TCS Daily

No Longer Choosing Choice

By Andrew J. Coulson - February 21, 2008 12:00 AM

In a new City Journal essay, prominent school voucher advocate Sol Stern declares that competition and choice "may not be a panacea," and recommends that choice supporters shift emphasis to standardizing the curriculum.
He's not alone.

Conservatives have long championed central planning in addition to parental choice, but in recent years centralization has been ascendant. Department of Education alumni William Bennett, Chester Finn, and Diane Ravitch, all appointed under Republican administrations, now place greater emphasis on national standards than on choice. Last month, Mr. Finn faulted Ohio's charter school system for placing "too much trust in market forces."

Their faltering support stems from disappointment with the impact of existing U.S. charter school and voucher programs, and what they think it says about market reform in general. Stern, for instance, laments that while Milwaukee's voucher program has benefitted the low income students who gained access to private schools, it has not dramatically improved the city's public schools.

But criticisms such as those of Finn and Stern don't reveal any failure of market education, because existing U.S. "school choice" programs do not constitute, or even closely approximate, free markets. That anyone imagines otherwise shows how poorly markets are understood, even among conservative education reformers.

Do charter schools really rely too heavily on "market forces"? Consider some key elements of free markets: prices determined by supply and demand, private ownership of businesses, low or no barriers to the creation of new businesses, few or no barriers to workers entering the profession, minimal regulation, the ability of owners and investors to profit from their efforts, and payment by consumers rather than a third party. With charter schools, these features are either grossly hobbled or absent. Yes, charter schools produce some attenuated competition and parental choice, but to imagine that those two diluted ingredients are sufficient by themselves (or even excessive!) suggests a badly mistaken notion of what a market is.

Milwaukee's voucher program has indeed helped many children, but it also falls far short of a market. First, it is capped at 22,500 students. That's too little to justify large-scale R&D investment by education entrepreneurs. If the market for computers were limited to 22,500 customers, Microsoft, Apple, and Dell would cease to exist. Private schools must also accept the voucher as full payment, but such price controls are almost universally derided by economists as counterproductive. If it were not for the fact that electronics manufacturers could once charge $1,000 for a DVD player, it would never have become possible for the units to sell for $30 today.

The initially high prices of innovative new products and services are what encourage the R&D that eventually brings down their cost.

Even if Milwaukee's voucher program were big enough and free enough to create a vigorous marketplace, the public schools still might not improve dramatically. The most significant advances in market economies generally occur when better products or methods replace old ones. The loom did not improve hand-weaving, it supplanted it. Even in the highly regulated and not especially market-like school choice programs of Chile and the Netherlands, private schools already enroll most students.

Though markets have been marginalized by "free" public schooling, they still thrive in niches such as tutoring, where programs like Kumon and Sylvan Learning show their effectiveness and responsiveness to consumer demands.

In many slums and villages across the developing world, where state-run school systems are particularly dysfunctional, majorities of poor parents are currently paying for their children to attend ultra-low-cost private schools - though free government schools are available. These education markets, as researchers such as Orient Global Education Fund president James Tooley and Oxford professor Geeta Gandhi Kingdon have shown, outperform state-run schools at a fraction of the cost, and they teach what families want. The vast international research literature on school governance and funding systems strongly favors competition, minimal regulation, private ownership of schools, parental choice, and some level of direct payment of tuition by parents.

It is possible to give all families access to a free education marketplace - by dramatically expanding and liberalizing existing choice programs, or adopting new ones, like Cato's public education tax credit proposal. But you can't expect current programs to produce free-market results in the absence of free markets.

Andrew Coulson is director of the Cato Institute's Center for Educational Freedom and co-author of the 2007 study End It, Don't Mend It: What to Do with NCLB.



Teacher oppose standards
Especially public school teachers.

The history teacher at the charter school my kids attened could not find a text newer than 1970 that was good.

The president of the charter school was a teacher and promoted standards.

When charter or private (or even public) schools promote standards of education and behaviour, those schools are preferred by the customers and serve their customers.

Charter and private schools don't have to fight the teachers to make changes.

What's new?
"Forty years ago the sociologist James S. Coleman made clear that there's no reliable connection between the resources going into a school and the learning that comes out. Fifty years ago economist Milton Friedman made clear that in education, as in other spheres, monopolies don't work as well as markets. That's why most Republicans and some Democrats favor school choice in its myriad versions and why many, like us, have also embraced today's other important education reform strategy: standards, testing and tough accountability for schools."

"A new Fordham Foundation report shows that most states have deployed mediocre standards, and there's increasing evidence that some are playing games with their tests and accountability systems."

"The remedy? As both of us have long argued, Washington should set sound national academic standards and administer a high-quality national test. Publicize everybody's results, right down to the school level. Then Washington should butt out.

States that prefer to cling to their own standards and tests -- and endure the rules and meddling of federal bureaucrats -- would be free to do so. Some surely would. But many would welcome a new compact with the Education Department."

"We're also painfully aware that national standards and tests are hard to get right -- and even harder to get through Congress. Another new report outlines four ways in which this might be done. Several scenarios would rely on a "bottom-up" approach, with states working together on a voluntary basis to forge common expectations, lessening the chances that Washington would mess them up."

National Academic Standards
I believe that "sound national academic standards" would be optimally achieved if a series of testing were administered:
Period-1...Grade-5 or before
Period-2...Grade-8 or before
Period-3...Grade-12 or before
If minimal accomplishment in the testing is not demonstrated for Periods 1 or 2, then remedial action would be necessary (or Federal Funding would be threatened) BEFORE a student moved on.
Passing the Period-3 testing is the equivalent of a "National High School Diploma"...and could be taken any time after the Period-2 test is successfully taken.

The point is to define grade completion through standardized testing. How a child achieves the skills to pass the testing is then the issue. This is where markets come in...parents and children can choose home study, tutoring and/or formal schooling. Both public and private schools should be competing for students based in large measure on their records of successfully preparing students for the testing process.

National Standards should be designed to measure the internalization of prescribed reading, writing, math and technical competencies. National Standards in conjunction with the full utilization of markets to meet educational demand will result in optimized benefit per dollar of expense. In addition, the testing would more clearly establish how well students were prepared for further college studies.

Two problems.
1) Who gets to define the standards? I'm afraid that if it's the teacher's union, the standards will quickly be watered down to the point where they are as useless as the current standards. If it's the politicians, given the political influence the teacher's unions have, that's pretty much the same thing.

2) How do you prevent teacher's from teaching to the test?
When it's up to the parents to decide, they have the ability to watch and interact with their kids every day. They can decide for themselves if the teachers are actually teaching the kids. Can they do basic math. Are they learning anything about history. Etc.

Standards, imposed from above, are no solution.

What if people don't take standard tests well?

"An education isn't how much you have committed to memory, or even how much you know. It's being able to differentiate between what you do know and what you don't. It's knowing where to go to find out what you need to know; and it's knowing how to use the information you get." William Feather

The challenge for testing is to develop an effective test.

I agree with your critique, but all is not lost
The big problem is who sets the standards and how are they enforced. Remember, these need to be "minimum" standards for deciding if a kid is getting a basic and useful education. Creating a useful standard really shouldn't be that hard a task.

Who cares if the teacher is teaching to the test? Why is that a big deal? Look, the teacher is not going to get the questions before hand, they still have to teach the basics of math, English, science, social studies/history, etc. or the kids will not be able to pass the test regardless of how much the teacher "teaches to the test". Teach to the test, by all means teach these kids how to take tests, at least they will be learning something useful and might even get the basic lesson of the subject matter.

Well thought out standards, with proper testing of the subject matter, are useful for everyone. In the case of the education system, they are the only way to begin.

But you are right, by themselves they are not a solution. Teachers should face immediate termination if their culmulative class score is below a given level. Schools should face severe punishment if their over all average is below a certain level. It is time to force states to institute "troubleshooting teams" who are extremely capable people that go into troubled school districts, schools and classrooms and fix the problems there. If that means fireing the entire staff, so be it and that is what they do. To hell with the carrot, it hasn't worked well wherever it has been instituted (giving teachers performance bonuses and performance raises); it is time to get out the stick and start making teachers, administrations and schools do their job or get out of the profession.

Also it is time to start testing teachers. If they can't pass their own classroom tests and standardized tests in their subject, they are history. Fire them immediately.

In the real world, a person who is not able to do his job will not keep it long. Why should teachers be an exception? In my opinion, while there are many exceptions, teachers generall tend to be of low intellect, over-paid, over-appreciated and under-worked.

One thing, on the teacher's side, we need to do away with all the really stupid reguations. Test should be geared more toward what the teacher teaches and not some arbitrary expectation (as many state's who do testing now have). I expect a 7th grade math teacher to be able to add, subtract, multiply, divide and have a handle on some basic algebra and Geometry. I don't care how good their trig and calculus is. As long as their basic English (both written and spoken) is good enough to easily understand, they have some grasp of very basic geography and history and they have some usable grasp of basic science, I'm fine with that. They don't need to be genius level, just competent.

They should also be made to stick to their subject in the classroom. I don't want my children to be indroctinated into the math teacher's political and social views.

teaching to the test
If the teacher knows that the test is heavy on early American History, so spends a lot of time on that, doesn't bother me.

What does bother me is if teacher knows that the test will ask year Valley Forge was. And he/she reminds the kids every day that Valley Forge was (God, I can't believe I can't remember that. My teacher is going to be retroactively fired.)

If the test doesn't have a large bank of questions that get rotated between, and updated frequently, then the teachers could effectively start passing out the answers.

good point
But that is really just a case of doing up the test the right way in the first place, and not giving teachers a copy of the test beforehand.

(By the way, Valley Forge was winter of 1777-1778, and I didn't even have to look it up!! God, I can't believe I do remember that; too much helping my kids with homework!!)

possibly a radical suggestion for improving public schools

I have observed over many years, first as a public school student, and then as a public and private school parent that too many schools are merely babysitting palaces.

Public schools do have an accountability problem, the accountability of the students. I make two possibly radical suggestions for improving public schools:
1. public schools must have and must use the power to expel kids that don't want to be there anyway.
2. rather than an advancement regime tied to a calendar, make advancement based on milestones. Finish the tasks in geometry in three months? you're done with geometry. Start on calculus. Someone else may take a year and a half to get through Texas history. If the material is absorbed better in that time than in the 9 month course, so much the better.
This will mean individualized instruction, something that can be accomplished with computers pretty easily, and has been done for years in the English public (read private) school system.

I know I'll get it from both sides. Still, with a clarification, here I go
Clarification :-

I am NOT advocating that GOVAGs (GOVernment AGents) have the Right to meddle in the education of the citizenry in ANY WAY and FORM.

That said, as a stop-gap measure to stem the cultural decay, GOVAGs must be brought to the view point that they should just set standrards in the education field also (as they are currently doing - without any Right, I may add - in many fields) and get the hell out of actually providing the service.

After all, mercifully, GOVAGs aren't involved in actually producing and distributing food even though they impose lot of standards on the food industry and provide OPM (Other People's Money) for the needy to buy food.

Government Standards
Notice how well government standards have kept track of meat.

How much was recalled recently?

I agree with standards. Those standards must be agree to and accepted by the 'industry'.

American Society of Quality and ISO are great places to start looking for how to develop and implement such standards.

show off
You do have to change the test every time, but that's probably part of doing it up right.

Choice works fine in Sweden
Sweden has a school voucher program since some 15 years. It has proven to raise standards both in new private schools and, through competition and the power of example, old state run schools. The share of students choosing a private school has consistently creeped upwards and is today significant.

It also works in very poor areas; one of the best performing schools are situated right in the middle of a getto. Their students, almost all immigrants or children of immigrants, are among the top in the country!

Immigrants KNOW the importance is education
Especially when they are from a turd world country.

There was a comment on meat and the Topps meat processing.

There was several cases of e-coli contamination. Instead of simply advising everyone who eats ground beef to cook it thoroughly to a temperature above 163 degrees F, they recalled all of the product that ultimately put the company out of business.

There are lots of things to be concerned about. What is bad is intentionally creating panic.

The problem with education is the expectations are so low that the Education complex simply has to continue to lower the expectations and continue to deliver less rather than more.

I sent my daughter to a private boarding school where she learned the basics (reading, writing, arithmetic) but also learned philosophy, latin and greek. This was done for $5500/year including room and board.

They pushed the students hard, but they produced. In many areas the cost is over $10k per student per year. Progress can be made, it is just not expected and thus never materializes.

I don't think either of us would have time (r the space here) to work out a detailed testing mandate, but changing the tests every year, having several different tests each year, etc. would be part of "doing it up right".

So would making sure the teachers have, at least slightly, more education and knowledge in the subject matter that the students they are teaching.

Like everything, there is always give and take
My brother is exactly one of those. But, he learned to do it adequately enough to be both an honor roll and dean's list student. He just worked a little harder on his homework and term papers and learned a few study tricks. However, it did keep him from any hope of being a 4.0 GPA student. Still, it is a problem a minority of students face and it can be overcome (to some extent) in most cases.

Nice quote, and one most people can agree with. But it also opens the door "equivalence education" where teaching anything you want, or nothing at all, is just as good as teaching basic facts.

However, tests have already been designed to measure whether or not you understand the basic tennants and not whether you could memorize the exact names, dates and tables. But a little memorization exercise is also a good thing. Maybe the next generation will pay attention enough to know who the present president is!

There is no need to "come up with something new", this stuff has already been done, it just needs to be tweeked and updated constantly.

not all that radical
The problem with number one is with the no child left behind crap. Hey, some kids are not going to get an education no matter how much you try and pound it into them. I say, at 16, the school cracks the whip and expells any unruly student. But you will never get that to fly.

Two is already being done in charter schools. But the down side is that I don't know any charter school teacher who says this is a generally better way to operate. It works well for at risk kids who either can't catch up or get bored with the general school environment; but the vast majority are probably better off in the present system.

Sadly, especially in the large wharehouses we call city schools, some serious structure to the base schedule and curricula is absolutely necessary.

Perhaps the day will come where everything is able to be taught, at an individual pace, through computer technology. That day is not presently here.

Recommended new site to read
In case you are a bit bored by the slowdown in article activity TCS seems to be in, here's a good site to read:

Here's a taste of his writing:

The environmental movement has some people (like Thomas Friedman) who genuinely care about reducing pollution. However, a large subset are merely anti-US, anti-capitalism radicals who seek to mask their agenda within the altruism of environmental concerns. A beloved non-Western, undemocratic nation being a bigger polluter than the US [referring to China] is simply too inconvenient of a reality for their agenda. This will split the environmental group into two opposing factions - those who truly seek to curb emissions worldwide, and those who are merely driven by anti-Americanism and anti-capitalism. This civil war will be interesting, to say the least, and the purging of the phonies could just be the best thing to happen to the environmental movement, making it palatable enough for greater participation from mainstream people.


Don't forget about home schooling
"What does the future hold? It is impossible to say for sure, but there are encouraging signs. The main reason is technology. The web has challenged the state-university and state-media cartels as never before. You don't need a PhD to write for Wikipedia. What does the rise of the new media, new means of sharing information, new ways of establishing authority and credibility, imply for universities as credential factories? Moreover, as universities become more vocationally oriented, they will find it hard to compete with specialized, technology-intensive institutions such as DeVry University and the University of Phoenix, the fastest-growing US universities.

Home schooling, the costs of which are greatly lowered by technology, is also on the rise. And traditional media (newspapers and network news) are of course rapidly declining, and alternative news sources are flourishing."

Central Planning is a step toward ignorance
The statement that conservatives advocate central planning is not clear. Is he referring to political conservatives? If so, then he is wrong. Because as soon as someone advocates central planning, they are not conservative, they are socialists. In any event, standardization of curricula the way I read this article is restricting courses to certain limits. And as soon as soon as courses are restricted, it follows that course matter is restricted, resulting in restricting knowledge, thinking and creativity. All of these impacts will be in the name of making it easier to see how students compare in exams. It would be sensible to focus on exams only for courses that can be clearly measured , like math and science, and the use of language, while others need not be measured to any given set of standards. Then allow the students choices in the form of electives.

Private Schools
In a healthy economic climate, private schools generally have sufficient enrollment to make the payroll and will therefore adhere to their standards. Students who do not meet those standards are asked to leave.

However, when there are economic downturns, these same schools will look the other way when teachers inflate grades in an attempt to prevent declining enrollments.

Central Planning = Socialism?
Central planning is equivalent to socialism. However, there are a lot of so-called "conservatives" out there who are advocating it or something very much like it.

I think this largely amounts to sloppy terminology, lumping "moderates" in with conservatives. "Moderates" are spineless wimps who have no core principles and think that moving to the center on everything means Republican victory. Conservatives actually remember the Reagan years, where a candidate who made a case for conservatism crushed the Democrats.

The Republican party has failed to make the case for conservative ideas since 1994, and until we have serious national candidates out there making it, and the Party backing it, the Republican Party is still going to lapse back in to socialism periodically.

I actually discuss this problem in one of my blog entries, covering the composition of the middle and Democrats, and how we can beat them:

I have to say that I'm really surprised at the lack of discussion on this one
And I'm really shocked at the lack of liberal opinion. Have we lost our token liberals for good? Why aren't conservative more worried about this issue? I thought vouchers were the salvation of education a few years ago?

Personally, I'm all for getting the feds and the states out of public education and letting the individual communities and school boards deal with it.

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