Politics & Policy

The Anti-School-Reform Canon

A barrage of new books attacking school reform are being published this year.

Diane Ravitch, the prophet of education’s anti-reform crowd, has a new book out on September 17. Reign of Error, the sequel to her hugely successful Death and Life of the Great American School System (2010), continues her assault on contemporary school reform. That makes this a moment of celebration for those who oppose school choice, accountability, merit pay, and the rest.

Sounding notes sure to be heard repeatedly this fall, David Kirp, a professor at the University of California, Berkeley, on Wednesday penned a piece for Slate, in which he argued that Ravitch and other authors of new books “decimate” the case for school choice and accountability. In his piece, Kirp name-checks first Chris Lubienski and Sarah Lubienski, who, in The Public School Advantage, use data from the National Assessment of Educational Progress to argue that public-school students outperform private-school students. Kirp also mentions a new volume by University of Michigan professor David Cohen and coauthors, who in Improvement by Design argue that some really lousy schools have found ways to get better over time.

#ad#There will be much more such commentary this fall. This is due in large part to a brewing backlash brought by the missteps of reformers, including their embrace of the bureaucratic, one-size-fits-all teacher-evaluation systems and the divisive Common Core state standards, all promoted by the aggressive machinations of the Obama administration. As was the case with No Child Left Behind a decade ago, these efforts seem geared to repel middle-class and suburban parents and teachers and drive them straight into the anti-reform camp.

Here are four points to keep in mind this fall when confronted with Kirp-like arguments that American schools are doing great, that “public education’s antagonists have manufactured a crisis in order to advance their agenda,” that educational bureaucracy is effective and productive, and that school choice and private schools are bad for kids.

First, well . . . seriously? Kirp concedes that the U.S. has slipped from first to 14th internationally in college graduation. (Ravitch concedes it too; she just doesn’t think it’s important.) School spending is up 250 percent since 1970 (after inflation), but the performance of 17-year-olds on the NAEP has been essentially flat over those four decades. In their new book Endangering Prosperity, Stanford’s Rick Hanushek, Harvard’s Paul Peterson, and the University of Munich’s Ludger Woessmann note that just 7 percent of U.S. eighth-graders are performing at an advanced level in math, a share that’s lower than in 29 other countries. While school systems — including those in Detroit, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles — teeter on the verge of insolvency, huge outlays have delivered no meaningful improvement. If Kirp and Ravitch want to argue that this is a picture of educational health, reformers ought to have a field day.

Second, the Lubienskis have managed a neat parlor trick, writing a sure-to-be-controversial book that will be warmly embraced by the government-school lobby. But their argument is weak. For one thing, they rely on cross-sectional, national data to make sweeping comparisons across very different kinds of schools. This analytic approach is precisely the one that the public-school lobby has (justifiably) denounced when it is used to indict public-school performance. More to the point, high-quality research on charter schooling and voucher programs has consistently shown modest but positive effects. More important, the Lubienski-Kirp line shows a profound misunderstanding of market dynamics, because . . . 

Third, there’s an underlying ideological dimension here that it’s vital to keep in mind. The liberal mind seeks examples of what “works” so that it may be mandated, and so that uncertainties, inequities, and vagaries can be alleviated with scientific precision. The tricky thing about markets, choice, and sensible accountability (in education, as elsewhere) is that they don’t dictate practice or promise miracle cures — they create circumstances in which educators, local citizens, and entrepreneurs can figure out how to better serve students. Truth be told, whether and how well this all works depends on what people do with the freedom. Rather than trust people to do the right thing, the liberal imagination chooses to put great faith in bureaucracy and technical expertise. That’s why Kirp professes his faith that public schools are buoyed by their bureaucratic constancy and suggests that autonomy is actually bad for private schools, as it has allowed them to use an “outmoded pedagogy” that stresses knowledge rather than “problem-solving.” (That alone is fodder for a whole column, so we’ll leave it for another day.)

Fourth, let’s not kid ourselves. The school-reform community has asked for a lot of this backlash. As Kirp rightly notes, John Chubb and Terry Moe unfortunately recommended 23 years ago, in their seminal book Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, that reformers think of choice as a “panacea.” Contemporary reform has unfolded as a grand crusade to “close achievement gaps” in reading and math, with remarkably little attention to the day-to-day concerns of most parents or educators. Conservatives have joined liberals in designing overwrought accountability and teacher-evaluation systems while failing to address the regulatory, contractual, and licensure barriers that make it tough for dynamic educational leaders to drive real change.

Indeed, if the emerging anti-reform canon forces reformers to sharpen their arguments, clarify their principles, and take a hard look at their mistakes, it could make this an enormously constructive fall for reformers.

— Frederick M. Hess is director of education-policy studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

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