Friday, January 18, 2008

School Choice Conundrum

Over at City Journal, Sol Stern is talking about school reform, and he is reluctant to admit that as it is currently formulated, school choice and reform is not having one of the desired effects, that is raising the level of all the schools. With the failure of five statewide voucher proposals, Stern wonders what will become of voucher experiments.
During the 15 years since the first voucher program got under way in Milwaukee, university researchers have extensively scrutinized the dynamics of school choice and the effect of competition on public schools. The preponderance of studies have shown clear benefits, both academically and otherwise, for the voucher kids. It’s gratifying that the research confirms the moral and civil rights argument for vouchers.

But sadly—and this is a second development that reformers must face up to—the evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making public schools better. When I reported on the Milwaukee voucher experiment in 1999, some early indicators suggested that competition was having just that effect. Members of Milwaukee’s school board, for example, said that voucher schools had prompted new reforms in the public school system, including modifying the seniority provisions of the teachers’ contract and allowing principals more discretion in hiring. A few public schools began offering phonics-based reading instruction in the early grades, the method used in neighboring Catholic schools. Milwaukee public schools’ test scores also improved—and did so most dramatically in those schools under the greatest threat of losing students to vouchers, according to a study by Harvard economist Caroline Hoxby.
Stern discusses also the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education which is largely split between the "incentivists," those who favor changing the incentives for schools in the school reform debate and the "instructivists" who favor changes in the curriculum and pedagogy as the path to greater success in education. In a debate between the two camps, two leading "instructivists," Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, made a point
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.
Arguing for the incentivist approach, Carolyn Hoxby and Paul Peterson responded by paying
respects to good curricula and instructional methods. But the key question, in their view, was who would decide which curricula and instructional methods were best. Here, the pro-choice debaters made no bones about it: the market’s “invisible hand” was the way to go. As Hoxby put it, educational choice would erect a “bulwark against special-interest groups hijacking the curriculum.”
I can see both points but like all things in life, there are not just the two sides, but a third that actually encompasses both points of view.

Earlier this week, I posted this item about an article by Denis Doyle arguing, in part, that there are no entrepreneurial incentives in the education market and thus the pace of innovation and change is much slower than even in the slowest to change industries.
Indeed, the door of the typical school has never been darkened by an entrepreneur’s shadow. The reason? It would be a waste of the entrepreneur’s time and energy. Not only are there no incentives or rewards to change, there is active hostility to change.
Doyle accepts implicitly and in part explicitly that the labor force of the schools, namely the teachers themselves, are what drives the uniformity in schools (despite the generally local control of schools) because their educational background is, absent minor exceptions here and there, largely uniform. Thus if the practitioners all come from the same background, which is as Ravitch and Doyle argue based upon education schools, then it stands to reason that the schools themselves, no matter what their location may be, are likely to be fundamentally similar.

So if the problem with incentivist structures are that the labor force creates uniformity and the instructivist camp believes a stronger curriculum is a better route (although they don't address the teacher uniformity), the the solution would be to alter the labor force a little.

Here is where Doyle's cry for educational entrepreneurship crosses the Koret Task Force debate. Assuming that charter schools continue to grow apace, then the solution to alter the labor pool would be to expand options for hiring teachers. What if a school were free to hire teachers who met some licensing exam type of scenario but come from radically different educational backgrounds. That is, what if the teaching corps did not come overwhelming through education schools, but contained a variety of backgrounds such as science, law, medicine, technology, the arts but had no ed school training, think Teach For America on a grander scale.

The fundamental differences between this kind of a labor force and the kind we currently have are twofold. First, they would not be products of a similar educational background and thus you would begin to diversify the outlook and biases of the workforce. Second, the different educational backgrounds would allow those teachers to teach their subject better and thus get a better quality education, because they are more familiar with the subject matter.

Of course, I can anticipate two criticisms. First, there would have to be a way to control the quality of your workforce. Quality control is an issue now and so the issue is not new by any stretch of the imagination. However, with a more independent workforce, you could have a more open hiring and firing process. For example, instead of pretty much guaranteed employment, your new teachers would be on a year to year contract for the first couple of years and if they measure up and make the grade, so to speak, you could then offer longer contracts--but the contracts would be individual based instead of collectively bargained. of course such a scenario means that the school would have to have some sort of customer based evaluation process, but I believe that matter can be addressed.

Which leads us to criticism two, the teachers unions would never go for it. Why should they, the arrangement they have no all but guarantees long term employment if the teacher so desires and puts an almost stranglehold on the profession. However, that is why the type of hiring process I envision would have to be done almost exclusively at charter schools. It is only these schools that are free enough from bureaucracies that they can control their own hiring and firing practices.

There is a place for market based incentives in K-12 education, there must be if we are ever going to change and improve the system. However, market based economies, no matter where they are located, cannot have a single source for any input into the system. That includes, facilities, curricula, practices and most importantly the labor pool. The failure of voucher programs and other choice programs may not be that they don't offer enough choice or that the education programs are weak, but rather the failure may be based more on the largely monopolistic manner in which the labor force for schools are trained and produced.

Change the labor pool, change the school.

1 comment:

Mark Newgent said...


Great point and idea. But you are right the teacher unions would never go for it.

I was an editor for several American Educational Research Association's (AERA) journals and I saw first hand the radical ideology of the ed schools.