in Washington, as well as a blogger for Education Week.

Matthew Ladner is a senior adviser for policy and research at the Foundation for Excellence in Education, in Tallahassee, Fla.

Michael J. Petrilli is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, in Washington.

Patrick J. Wolf is a professor and holder of the 21st-century endowed chair in school choice at the University of Arkansas, at Fayetteville.

Our color-coordinated mechanical lion battle chariots that join together into a giant robot are still under construction.

Defender of the empirical research universe!

Jay Interviewed on National Standards

March 17, 2010

(Guest Post by Matthew Ladner)

Jay was interviewed on EducationNews today on National Standards. Strangely enough, the talk quickly turned to movies and awesomely bad pop culture! I can’t imagine how that happened…we take ourselves very seriously around here at JPGB, and indulge in such frivolity with only the most profound reluctance.

Btw Jay- where is this week’s LOST post?

Pro-Choice Doesn’t Mean No Taste

January 25, 2010

Amy Gutmann and Suicide Bomber.jpg

Amy Gutmann poses with a student dressed as a suicide bomber at her Halloween party in 2006.  Talk about having no taste.

A regular indictment leveled against advocates of school choice is that they have no taste when it comes to the quality and purpose of education.  As Amy Gutmann, the president of the University of Pennsylvania and author of Democratic Education, put it: “advocates of parental choice and market control downplay the public purposes of schooling, and this is not accidental. It coincides with the idea of consumer sovereignty: the market should deliver whatever the consumers of its goods want.”  If schools should do whatever the consumer wants, according to this way of characterizing choice supporters, then those choiceniks can’t favor particular educational standards or approaches.  Choice supporters wouldn’t be able to denounce a Jihad school, for example, because consumer preference is the only issue that matters.

This caricature of choice supporters is mistaken on many levels.  First, just because choice supporters want to empower parents to select their school doesn’t mean that the choice advocates are unable to have their own preferences about what schools would be better for people.  Similarly, I might believe that smoking is bad for one’s health, even as I am willing to recognize other people’s liberty to choose to smoke or not.  Or perhaps an easier example — I may think a movie is awful and contains harmful messages and still believe that people have a right to see it.  Believing in liberty doesn’t mean being indifferent to what other people like or do.  It just means not wanting to coerce them into doing or liking what I prefer.

Favoring choice does not require abdicating all taste.  Advocating choice requires believing that people have a right to have their own bad taste.  Favoring choice can also be supported by a belief that people are less likely to make bad choices for themselves than someone else would on their behalf.

Second, most choice supporters recognize some need for public regulation of the schools that are chosen.  These regulations could be as minimal as the public health and safety regulations that affect restaurants or could be more extensive to include instructional issues.  The point is that almost no school choice supporters are anarchists, so there is no need for the Amy Gutmann’s of the world to act as if they all are.

Choice supporters can have personal taste and standards and most also favor public standards that place limits on choice.  At least most choice supporters would have better personal taste and standards than to pose for a photo with a Halloween party guest dressed as a suicide bomber, even though almost all of us would recognize someone’s right to have such awful taste.

Book Review in WSJ

December 15, 2009


I have a review of the book, Boom Town, in today’s WSJ. It was odd reading a book about prejudices that seemed to contain so many prejudices of its own. Here’s a snippet:

If Ms. Rosen had wanted to identify resistance from white, rural Christians to diverse newcomers, she should have distinguished between Arkansas’s politics and its business and social life. Businesses like Wal-Mart and Tyson are progressive engines of diversity because they will recruit and hire able workers of any color or religion. The only color they see is green. Social integration has gone smoothly because local residents, assisted by religiously backed norms of politeness, have been generally welcoming. Unlike business, politics is a zero-sum game. Good-old-boy politicians in Arkansas (or anywhere else) are more likely to think that if they share power with newly arrived groups, they will lose some of their own. The few politicians we read about in “Boom Town” illustrate this point, trying to pit low-income whites against Hispanics. Clearly, they would rather be king of the Lilliputians than share a larger empire with the area’s newer residents.

Can’t Think of A Blog Post

November 18, 2009

I apologize for my lack of a post yesterday and this lame post today.  I just can’t seem to think of a good post.

Yesterday Greg suggested that I blog about this excellent editorial in the Wall Street Journal denouncing the Ford Foundation for giving $100 million to the teachers union to spur education reform and claiming that this money would “shake up the conversations surrounding school reform and help spur some truly imaginative thinking and partnerships.”  The Ford Foundation might as well give $100 million to the city of Las Vegas to address gambling addiction. 

But the Wall Street Journal already did a great job, so it didn’t seem worth my blogging about since I really wouldn’t have anything to add.

I also thought about blogging about how the Race to the Top criteria issued this week hardly demand meaningful reform from states.  But I’ve already written several times on how little we should expect from Race to the Top, such as here.  The bigger surprise is that anyone is surprised.  Besides, Jeanne Allen did a fine job critiquing the Race to the Top criteria here.  And on top of all that, I’ve probably been beating up on Obama and Duncan about education reform too much.  The reality is that at least they are saying a lot of the right things, which has had a big effect on education reform battles at the state and local level.  It’s a big deal that a Democratic Administration has (at least rhetorically) thrown its weight fully behind expanding choice and competition (if only via charters), merit pay, weakening teacher tenure, etc…

I also thought about blogging about a bunch of local issues.  A state school board member was featured in an article in the Northwest Arkansas Times explaining why she opposed every newly proposed charter school in Arkansas this year.  She helpfully explained that she had visited a predominantly Hispanic school in Springdale, AR that was making AYP with its ESL students and “that helped convince her Springdale’s services were sufficient for their students.”  There’s no need to let those families decide if the quality of their education is sufficient.

But some of my friends who write the excellent blog, Mid-Riffs, were already working on something to address this.  I saw no need to duplicate.

In short, I’m sorry, folks.  Maybe I’ll think of something fresh soon.  Or maybe I can just keep writing about all the things that I was going to write about but didn’t.  Or did I?

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.

No Instant Replay

October 26, 2009

It’s a bad call.  No doubt about it.   Of course, I mean introducing instant replay into baseball as well as the call in the Angels-Yankees game. 

Yes, the ump should have called both Yankee players out rather than just one because neither had a foot on the bag when tagged.  But to introduce instant replay to fix this or other errors in baseball officiating would make things worse than the problem it is meant to correct.

Officials are human and will make mistakes.  In the absence of corruption or bias (and there is no reason to assume that the men in blue are generally corrupt or biased), errors will be distributed randomly.  In the long run, they should even themselves out and no team should have a particular advantage.

It’s true that a particular call made at a particular moment will seem to alter the outcome of a game, series, or championship.  But the truth is that every call in every game has some minute effect on the outcome of that game and potentially a series or championship.  If any call went a different way, players and coaches could make different decisions about pitches to throw, ways to swing, players to substitute, etc…  Life is a string of choices; changing any one — no matter how small — might change all subsequent ones — including big ones.  In general, the best we can hope for is that errors in officiating are rare and unbiased.

Introducing instant replay might correct some errors, but it certainly wouldn’t be practical to try to use it to review all potential errors in officiating.  And since any call — even the one not at what seems like the pivotal moment — can alter the outcome of the game, the outcome can still be altered by errors unless all calls are reviewed.  And even if they are reviewed, there can be errors in the review.  In short, there is no way to remove errors from officiating.

Even if we tried to reduce error by reviewing certain calls, we couldn’t always know which calls really would influence the outcome of the game.  What’s more, instant replay reviews significantly slow down a sporting event and interfere with the play and enjoyment of that sport. 

People need some perspective.  It’s a game.  It’s meant as entertainment.  We should no sooner have instant replay reviews of baseball calls than judges’ votes in So You Think You Can Dance.  Let’s just assume that officials are acting in good faith and errors are a matter of chance, just as chance can influence whether the ball hits a seam and bounces in a strange direction.

But I suspect that discomfort with chance in life is part of the demand for instant replay.  To many people randomness feels like injustice — especially when that randomness goes against their interests.  There are no accidents in this view of the world, someone is responsible for everything that happens, and all wrongs must be righted.  An unwillingness to accept the reality of chance can lead to a headlong pursuit of justice that causes much more injustice.