Category Archives: education policy

school choice is a question of values not data

I disagree with my friend Robert Pondiscio about many policies, but I agree with an essential aspect of his argument in a US News article entitled “Asking the Wrong Questions on School Choice.”

Some impressive-looking recent studies assert that school choice doesn’t “work” because test scores go down when families use vouchers to transfer their kids to private schools. The New York Times describes these results as “dismal” and cites “harms” to the children from voucher experiments. Pondiscio believes that the preponderance of the evidence still “tends to favor school choice.” I don’t know if that is right, but I’m with Pondiscio that “this entire debate puts the cart before the horse.”

After all, who said that test scores are the purpose of schooling? “Choice exists to allow parents to educate their children in accordance with their own needs, desires and values.” Some parents will prefer schools that achieve lower scores on state standardized tests because they value other ends. To measure choice in terms of test scores “says, in effect, that one’s values, aspirations and priorities for one’s child amount to nothing.” He concludes:

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.

I’ve made similar points in debates about, for example, the economic impact of civic engagement, the educational value of service learning, and the evaluation of policy more generally. We live in an age when science has enormous prestige and values are widely viewed as merely subjective. In that context, it’s common to treat programs and policies much as scientists would view natural phenomena, as things that arise on their own and have measurable effects. To decide whether they “work” means measuring their causal impact with apparently objective measures, of which state-written tests are good examples. Negative results lead to strongly value-laden conclusions–such as the Times’ headline about “dismal failures”–that are not themselves scientific.

In fact, programs and policies arise because people have value commitments. They strive to make their ideas work, albeit for various and contested purposes. Usually nothing works at first. If its impact improves, it’s because people have made it work by refining and improving the practice. The reason that data provides “ammunition, but never a conclusion” is that any empirical result can be changed by revising and improving the program under study. Therefore, the fundamental question is not what works but what we should value and try to make work.

An everyday example is public schooling. Nineteenth century reformers like Horace Mann drew from previous thinkers—and from successful experiences in countries like Prussia—to propose a new idea: every child should be educated at the government’s expense in a state-funded common school under local political control. Since then, not only have educators and policymakers refined and revised most aspects of public schooling, but scholars have critically evaluated actual schools from a wide variety of perspectives. A few observers have concluded that Horace Mann’s core idea was misplaced, but most see their role as helping to make his vision become successful. Public schools did not arise like a new species in Darwinian evolution to survive or fail on its own. Nor did Horace Mann propose a hypothesis that could be tested with a single experiment (e.g., “Common schools will work.”). Rather, universal public schooling originated with an argument that combined values and empirical predictions, and it launched a process of improvement that has combined research with practice.

The question is whether individual family choice is a transcendent value. Robert Pondiscio argues that using test scores to assess vouchers makes family preferences “amount to nothing.” I think we all value parental choice to a degree, but everyone also weighs other concerns: children’s rights, interests, and preferences, community values, prosperity at the state and national scales, democratic ideals of collective self-governance, our responsibilities to children other than one’s own, and criteria of excellence that may be unpopular.

I agree that the American ideal of the common school has always been a bit problematic, and versions of family choice common in Western Europe may get the balance better than we do with our odd mix of local monopoly schools plus radical economic inequality. But if we seriously considered the question “What kind of system do we want?”, I’m not sure the answer would be a system driven by parental preferences.

I should add that another kind of reasoning (besides scientism) motivates experiments with school choice. Some people think that market competition always or generally increases efficiency, so that introducing choice into a former monopoly will improve outcomes, almost regardless of how they’re measured. Then the effects of vouchers on test scores becomes an experiment in the efficiency hypothesis. Even if the results are mixed, the existence of major, high-quality, and recent studies in which the effects are strongly negative sounds like counter-evidence. I think that should embarrass proponents of market efficiency, of whom one was Elizabeth Warren in The Two-Income Trap: Why Middle-Class Parents are Going Broke (2003):

However, as Pondiscio argues, you can support choice as an inherent value, not because of an empirical hypothesis about economic efficiency.

mixed feelings on the DeVos nomination battle

I opposed Betsy DeVos’s nomination, I’m grateful to the people who protested it, and I’m sorry she won confirmation. But I’m not sure it’s a good sign that she attracted more effective opposition than the other nominees have. (That is, unless the grassroots opposition to Jeff Sessions has been relatively underreported.) The purpose of this post is not to check the momentum of the anti-DeVos efforts but to ponder today’s ideological spectrum and how we should identify and counter the worst threats to democracy.

Why did DeVos get more effective criticism than the other nominees? It can’t be because she poses a graver danger. The Every Child Succeeds Act of 2015, which had bipartisan support, determines federal k-12 education policy. Congress won’t reopen that legislative compromise. Moreover, education is predominantly a state responsibility, and the 2015 Act gave the states more discretion. The Higher Education Act is due for renewal, but I doubt Congress will muster a majority for a major change. DeVos will have to operate within the parameters of two demanding statutes. In contrast, the cabinet secretaries in charge of foreign policy, justice, financial regulation, and environmental issues have much more freedom of action.

Nor do DeVos’ radical views explain why she attracted more effective opposition than Trump’s other nominees. She is a very strong proponent of school choice, to such an extent that some mainstream proponents consider her support a liability. But the idea of introducing market mechanisms into education has been dominant for 25 years, and both the Clinton and Obama administrations endorsed versions of that theory. Democratic Sen. Cory Booker has worked with DeVos on school choice initiatives. To be sure, she acknowledges that she favors school choice so that religious schools can expand, whereas some other pro-market reformers just expect better performance to result from competition. But that difference of motivation may not make much difference for actual policy.

It’s true that DeVos performed poorly in her hearings, but was she really less qualified than Rick Perry or Ben Carson? If the Senate has been assessing competence and qualifications, then you’d have to consider sexism to explain why Senators seem to prefer those two men to DeVos. After all, DeVos has worked on education issues, albeit narrowly defined.

It’s not hard to find other explanations for DeVos’ harder path to confirmation. More people care about education than about other issues. Vouchers are unpopular or irrelevant in suburban and rural communities. Also, there is just one cabinet secretary for education, so she attracted all the attention, whereas the nominees concerned with other topics split up the opposition. Here, for example, is a rally against the environmental nominees, but it targets three of them, it’s not very big compared to the anti-DeVos events, and it’s in Democratic controlled Newark, NJ.

Above all, the teachers unions are organized nationally and still have the capacity to prompt grassroots action.

I’m all for that, since I think democracy requires organization. But is it good that mobilization has been most effective against DeVos? We’re used to a linear ideological spectrum, with pro-market/anti-state views on the right and New Deal/Great Society government activism on the left. In that framework, DeVos stands far to the right. Trump is also some kind of right-wing radical. Therefore, DeVos must be like Trump, and blocking her would mean blocking Trumpism. Unions are organized for that purpose, since they exist to counter market rule.

I think this framework is obsolete. We should array political leaders on two continua, from pro- to anti-state and from liberal to authoritarian on social issues. Donald Trump does not stand to the right on the spectrum from pro- to anti-state. He is all for using the massive power of the federal government. He just wants to use it for an ethnonationalist, reactionary program.

This is the taxonomy I have in mind for the issue of education:

I code Ted Kennedy as pro-state and socially-liberal, although he was a major architect of No Child Left Behind, which introduced market mechanisms. I still think he was more pro- than anti-state, because NCLB also dramatically increased federal spending on education and introduced some new command-and-control regulations. I code Cory Booker as socially liberal and pro-market on education, because he (and not he alone among Democrats) has strongly advocated school choice. I put DeVos just a touch to Booker’s right on the pro/anti-state axis, but also well to his south on the authoritarian scale, because she clearly wants to use education policy to change the whole culture in conservative directions. Still, she chooses to do that by reducing the power of the state, not by expanding it, which makes her not very authoritarian. Finally, Donald Trump stands down there in the bottom-left quadrant, eager to use the state to enforce reactionary norms.

I’m left-of-center on this diagram, but I’m willing to have an ongoing debate with market advocates in which the size of government rises and falls and voters make judgments based on results. It’s the bottom-left that frightens me.

If pro-state authoritarianism is the greatest threat to democracy today, then we must rally all its opponents. They will include pro-government liberals who detest the content of Trump’s policies along with anti-government libertarians who fear the expansion of the state. I would not advocate trying to enlist Betsy DeVos herself in the movement against Trump, although she did oppose him explicitly on ideological grounds in March, saying, “I don’t think Donald Trump represents the Republican Party. I continue to be very optimistic that as we get further along into the process, the more voters know about him, and the more informed they are, the more they’re going to continue to break away.” But even if you don’t want to share a movement with DeVos herself, we need people from her general camp.

As Jon Valant writes, Donald Trump is driving Democrats away from school choice. They used to be divided on that issue, and some, like Sen. Booker, saw choice as means to improve poor systems. Now Trump has endorsed school choice on the stump and has chosen a market zealot for his education secretary, and Democrats are rightly against Trump. Therefore, Democrats are turning against school choice. Valant says, “Trump and DeVos, divisive figures enormously unpopular among Democrats, could become the public faces of charter schools and school choice.”

If you oppose market mechanisms in education (and I’m moderately skeptical of them), then this is a Good Thing. It disrupts the bipartisan support for school choice and turns it into yet another policy proposal that will require single-party control to enact. Down go the odds that we will expand school choice. But if you’re hoping for a leftist plus liberal plus libertarian coalition against Trump, then the shift against school choice could make things harder.

None of that implies that DeVos will be a good Secretary of Education or that it was a mistake to oppose her. I just think we need a coalition against authoritarianism that is equally effective against the true Trumpists and that makes common cause with libertarians until the present danger passes.

Levinson and Fay, Dilemmas of Educational Ethics

Meira Levinson’s and Jacob Fay’s edited volume Dilemmas of Educational Ethics: Cases and Commentaries is enormously valuable. It not only addresses problems that confront educators every day but also suggests how moral reasoning can be revitalized in academia.

The book is organized around seven business-school-like cases. Each case poses a common dilemma. For instance, should a team of middle school teachers choose to promote a student who is far behind grade level? She will struggle and probably fail if she goes on to high school, but if they retain her, she will doubtless drop out. Each case ends at the point of decision. It is followed by half a dozen short reflective essays contributed by a mix of scholars and practitioners (although I noticed no systematic differences between the academics’ and educators’ chapters, which is interesting in itself).

Dilemmas of Educational Ethics represents a mode of thought that can fill a gap left in the tessellation of our current disciplines.

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new book on communities using Positive Youth Development

Jonathan F. Zaff, Elizabeth Pufall Jones, Alice E. Donlan, and Sara Anderson have published their edited volume entitled Comprehensive Community Initiatives for Positive Youth Development (New York: Routledge, 2016). “Positive Youth Development” is a whole stance toward adolescents that involves supporting them to do positive things rather than preventing them from doing bad things. The preventative approach can be done in a caring and sympathetic way; it still tends to fail. Teenagers get too few opportunities to contribute, and they flourish much better when they have such opportunities. Many Positive Youth Development initiatives are programs: organized, named, defined activities that enlist certain kids for certain purposes, such as service, arts, or sports. But we can also intervene at the level of communities to increase the opportunities for all resident kids and to involve them in designing and allocating programs. Not much has been known empirically about “comprehensive community initiatives” for Positive Youth Development, but this book assembles the best available evidence and has roots in the practical work of the Center for Promise. One chapter is by Jodi Benenson, Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, yours truly, and Felicia M. Sullivan: “Youth as Part of the Solution: Youth Engagement as a Core Strategy of Comprehensive Community Initiatives.”

thinking like a citizen–about schools

In Education, Justice & Democracy, edited by Danielle S. Allen and Rob Reich, all the chapters address the topic of educational equality in the US. The section headings are “ideals,” “constraints,” and “strategies.” In a longish review essay for Theory & Research in Education, I argue that good citizens explore just these three issues whenever they consider any important topic. In fact, you might define good citizens as people who take  ideals, constraints (or, I would say, “facts”), and strategies seriously and act accordingly. However, the three issues are badly segregated in modern intellectual life, with whole disciplines given over to the assumption that one should seek value-free facts, other disciplines happy to explore values without thinking about strategies, and some professional programs focused on strategies with a narrow conception of ideals. What we call “Civic Studies” is a deliberate effort to reintegrate thinking about social concerns from a citizen’s perspective, which inevitably combines ideals, constrains, and strategies. I chose to review this volume because it exemplifies Civic Studies, although I offer some critical thoughts about parts of the book.

My review is in Theory and Research in Education, July 2015, vol. 13, no. 2, pp. 235-238, or on Academia.edu.