Politics & Policy

The Wreck of the Annenberg

Obama's first effort at school reform was a total failure that he won't admit and can't explain.

Thanks to Bill Ayers, a great many people now know that Barack Obama chaired the board of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge from 1995 to 1999. Ayers, erstwhile member of the 60s’ terrorist group, the Weather Underground, was the driving force in bringing Annenberg’s millions of education reform dollars to Chicago, and he worked with Obama once the project was up and running.

It was inevitable that political hay would be made from this link, but in the process a more fundamental insight has been overlooked: The Chicago Annenberg Challenge was a total failure. And to this day, Senator Obama remains committed to its failed approach.

But instead of being in a position to waste tens of millions of private dollars, as he was then, Obama is now asking voters for the power to waste hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars. Before granting him that power, Americans should understand what went wrong.

The Chicago Annenberg Challenge was part of a nationwide effort launched by TV Guide mogul Walter H. Annenberg on a blustery December day in 1993. In a White House ceremony hosted by president Clinton, Annenberg pledged half a billion dollars to create model public schools and districts. He and the scholars he appointed to lead the project hoped their models of excellence would be replicated all over the country, transforming American education. Thanks to matching donations, the Challenge ultimately raised more than a billion dollars.

It failed not just in Chicago, but around the country. The first problem was that many of the “model” schools and districts lacked results worthy of replication. The final report of the Chicago Annenberg Challenge, for instance, noted that, overall, students in its model schools had learned no more than students in regular public schools. Classroom behavior and other non-academic measures “were weaker in 2001 than before the Challenge.” And even the schools that did show meaningful improvement couldn’t be consistently replicated within the Challenge districts themselves, let alone around the nation.

In an odd quirk of history, the Wreck of the Annenberg was foreshadowed by President Clinton during the launch ceremony. Clinton thanked Annenberg for his generosity, and added that the “people in this room who have devoted their lives to education are constantly plagued by the fact that nearly every problem has been solved by somebody somewhere, and yet we can’t seem to replicate it everywhere else.” Clinton would go on to explain that the most pressing need in American education is “to have a system to somehow take what is working and make it work everywhere. Nobody has unraveled this mystery.”

Clinton was half right. The lack of a mechanism for automatically replicating excellence is indeed the most pressing problem in American education. The absence of such a mechanism is what doomed the Annenberg Challenge from the start. Clinton’s mistake was believing that the mystery hadn’t already been solved.

Well before the president’s December 1993 speech, a Scottish economist observed that the people of Athens had solved the scaling-up problem in the 5th century B.C. Classical Athenians sought out instruction for their children, and teachers competed for the privilege of serving them. “That demand for instruction produced, what it always produces, the talent for giving it; and the emulation which an unrestrained competition never fails to excite appears to have brought that talent to a very high degree of perfection.” The economist in question was of course Adam Smith.

A careful reading of The Wealth of Nations was not the only way to discover that markets of competing schools automatically disseminate effective practices. A moment’s reflection on the meteoric growth of private tutoring firms would have been enough. The Kumon tutoring chain began in Japan in 1954, and had a worldwide enrollment in the millions by the mid 1990s. Today it enrolls 4 million students in 45 countries. In the U.S., Kumon has 1,280 locations and continues to grow rapidly — as do its competitors, such as Sylvan Learning and Huntington.

This for-profit tutoring industry has proven the validity of Adam Smith’s analysis: parent-driven educational marketplaces provide incentives that automatically encourage the replication of effective models, just as they ensure the freedoms that allow such replication to take place.

Monopolistic public-school systems lack these necessary incentives and freedoms, and so exemplary public schools remain isolated, and often fizzle out. A 2002 RAND study concluded that model school “reforms need to have rewards and sanctions associated with them.” Countless “model schools” efforts had been going on in the public system since the 1960s — all of which lacked market freedoms and incentives, and all of which failed to spark the system-wide transformation that Annenberg sought.

Perhaps the greatest tragedy of the Annenberg Challenge is that years after its failure, many of those who led it at the national and regional level — including Senator Obama — still actively reject the lessons it should have taught them, and indeed that should have already been apparent before it even began. Senator Obama’s platform calls for a “blue ribbon panel” to identify “successful programs and innovations across the country that should be scaled” but he explicitly rejects the very market forces essential to the scaling-up process.

Obama’s opponent, John McCain, stresses the need to give all parents an easy choice of public and private schools, opening up American education to the freedoms and incentives that have the proven ability to transform it. Barack Obama, despite being in the cockpit of the Annenberg Challenge disaster, hasn’t yet learned that lesson.

Andrew J. Coulson is director of the Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom and author of the recent study “Markets vs. Monopolies in Education: A Global Review of the Evidence.” He blogs at Cato-at-Liberty.org.


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