A tale of two movements: Why standards and choice need each other

The modern education-reform movement is essentially made up of two distinct but complementary strands: one focuses primarily on raising K–12 academic expectations, particularly for poor and minority students, who have long been held to lower standards than their middle-class and affluent peers. The second is aimed at expanding education choice through various mechanisms, chiefly charter schools and vouchers.

Unfortunately, these reforms have often been pursued in isolation, with advocates pushing for one or the other but not both together. Some even claim that the two strategies are competitors, if not antagonists. But the reality is that, in order to see real progress and avoid the most vexing unintended consequences of either reform pursued alone, each needs the other in order to deliver on its promise. And therein lies a challenge.

Over the past 25 years, both standards-based and choice-based reforms have moved forward, but standards/assessment/accountability has grown faster than choice. Today, it’s fair to say that every public-school student in the country is impacted in one way or another by his or her state’s standards. By comparison, the number of youngsters benefiting from choice programs is much smaller. In 2014, only 16 states offer tax credits to assist with private-school tuition, while just 13 have voucher programs of any kind; and although 43 jurisdictions have passed charter laws, more than half of these (22 states) have caps that limit the expansion of charters.

Perhaps even more telling, more than two decades after the first charter laws were passed, students enrolled in charter schools across the land comprise just 4.6 percent of the total public-school population. The number of students taking advantage of vouchers or tax-credit-supported scholarships amounts to fewer than 1 percent of the public-school population. In fact, even the most generous estimate of choice—one that accounts for every kind of choice you can imagine—approximates that 52 percent of families exercise school choice in some form (whether by moving into a desirable district; participating in a public choice program; selecting a private school; homeschooling; or choosing a magnet, charter, or virtual school). In other words, standards affect the education of approximately twice as many youngsters as does the broadest conception of choice, and 20 times more children than do charters and vouchers.

At the same time, because standards and testing have expanded more rapidly than choice, states have limited their conception of accountability to top-down, test-driven metrics. States have erected technocratic—and often wildly confusing—accountability systems that tie consequences to test scores and little else.

Educators have responded to these incentives logically, essentially saying: if test scores will define my success or failure, I will narrow my focus to what the test tells me is most important, even if that’s not what’s in the best interest of my students or consistent with the wishes of their parents. We should hardly be surprised that schools spend little time on science, history, and the arts when we’ve provided teachers little incentive to prioritize them.

In a must-read Bridging Differences column published this week, Robert Pondiscio took forceful issue with reforms that prioritized standards and accountability above all else:

As long as we insist on attaching stakes to testing, for students and teachers alike, we are not merely incentivizing teaching to the test, but functionally requiring it. We simply do not have the luxury of blithely ignoring the classroom practices tests encourage or discourage. Those of us who consider ourselves reformers must own that.

Reform opponents, most of whom agree with Pondiscio’s diagnosis, offer one solution: keep the standards if you like, but get rid of the tests and the accountability.

But rejecting state testing and accountability is not the answer, not least because state standards and tests have drawn needed attention to the very real and very damaging expectations and achievement gaps that exist between rich and poor, black and white, and Latino and Asian students. And, perhaps even more importantly, rejecting testing and accountability would ignore the very real and positive impact that standards and accountability reform has had on student learning—particularly among poor and minority students, who have made the most significant achievement gains in the accountability era.

Instead, the answer is to broaden our conception of accountability to include parental choice—something that choice advocates have been rightly arguing for decades.

Imagine, for a moment, if universal choice had spread alongside standards, so that today, every family had an educational option. Or better yet, let’s look at places where that idea is emerging.

Take D.C., for example. There, all parents can choose, which has encouraged a variety of school models to flourish—schools that differ in their approaches to curriculum and instruction, not just structure and management. As a result, there are real choices: Montessori charters, Catholic charters, Hebrew immersion, Reggio Emilia, No Excuses, and on. All are held accountable to the same standards, but real innovation is not only possible—it is encouraged and thriving. In fact, that innovation is possible not in spite of the standards but because of them.

Parent choice provides a much needed counterbalance to the potential excesses of standards-driven reform. Critics are right when they argue that not all parents want the kind of no-excuses, data-driven instruction that has become the norm. But without a mechanism that allows the broader interests of parents to carry real weight—in urban and suburban areas alike—we’re left with an overly narrow set of top-down incentives that crowds out everything else.

Of course, choice advocates maintain that parent choice is all we need. Just yesterday, in an open letter posted on National Review Online, several argued,

True accountability comes not from top-down regulations but from parents financially empowered to exit schools that fail to meet their child’s needs. Parental choice, coupled with freedom for educators, creates the incentives and opportunities that spur quality.

But choice without some kind of standards-based accountability has also fallen well short of its promise. Take, for instance, the experience in Milwaukee, where the nation’s first voucher program demonstrated that market forces alone weren’t enough to drive quality, particularly in urban areas that serve predominantly poor and minority students. Instead, low-quality schools opened or benefited from public money, and Milwaukee students were no better educated or served.

A Hoover report authored by Paul Peterson found that

…even Milwaukee’s strongest school-choice supporters have come to worry about the ease with which new schools, of problematic quality, have been able to attract students and secure state reimbursements under the voucher program … the number of weak and failing schools participating in the MPCP has been uncomfortably large.

Perhaps Howard Fuller, an architect of the Milwaukee school-choice effort, put it best:

When I first became engaged in the parent-choice movement…I believed that parents would drive quality by simply refusing to attend bad schools….I have learned that parents choose schools for a variety of reasons….I think private school parent choice 2.0 or 3.0 has to address the way to keep bad schools from participating in the programs and ways to remove those that continue not to serve kids well.

In other words, as Checker and Mike argued in an Ed Next piece published last June, while “some conservatives saw standards and choice as conflicting…in fact they’re complementary, even (in today’s argot) co-dependent.”

Where does leave us?

Perhaps it’s time, 25 years into this reform effort, to recognize that we can no longer afford to pursue reform on these two parallel tracks. Standards need choice, and choice needs standards; they are mutually reinforcing, not at odds. And so, as states move to reimagine accountability and to build “next-generation” accountability systems, they need to imagine a system that allows real and universal choice to thrive.

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