School Choice Isn’t Enough
Instructional reform is the key to better schools.
I began writing about school choice in City Journal more than a decade ago. I believed then (as I still believe) that giving tuition vouchers to poor inner-city students stuck in lousy public schools was a civil rights imperative. Starting in the 1980s, major empirical studies by sociologist James Coleman and other scholars showed that urban Catholic schools were better than public schools at educating the poor, despite spending far less per student. Among the reasons for this superiority: most Catholic educators still believed in a coherent, content-based curriculum, and they enforced order in the classroom. It seemed immoral to keep disadvantaged kids locked up in dismal, future-darkening public schools when vouchers could send them to high-performing Catholic ones—especially when middle-class parents enjoyed education options galore for their children.
But like other reformers, I also believed that vouchers would force the public schools to improve or lose their student “customers.” Since competition worked in other areas, wouldn’t it lead to progress in education, too? Maybe Catholic schools’ success with voucher students would even encourage public schools to exchange the failed “progressive education” approaches used in most classrooms for the pedagogy that made the Catholic institutions so effective.
“Choice is a panacea,” argued education scholars John Chubb and Terry Moe in their influential 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools. For a time, I thought so, too. Looking back from today’s vantage point, it is clear that the school choice movement has been very good for the disadvantaged. Public and privately funded voucher programs have liberated hundreds of thousands of poor minority children from failing public schools. The movement has also reshaped the education debate. Not only vouchers, but also charter schools, tuition tax credits, mayoral control, and other reforms are now on the table as alternatives to bureaucratic, special-interest-choked big-city school systems.
Yet social-change movements need to be attentive to the facts on the ground. Recent developments in both public and Catholic schools suggest that markets in education may not be a panacea—and that we should reexamine the direction of school reform.
One such development: taxpayer-funded voucher programs for poor children, long considered by many of us to be the most promising of education reforms, have hit a wall. In 2002, after a decade of organizing by school choice activists, only two programs existed: one in Milwaukee, the other in Cleveland, allowing 17,000 poor students to attend private (mostly Catholic) schools. That year, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court ruled that limited voucher programs involving religious schools were compatible with the First Amendment’s establishment clause. The 5–4 decision seemed like school choice’s Magna Carta. But the legal victory has led to few real gains. Today, fewer than 25,000 students—compared with a nationwide public school enrollment of 50 million—receive tax-funded vouchers, with a tiny Washington, D.C., program joining those of the other two cities.
Proposals for voucher programs have suffered five straight crushing defeats in state referenda—most recently in Utah, by a margin of 62 percent to 38 percent. After each loss, school choice groups blamed the lobbying money poured into the states by teachers’ unions, the deceptive ads run by voucher foes, and sometimes even voters’ commitment to their children. When the Utah results came in, the principal funder of the pro-voucher side, businessman Patrick Byrne, opined that the voters failed “a statewide IQ test” and that they “don’t care enough about their kids.” If vouchers can’t pass voter scrutiny in conservative Utah, though, how probable is it that they will do so anywhere else? And denouncing voters doesn’t seem like a smart way to revive the voucher cause.
Voucher prospects have also dimmed because of the Catholic schools’ deepening financial crisis. Without an abundant supply of good, low-cost urban Catholic schools to receive voucher students, voucher programs will have a hard time getting off the ground, let alone succeeding. But cash-strapped Catholic Church officials are closing the Church’s inner-city schools at an accelerating rate [see “Save the Catholic Schools!,” Spring 2007]. With just one Catholic high school left in all of Detroit, for instance, where would the city’s disadvantaged students use vouchers even if they had them?
Even more discouraging, vouchers may not be enough to save the Catholic schools that are voucher students’ main destination. Archbishop Donald Wuerl of Washington, D.C., recently announced plans to close seven of the district’s 28 remaining Catholic schools, all of which are receiving aid from federally funded tuition vouchers, unless the D.C. public school system agreed to take them over and convert them into charter schools. In Milwaukee, several Catholic schools have also closed, or face the threat of closing, despite boosting enrollments with voucher kids.
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.
Unfortunately, the gains fizzled. Fifteen years into the most expansive school choice program tried in any urban school district in the country, Milwaukee’s public schools still suffer from low achievement and miserable graduation rates, with test scores flattening in recent years. Violence and disorder throughout the system seem as serious as ever. Most voucher students are still benefiting, true; but no “Milwaukee miracle,” no transformation of the public schools, has taken place. One of the Milwaukee voucher program’s founders, African-American educator Howard Fuller, recently told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, “I think that any honest assessment would have to say that there hasn’t been the deep, wholesale improvement in MPS [Milwaukee Public Schools] that we would have thought.” And the lead author of one of the Milwaukee voucher studies, Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson, told me: “The research on school choice programs clearly shows that low-income students benefit academically. It’s less clear that the presence of choice in a community motivates public schools to improve.”
What should we do about these new realities? Obviously, private scholarship programs ought to keep helping poor families find alternatives to failing public schools. And we can still hope that some legislature, somewhere in America, will vote for another voucher plan, or generous tuition tax credits, before more Catholic schools close. But does the school choice movement have a realistic Plan B for the millions of urban students who will remain stuck in terrible public schools?
According to Hoxby and Peterson, perhaps the two most respected school choice scholars in the country, no such plan is necessary. In their view, the best hope for education improvement continues to be a maximum degree of parental choice—vouchers if possible, but also charter schools and tuition tax credits—plus merit-pay schemes for teachers and accountability systems that distinguish productive from unproductive school principals.
That “incentivist” outlook remains dominant within school reform circles. But a challenge from what one could call “instructionists”—those who believe that curriculum change and good teaching are essential to improving schools—is growing, as a unique public debate sponsored by the Koret Task Force on K–12 Education revealed. Founded in 1999, the Koret Task Force represents a national all-star team of education reform scholars. Permanent fellows include not only Hoxby and Peterson but also Chubb, Moe, education historian Diane Ravitch, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester Finn, Stanford University economics prof Eric Hanushek, and the guru of “cultural literacy,” E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (recently retired). Almost from the start, the Koret scholars divided into incentivist and instructionist camps. “We have had eight years and we haven’t been able to agree,” says Hoxby. But in early 2007, members did agree to hold a debate at the group’s home, the Hoover Institution at Stanford University: “Resolved: True School Reform Demands More Attention to Curriculum and Instruction than to Markets and Choice.” Hirsch and Ravitch argued the affirmative, Hoxby and Peterson the negative.
Hirsch and Ravitch opened by saying that while they had no opposition to charter schools or other forms of choice, charter schools had produced “disappointing results.” Try a thought experiment, urged Ravitch. 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.
Responding, Peterson and Hoxby paid 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 had supported the competition argument for school choice as a working hypothesis, but my doubts about it grew after recent results from the Milwaukee experiment, and nothing said in the Koret debate restored my confidence. And something else caught my attention: Ravitch’s comment about “the dominant ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training.” The statement slipped by, unchallenged by the incentivist side.
While the arguments about school choice and markets swirled during the past 15 years, both Ravitch and Hirsch wrote landmark books (Left Back and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, respectively) on how the nation’s education schools have built an “impregnable fortress” (Hirsch’s words) of wrong ideas and ineffective classroom practices that teachers then carry into America’s schools, almost guaranteeing failure, especially for poor minority children. Hirsch’s book didn’t just argue this; it proved it conclusively, to my mind, offering an extraordinary tour d’horizon of all the evidence about instructional methods that cognitive neuroscience had discovered.
If Hoxby and Peterson were right in asserting that markets were enough to fix our education woes, then the ed schools wouldn’t be the disasters that Hirsch, Ravitch, and others have exposed. Unlike the government-run K–12 schools, the country’s 1,500 ed schools represent an almost perfect system of choice, markets, and competition. Anyone interested in becoming a teacher is completely free to apply to any ed school that he or she wants. The ed schools, in turn, compete for students by offering competitive prices and—theoretically—attractive educational “products” (curricula and courses). Yet the schools are uniformly awful, the products the same dreary progressive claptrap. A few years ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality, a mainstream public education advocacy group, surveyed the nation’s ed schools and found that almost all elementary education classes disdained phonics and scientific reading. If the invisible hand is a surefire way to improve curriculum and instruction, as the incentivists insist, why does almost every teacher-in-training have to read the works of leftists Paolo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, and William Ayers—but usually nothing by, say, Hirsch or Ravitch?
For a good explanation, look to the concept of ideological hegemony, usually associated with the sociological Left. Instead of competition and diversity in the education schools, we confront what Hirsch calls the “thoughtworld” of teacher training, which operates like a Soviet-style regime suppressing alternative perspectives. Professors who dare to break with the ideological monopoly—who look to reading science or, say, embrace a core knowledge approach—won’t get tenure, or get hired in the first place. The teachers they train thus wind up indoctrinated with the same pedagogical dogma whether they attend New York University’s school of education or Humboldt State’s. Those who put their faith in the power of markets to improve schools must at least show how their theory can account for the stubborn persistence of the thoughtworld.
Instead, we increasingly find the theory of educational competition detaching itself from its original school choice moorings and taking a new form. Vouchers may have stalled, but it’s possible—or so many school reformers and education officials now assure us—to create the conditions for vigorous market competition within public school systems, with the same beneficent effects that were supposed to flow from a pure choice program.
Nowhere has this new philosophy of reform been more enthusiastically embraced than in the New York City school district under the control of Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein. Gotham’s schools are surging ahead with a host of market incentives, including models derived from the business world. Many of the country’s major education foundations and philanthropies have boosted New York as the flagship school system for such market innovations, helping to spread the incentivist gospel nationally. Disciples of Klein have taken over the school systems in Baltimore and Washington, D.C., and Bloomberg’s fellow billionaires Eli Broad and Bill Gates are about to launch a $60 million ad campaign to push the market approach during the presidential election season.
Don’t get me wrong: market-style reforms are sometimes just what’s necessary in the public schools. Over the past decade, for instance, I often called attention in City Journal to the destructively restrictive provisions in the New York City teachers’ contract, which forced principals to hire teachers based solely on seniority, and I felt vindicated when negotiations between the Bloomberg administration and the United Federation of Teachers eliminated the seniority clause and created an open-market hiring system. Similarly, the teachers’ lockstep salary schedule, based on seniority and accumulating useless additional education credits, is a counterproductive way to compensate the system’s most important employees. The schools need a flexible salary structure that realistically reflects supply and demand in the teacher labor market.
Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration and its supporters are pushing markets and competition in the public schools far beyond where the evidence leads. Everything in the system now has a price. Principals can get cash bonuses of as much as $50,000 by raising their schools’ test scores; teachers in a few hundred schools now (and hundreds more later) can take home an extra $3,000 if the student scores in their schools improve; parents get money for showing up at parent-teacher conferences; their kids get money or—just what they need—cell phones for passing tests.
Much of this scaffolding of cash incentives (and career-ending penalties) rests on a rather shaky base: the state’s highly unreliable reading and math tests in grades three through eight, plus the even more unreliable high school Regents exams, which have been dumbed down so that schools will avoid federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind act. In the past, the tests have also been prone to cheating scandals. Expect more cheating as the stakes for success and failure rise.
While confidently putting their seal of approval on this market system, the mayor and chancellor appear to be agnostic on what actually works in the classroom. They’ve shown no interest, for example, in two decades’ worth of scientific research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health that proves that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness is crucial to getting kids to read in the early grades. They have blithely retained a fuzzy math program, Everyday Math, despite a consensus of university math professors judging it inadequate. Indeed, Bloomberg and Klein have abjured all responsibility for curriculum and instruction and placed their bets entirely on choice, markets, and accountability.
But the new reliance on markets hasn’t prevented special interests from hijacking the curriculum. One such interest is the Teachers College Reading and Writing Project—led by Lucy Calkins, the doyenne of the whole-language reading approach, which postulates that all children can learn to read and write naturally, with just some guidance from teachers, and that direct phonics instruction is a form of child abuse. Calkins’s enterprise has more than $10 million in Department of Education contracts to guide reading and writing instruction in most of the city’s elementary schools, even though no solid evidence supports her methodology. This may explain why, on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests—widely regarded as a gold standard for educational assessment—Gotham students showed no improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade reading from 2003 to 2007, while the city of Atlanta, which hasn’t staked everything on market incentives, has shown significant reading improvement.
One wonders why so many in the school reform movement and in the business community celebrate New York City’s recent record on education. Is it merely because they hear the words “choice,” “markets,” and “competition” and think that all is well? If so, they’re mistaken. The primal scene of all education reform is the classroom. If the teacher isn’t doing the right thing, all the cash incentives in the world won’t make a difference.
Those in the school reform movement seeking a case of truly spectacular academic improvement should look to Massachusetts, where something close to an education miracle has occurred. In the past several years, Massachusetts has improved more than almost every other state on the NAEP tests. In 2007, it scored first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. The state’s average scale scores on all four tests have also improved at far higher rates than most other states have seen over the past 15 years.
The improvement had nothing to do with market incentives. Massachusetts has no vouchers, no tuition tax credits, very few charter schools, and no market incentives for principals and teachers. The state owes its amazing improvement in student performance to a few key former education leaders, including state education board chairman John Silber, assistant commissioner Sandra Stotsky, and board member (and Manhattan Institute fellow) Abigail Thernstrom. Starting a decade ago, these instructionists pushed the state’s board of education to mandate a rigorous curriculum for all grades, created demanding tests linked to the curriculum standards, and insisted that all high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam. In its English Language Arts curriculum framework, the board even dared to say that reading instruction in the early grades should include systematic and explicit phonics. Now a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, Stotsky sums up: “The lesson from Massachusetts is that a strong content–based curriculum, together with upgraded certification regulations and teacher licensure tests that require teacher preparation programs to address that content, can be the best recipe for improving students’ academic achievement.”
The Massachusetts miracle doesn’t prove that a standard curriculum and a focus on effective instruction will always produce academic progress. Nor does the flawed New York City experiment in competition mean that we should cast aside all market incentives in education. But what has transpired in these two places provides an important lesson: education reformers ought to resist unreflective support for elegant-sounding theories, derived from the study of economic activity, that don’t produce verifiable results in the classroom. After all, children’s lives are at stake.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.