Is Education on the Wrong Track?

March 18, 2010

Editor’s Note: In a March 2010 education symposium held by The New Republic, Brookings Nonresident Senior Fellow Diane Ravitch and Guest Scholar Ben Wildavsky present the merits and pitfalls of market-based education reform.

From: Diane Ravitch
To: Ben Wildavsky
Subject: The education reform “consensus” ignores teachers, the very people needed to carry out change in classrooms.

Ten years ago, I would have written the same things that you wrote for this symposium. I too would have been hopeful that the business model of schooling would inject new dynamism into American education. I too would have been impressed by the lingo and data-talk of the corporate suits. I too would have imagined that deregulation was the answer to our problems and that the market would produce competition and improvement. The point of my book is to explain that these strategies don’t work and to supply the evidence for my conclusions.

Ben, I am no critic of the market economy. I love having choices about where I shop. But, as I point out in the book, going to school is not the same as shopping. Most parents want a stable school that is within a reasonable distance of their home, so that they can drop off their child in the morning and pick her up at the end of day or get to school quickly if she gets sick in the middle of the day. Schools operate differently from, say, shoe stores, which open and close in response to consumer demand. Schools are essential community institutions, like firehouses. They are cooperative enterprises, where the adults are expected to work closely with one another towards common goals. Teachers should not compete with each other for extra dollars (Edward Deming says that this kind of competition doesn’t even work in business, that it demoralizes the workplace). Teachers should share what they know, not hoard their trade secrets for their private benefit.

Ben, you ignore the evidence that charter schools, on average, do not outperform regular public schools. Charter students have been tested by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) in 2003, 2005, 2007, and 2009, and they have never done better than regular public schools. Charters have the supposed advantage of deregulation, non-union teachers, longer hours, longer years—and, in some cases, the extra money contributed by generous philanthropists, yet they have not outscored regular public school students on NAEP, which is the gold standard of educational testing. One sector or the other may get a blip one year, but there has been no sustained advantage for students in charters, be they black, Hispanic, low-income, or residents of urban districts, compared to their peers in regular public schools.

Nor has test-based accountability produced genuine improvement in education. The era of NCLB has been marked by lowered state standards, cheating, and widespread gaming of the system. While the states claim big leaps forward, NAEP shows very little improvement. In math, the gains were larger before NCLB than after it was implemented. On eighth grade reading, there have been no gains at all since 1998, even though these are the students who grew up with NCLB.

Read Diane Ravitch’s full letter here »

From: Ben Wildavsky
To: Diane Ravitch, Richard Rothstein, and Kevin Carey
Subject: Ravitch misunderstands the roles of charter schools, teacher professionalism, and bipartisanship in education.

Diane, I appreciate your spirited rebuttal to my essay. I’m not surprised to hear you repeat what you say in your book–that you have no objection to the market economy per se (although you somewhat undermine your case when you toss around silly phrases like “corporate suits”). It is the entry of market principles into public education that bothers you. Schools, you say, are like firehouses and police stations, not shoe stores. To give teachers extra compensation based on effective job performance undermines the fundamentally cooperative nature of schools. And so on.

You are quite right that markets are no panacea, contrary to what John Chubb and Terry Moe once wrote. I did not claim that markets have such magical powers. It seems to me that we should regard markets as an enabling condition for the changes that public education badly needs. Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) has made this case eloquently, arguing last week that both choice and accountability “provide invaluable opportunities to rethink schools and systems that are too often hobbled by anachronistic policies, practices, stifling contracts, and cultures.” Accountability and choice, then, are simply means to an end.

You chide me for allegedly ignoring evidence that charter schools, on average, don’t perform any better than conventional public schools on the NAEP. I never said they did. It’s widely acknowledged that, so far, charter schools have been highly uneven in quality. But that doesn’t mean the charter principle is a failure. For one thing, charters can be closed down for poor performance (although this hasn’t happened often enough). For another, the quality and motivations of charter authorizers matter a lot to charter success. As charter laws were enacted, political pressures—notably union pressures—put many of the entities opposed to charter schools in charge of them. Washington, D.C., is a great example. Two charter authorizers were initially established. One was the regular school board, which had no love of competition and permitted a number of terrible charter school to operate with little or no oversight. The other, an independent board established just to authorize charters, came to be highly regarded and now oversees all of the city’s charters.

Overall, charters seem to have done no harm, and, in a number of high-profile cases, they have done a lot of good. As you know, there are many efforts underway to study and replicate the very best charter chains–just what one might expect in, well, a market. We’re still in a period of experimentation. But the flexibility of the charter philosophy—and the availability of comparable achievement data across schools—permits educators to try new things and to measure whether they’re working.

Even as you disparage the performance of charters, you complain (echoing a longstanding claim of Richard’s) that they cream the most motivated parents and students, leaving the neediest kids in regular public schools. Isn’t this a contradiction? If your assertion is true, wouldn’t we expect charters to outperform regular public schools? The allegation of creaming also raises an important philosophical question—in fact, a moral one—that Mark Schneider of the American Institutes for Research touched on at the AEI forum where you spoke last week. Isn’t it preferable for some kids to have superior alternatives than for all kids to remain in underperforming schools? If you could wave a magic wand and get rid of charter schools, including the KIPPs and Achievement Firsts, would you really be doing kids in those schools a favor by sending them back to the crummy institutions they escaped? It seems to me that we can simultaneously provide appealing charter options that will cause some students to exit while doing much more to meet the educational needs of the kids who remain in regular public schools.

Read Ben Wildavsky’s full letter here »