Thursday, March 11, 2010

What's so great about choice?

Imagine my surprise when the Wall Street Journal ran an op-ed on Tuesday by a certain Diane Ravitch speaking out against charter schools and other market- and profitability-based education reforms. (Ravitch was Assistant Secretary of Education under Bush Sr. and a founding member of the Koret Task Force for education at the Hoover Institution -- i.e., "good conservative credentials.") Read the whole article, but the take-away points are:
But the promise [of charter schools] has not been fulfilled. Most studies of charter schools acknowledge that they vary widely in quality. The only major national evaluation of charter schools was carried out by Stanford economist Margaret Raymond and funded by pro-charter foundations. Her group found that compared to regular public schools, 17% of charters got higher test scores, 46% had gains that were no different than their public counterparts, and 37% were significantly worse.


What we need is not a marketplace, but a coherent curriculum that prepares all students. And our government should commit to providing a good school in every neighborhood in the nation, just as we strive to provide a good fire company in every community.

On our present course, we are disrupting communities, dumbing down our schools, giving students false reports of their progress, and creating a private sector that will undermine public education without improving it. Most significantly, we are not producing a generation of students who are more knowledgable, and better prepared for the responsibilities of citizenship. That is why I changed my mind about the current direction of school reform.

I have typically been an opponent of both excessive testing (Ravitch's other target) and charter schools because I believe that education is 1) a matter of forming character, strengthening certain processes of thought and argumentation, and instilling a shared body of knowledge in the citizenry, rather than training for a trade; 2) everyone should receive the same form of this education; and 3) the only way to ensure this universality, and to ensure that curricula won't be tainted by private interests, is to make education a public good. Note that these arguments have nothing to do with what we owe the poor in a capitalistic society; they hold for any kind of social formation.

Today Fred Hiatt of the Washington Post comes along and supplies the only objection he knows, which is that taking away charter schools takes away "choice." And who would want to deprive poor people of choice, since rich people have choice?

But in the meantime, is it right to tell parents stuck in dangerous schools that they just have to wait for, as [Katrina] Vanden Heuvel [editor of the Nation] calls it, that “fundamental change in the way America’s poor are treated in every aspect of their lives?” That they should take heart, because maybe Klein’s and Rhee’s hard work will pay off in time for the next cohort of children? Middle-class parents don’t have to wait; they have options. The evidence is incontrovertible that poor parents want options, too -- today. Why would we take those away?

There are really two points here. One is that it is unfair that wealthier people should have more choices and that we should then take away the few choices poor parents have. The other is that, because "fundamental change" (that we can believe in!) is so far off on the horizon, the few kids within the few kids who are actually better off because of charter schools make it worth it.

The first point casts light on the weird situation we've been reduced to thanks to the touting of "more choices" on the part of the political elite in this country. Part of this mentality is that it's just better overall, whether metaphysically or whatever, to have more choices, even when they're bad. To be more precise, choice is supposed to drive competition and thus improved quality, but that line of thinking is based on a market of heterogeneous preferences. Now, even if most people don't think as stringently as I do about what education should be, most, I think, would agree with Ravitch that kids need a "coherent curriculum that prepares all students." But a market apparently can't do that: it can't deliver a universal curriculum, and it can't even deliver the current curriculum well. So we're left with the absurd situation that greater choices are desirable just because they're psychologically gratifying or something, even when they're incapable of delivering better "products."

The second point misses the dynamics of the situation. The more kids attend charter schools or use vouchers, the more these options will be touted as a superior alternative to the failing public school system, and the more institutional "cling" they will enjoy. It is much easier to allow them to grow now than to try to get rid of them later. Now, proponents of charter schools who think charter schools provide better education want this to happen. But Ravitch claims charter schools don't provide better education. (And there are other reasons, such as those I've stated, why they're undesirable.) In any case, very powerful interests will keep promoting them, because they don't want to see tax money going to a public institution and they want to create an ideology of the free market in general. (More immediately, they might also want to make money off of privatized education or profitably-run charter schools.) So a good reason not to endorse charter schools is because this will lead to worse outcomes than now, even if a tiny minority of kids are currently benefiting from their "wider choices."

Anyway, the "public school/charter school" choice seems like a false one, since the agenda has been set so selectively: public schools at their current crappy levels of funding and performance vs. anything else. If you're devoted to the idea of education being of a certain quality and universal, then you're going to want to make it a viable public good through taxation and social programs. Of course, conservatives will want to say that this option has been exhausted already, since inner-city "culture" and teacher union intransigence has made funding public schools a waste of money. Liberals will say it's about poverty and the effects of US institutional racism, as Ravitch now seems to think. In any case, I'm interested to hear what y'all think of the arguments. I know that Robot, in particular, is considering looking at the idea of school "choice" for his dissertation.


Blogger Sebonde said...

What should be the uniform curriculum, and how will you get everyone to agree to accept it?

9:55 PM  
Blogger Sebonde said...

By the way, I thank you for resuming your posts, and so does every intelligent person in the world.

9:57 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Since it is the early worm that gets eaten by the bird, sleep late.............................................

7:49 AM  

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