Phi Beta Cons

Re: School Choice vs. Instructivism

No one, I’m glad to say, in the incentivist vs. instructivist brouhaha has come out against Direct Instruction, Success for All, Singapore Math, and Core Knowledge. I think they are excellent programs for many, many kids, and advocating for choice in no way opposes them, as Jay rightly points out. But Stern’s call for high standards goes far beyond just saying we should be touting good programs. It implies that we should be forcing them from above. Don’t forget Diane Ravitch’s “thought experiment” that apparently was Stern’s turning point:

Say that one school system features market incentives and unlimited choices for parents and students, but no standard curriculum. Then posit another system, with no choice allowed, but in which the educational leadership enforces a rich curriculum and favors effective instructional approaches. In the market system, Ravitch predicted, “most schools will reflect the dominant ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training, so most schools will adopt programs of whole language and fuzzy math. . . . Most students under a pure choice regime will know very little about history or literature or science.” The system with the first-rate curriculum and effective pedagogy, Ravitch argued, would produce better education outcomes.

That thought experiment clearly favors forcing all schools to adopt what government considers “a rich curriculum” and “effective educational approaches,” and says specifically that there’s “no choice allowed.” Now, maybe no one would ever really say choice should be outlawed, but the ultimate implication is that choice is not compatible with instructivist reforms, which must be imposed on the unwilling. But there are many huge problems with that, two of which loom particularly large.
The first is that eliminating choice is inherently incompatible with freedom — as well as competition and innovation — no matter how well one’s preferred curriculum works for most kids. The second is even bigger: To get enough power too impose “a rich curriculum” on everyone, you have to centralize educational authority, and even if you are the most wise, pedagogically sound, benevolent dictator in the world, what happens when you are gone and someone worse takes over? There is nowhere for your subjects to run.
And right now, we aren’t even close to having the ideal dictator. As people like Ravitch and E. D. Hirsch have made clear, we already have largely centralized power and it has been used for almost a century to impose bad curricula on everyone. And how effective have efforts been to depose the progressive dictators (and far too often place authority at even higher levels of government)? Stern himself makes clear the huge risk that concentrating power at ever-higher levels of government could just give the “bad guys” a bigger prize to recapture, noting that Massachusetts is about the only state that has had success from instructivist reforms, but “with the election of Governor Deval Patrick they [progressives] are now working to overthrow the reforms.”
In the end, if Jay means to say that high standards are in no way incompatible with choice, he is 100-percent correct. Not only could people choose schools that use Success for All, Singapore Math, etc.; with choice they have a better chance of keeping those schools and curricula, because there is no centralized power to take them away. However, if he is saying that government-imposed standards are not, ultimately, incompatible with choice, then I’m afraid he is in the wrong.
By the way, for the sake of background (and to counter some of Sol’s points to Ramesh), I and my fellow Cato-ites posted several responses to Stern soon after his City Journal article appeared, and all can be accessed here.


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