Re: It's a question of quality, not preference
April 18, 2008
Liam argues that Fordham is "not content to let the market decide which schools are great and which aren't, because when quality counts, the market is often wrong." This post from the New York Times wine blog, which observes that in the unfettered wine market people often choose to drink slop, is supposed to make his case.
I find a flaw in Liam's reasoning. First of all, the point of the Times blog post is not that the market does a poor job of gauging wine quality, but that there are a lot of shoppers in the market who don't care about the quality of the wine they're swilling. Eric Asimov, author of the blog in question, finds a useful analogy in literature:
given the choice, 500 people might legitimately prefer to spend their time with the latest legal drama from John Grisham than with a Thomas Pynchon novel. I might be among them. But what does that prove? By any of the usual standards for assessing an artistic achievement it proves only that few people are willing or able to make the commitment to the Pynchon novel. But to argue that "Porky's'' is better than "Persona'' or that Grisham is better than Pynchon says nothing about achievement or standards and everything about wanting to rationalize one's choices.
In short, most people are familiar with these respective authors' positions on the acknowledged ladder of literary achievement--Pynchon is near the top while Grisham rounds out the bottom with the other genre writers--even if their patterns of consumption don't square with that ranking.
It's the same with wine. There are varietals, vintages, and vineyards that everyone knows by reputation as the best. And there are magazines that give each bottle a numerical rating to help you make your choice if you're a smart shopper.
The point is, there is, in fact, a good deal of consensus concerning which wines are of the highest quality. And that's rarely the case with schools. There's a handful of superstar public schools, like Stuyvesant and Boston Latin, that have reputations for being top-notch places of learning, and charter networks like KIPP are cementing their reputations as solid school models.
But generally, in a system mostly absent of market feedback, there's no comparable system of signals for gauging school quality. And no, NCLB has not really improved things on this front. Everyone pretty much agrees now that the "adequate yearly progress" metric tells us little about the quality of a school, and suggested tweaks to this blunt measurement tool aren't looking much better.