School choice and accountability: Finding the right balance

Editor’s note: This article wades into the ongoing debate over private school choice and public accountability. For background see here, here, here, here, and here.

Policymaking usually involves trade-offs, finding the right balance between competing objectives and even principles. This is especially true in education, where so much is at stake, both for vulnerable children and for the health of society.

One of the principles that should guide education policy is that “parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children” (article 26, 3, Universal Declaration of Human Rights, adopted in San Francisco in 1948). Officially, at least, this right is acknowledged by almost every nation and is enshrined in many of their constitutions; it has been settled law in the United States since the Supreme Court’s 1925 ruling in Pierce v. Society of Sisters (268 U.S. 510).

Americans agree, as Terry Moe showed in Schools, Vouchers, and the American Public. This is especially true of parents for whom public-school provision is of inadequate quality. “Among public [school] parents,” Moe wrote, “vouchers are supported by 73 percent of those with family incomes below $20,000 a year, compared to 57 percent of those with incomes above $60,000. . . .75 percent of black parents and 71 percent of Hispanic parents, compared to 63 percent of white parents. . . .72 percent of parents in the bottom tier of districts favor vouchers, while 59 percent of those in the top tier do.”

Moe also found, however, that “enthusiasm for regulation is remarkably uniform and cuts across groups and classes—including private [school] parents, who appear quite willing to see the autonomy of their own schools compromised in the interests of public accountability.” This expectation of government oversight is also well established in international law, as well as in the Pierce decision.

On the other hand, if the regulatory hand of government is too heavy, the right of choice becomes meaningless: what’s to choose among schools that are forced to be alike?

Excessive regulation not only makes parental choice meaningless, it also blocks the possibility of making teaching a true profession, attracting and retaining highly talented individuals into careers in education. Many Teach For America alumni/ae go on to establish charter schools where they will enjoy the autonomy to shape a community of educators with a shared vision.

My Belgian colleague Jan De Groof and I have for a decade been studying how different national education systems are organized to support the competing goals of freedom and justice. The third edition of Balancing Freedom, Autonomy, and Accountability in Education has about a hundred contributors from around the world and chapters on sixty-five countries.

Bottom line: the most successful models have clear and measurable expectations for academic outcomes, while leaving individual schools wide scope for defining the “soft” outcomes related to character and worldview, as well as for organizing instruction and selecting teachers and other staff.

Our analysis of policies receives research support from a research-based essay by Martin West and Ludger Woessmann, included in volume 4 of Balancing Freedom. They conclude,

Studies using student-level data from multiple international achievement tests reveal that institutions ensuring competition, autonomy, and accountability within national school systems are associated with substantially higher levels of student performance. . . . the international evidence suggests that policies that allow parents to choose privately operated schools, give schools autonomy, and provide parents with information on student performance have an important role to play (290-1).

While I find their research thoroughly convincing, my own commitment to strong outcome measures and consequences based upon them, paired with wide latitude to create and maintain truly distinctive schools, is also based on pragmatic considerations. Both as a parent of seven children and as a state equity and urban education official for more than two decades, I’m not willing to see educational freedom turn into a free-for-all in which schools compete through flashy promises that are not backed up by the sort of evidence on which parents can rely, particularly when tax dollars are in play. Such a flawed system, especially likely to mislead unsophisticated parents, would sacrifice justice for freedom.

Sound education policy sacrifices neither justice nor freedom but finds a dynamic balance between them, holding schools accountable for academic outcomes (so no child would attend an inadequate school, as too many do today), while encouraging great diversity in the means taken to achieve those outcomes. Educators with a distinctive pedagogical, religious, or secular vision for education that attracts a sufficient number of parents should be free to shape the school on that basis, unencumbered by government, unless of course there is convincing evidence that children are being harmed, in which case (as with families) society must intervene.

Freedom, then, with justice, and justice with freedom. Finding the right balance!

Charles Glenn is a professor of educational leadership and policy studies at Boston University. From 1970 to 1991, he was the director of urban education and equity efforts for the Massachusetts Department of Education.

Greg Weiner

This is a cliché by now, but the public schools where I live are producing test takers: pretty good ones, as far as the numbers show. At parent night at the beginning of the school year, we were introduced to a curricular program explicitly built around “assessments”—the new euphemism, I gather; maybe it intimidates less. A new study now purports to show that testing doesn’t enhance cognition. I’m not sure it was supposed to, but in any event, the critique is that teaching to the test fails to improve learning outcomes. I’m inclined—warning: this is anecdotal—to believe it does improve them, but toward the bottom, where massive investments are being made. What we may be losing in the bargain is what these tests don’t capture: excellence at the top. Welcome to Tocqueville’s democratic equality.

The Obama administration’s Race to the Top initiative encourages all this; we can thank No Child Left Behind for it, too. Enormous resources are being invested to lift those at the bottom who are unprepared to learn, have difficulty taking tests, and so forth. This is unsurprising: what gets measured gets done, and what gets rewarded gets done faster. It is difficult to believe the effect is not positive: that learning to do better on math tests, for example, does not at some level teach some students to do better at math.

The problem is that there’s only so well bright kids can do on these exams, and the incentive to invest in them beyond that point vanishes. Since they max out at the ninety-ninth percentile, they are, as it were, fully capitalized businesses with limited growth potential. Raising an intelligent student’s score marginally yields far fewer rewards than improving a less capable student’s score substantially. The result—there are, for example, myriad programs for struggling students but none for gifted ones at my local schools, and parents around the country have been driven to the manifest absurdity of demanding IEPs under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act to obtain services for uniquely bright children—is less a race to the top than from the bottom.

Tocqueville nailed this as so many other things, noting democracy’s propensity to lift the lowest while flattening the elite:

[I]f you meet less brilliance [in a democracy] than within an aristocracy, you will find less misery; pleasures will be less extreme and well-being more general; knowledge not as great and ignorance more rare; sentiments less energetic and habits more mild; there you will notice more vices and fewer crimes.

The United States has been able to avoid Tocqueville’s tradeoff between the greatness of knowledge and the rarity of ignorance through—still generalizing here—ample resources and a rejection of envy. The first is now at risk from the steady conquest of discretionary spending by entitlement spending. It means we cannot invest everything we want at the bottom and still spend all we wish at the top; decisions have to be made and balances struck that no one wants to face but that grownups cannot avoid. As to the second—the rejection of envy—its survival amid conditions of scarcity is less clear. In either case, virtues—thrift, hard choices, and goodwill—are called for. Perhaps a standardized test for character would help.

Greg Weiner, who teaches political science at Assumption College on Worcester, Massachusetts, is a former political consultant and the author of Madison’s Metronome: The Constitution, Majority Rule and the Tempo of American Politics. He is currently working on a book on the political thought of Daniel Patrick Moynihan.

A slightly different version of this piece appeared in the Online Library of Law and Liberty.

The Education Gadfly

The court case over teacher job protections in California is underway. The plaintiffs argue that the laws hinder the removal of effective teachers, which disproportionately harms underprivileged students. The defendants, on the other hand, argue that there is plenty of time before tenure to remove teachers. While it is true that many schools do not avail themselves of this limited flexibility, the fact remains that the flexibility is limited. What’s more, that argument dodges the problem: if a teacher burns out after obtaining tenure, he will still be teaching children—and how can anyone defend that? Meanwhile, a photo negative of this case is ongoing in Denver, Colorado, in which the district is facing a class-action lawsuit for supposedly dismissing tenured teachers without just cause—because in the unions’ strange world, poor performance in the classroom couldn’t possibly be considered “just cause.” Interesting!

If you’re looking for (1) good news and (2) something to watch during your lunch break, look no further this quick introduction to Pakistan’s Punjab Education Reform Roadmap (which can be characterized as perhaps the world’s largest voucher program). The short film, featuring British education reformer Michael Barber, documents the challenges (and importance) of implementing an ambitious education-reform strategy—and paints an encouraging picture for the future of Punjab’s children. For more to read on the subject, see our review of Barber’s book, The Good News from Pakistan.

New York City schools chancellor Carmen Fariña intends to divert $210 million intended for charter schools’ classroom space towards Mayor de Blasio’s pre-Kindergarten expansion. Meanwhile, de Blasio has now stated point blank that, going forward, he will not allow charters to co-locate with traditional public schools. Are those bells tolling for charter schools in the Big Apple? To the ramparts!

With thirty-two cities across the nation placing more than 20 percent of their students in charter schools, it is clear that chartering has changed the face of urban education. But what about students from rural areas? Do charters have the potential to boost their achievement, too? And what obstacles do charters face in rural communities? Andy Smarick explores these questions in a new report. First, he finds that very few rural charters exist; in fact, just 785 of the nation’s 5,000 or so charters were located in rural areas as of 2010—and just 110 in the most remote communities. Meanwhile, the challenges to rural-charter growth are many. Among them are laws that prohibit charters in rural areas, shortages in high-quality teachers, state funding mechanisms that disadvantage charters (often not limited to rural charters), and the logistics of schooling in remote regions. Given the myriad of factors that can stymie rural-charter-school growth, policymakers must enact strong charter policies. To this end, the report offers several policy recommendations, which include undoing policies that restrict growth into rural areas, loosening teacher-certification requirements, ensuring equitable funding, creating opportunities to leverage digital learning, and allowing charters to use vacant, publicly owned facilities. Importantly, the report also discusses the adverse financial impact a single, start-up charter school can have on a sparsely populated school district. The author suggests ways to soften the blow, such as dual district-charter enrollment (and dual per-pupil funding), a pool of state funds to reimburse affected districts, and a legal requirement to conduct a financial impact analysis prior to opening a charter. Charter growth in rural America faces countless challenges, but rural families deserve high-quality choices as much as anyone.

SOURCE: Andy Smarick, A New Frontier: Utilizing Charter Schooling to Strengthen Rural Education (Washington, D.C.: Bellwether Education Partners, January 2014).

A new analysis by Mike Podgursky, Cory Koedel, and colleagues offers a handy tutorial of three major student growth measures and an argument for which one is best. The first, Student Growth Percentiles (aka the Colorado Growth Model), does not control for student background or differences in schools but is calculated based on how a student’s performance on a standardized test compares to the performance of all students who received the same score in the previous year or who have a similar score history. Some like this model because it doesn’t set lower expectations for disadvantaged students by including background measures, but it may also penalize disadvantaged schools, since they tend to have lower growth rates. The second method, which they call the one-step value-added measure (VAM), controls for student and school characteristics, including prior performance, while simultaneously calculating test-score growth as a school average.  This model may detect causal impacts of schools and teachers, but runs the risk of not capturing important variables in the model, which could advantage high SES schools. The third and final model is a two-step VAM, designed to compare schools and teachers that serve similar students. It calculates growth for each school using test-score data that have been adjusted for various student and school characteristics. The analysts conclude that this model makes the most sense, because it levels the playing field so that winners and losers are representative of the system as a whole. What’s more, schools are more apt to improve if they are competing against similar peers—and even when schools are compared to other schools with similar student bodies, there are still differences in growth between them. That said, some worry that this model could hide inferior performance at high-poverty schools, so they suggest also reporting test-score levels, such as proficiency rates, so that folks can see also differences in absolute achievement across schools. Seems reasonable enough, though stakeholders would need to be educated in how to interpret multiple measures. But one small hiccup: Arne Duncan’s ESEA waiver regulations do not allow states to use the two-step VAM in their accountability system—so there’s that.

SOURCE: Mark Ehlert, Cory Koedel, Eric Parsons and Michael Podgursky, “Choosing the Right Growth Measure,” Education Next 14(2). 

Like any relic of the industrial revolution, it’s time we took a wrench to the American education system. Or a bulldozer, argues Glenn Reynolds, distinguished professor of law at the University of Tennessee and InstaPundit blogger. In this book, he contends that the system will soon break down and reform will be unavoidable. In the first half of the book, he focuses on higher education, while in the second he touches on the K–12 bubble. Reynolds points out that the cost of education rapidly ballooned over the past few decades, while the substance diminished in value. College tuition has increased 7.45 percent per year since 1978, even outstripping the cost of housing (4.3 percent per year). Meanwhile, the real cost of K–12 education nearly tripled in that time. For all that expense, K–12 test scores have flat lined since 1970, and a study featured in the book Academically Adrift found that 36 percent of students demonstrated no academic improvement after four years in college. Meanwhile, society teaches teenagers to be infantile consumers of an inherently valuable education and blinds them to their potential value as skillful producers. Reynolds concludes that advances in technology and innovations in choice will bring reform and that public schools can either embrace that change or become obsolete. Parents and students will begin to reassess the skewed cost/value ratio and demand fundamental restructuring. While the book offers few substantive suggestions and no timeline, it does serve as a reminder that like any defective product, it is not a matter of if but when it will break.

SOURCE: Glenn Harlan Reynolds, The New School: How the Information Age Will Save American Education from Itself (Jackson, TN: Encounter Books, 2014).


Into the messy and political world of teacher-effectiveness research enter Susanna Loeb and colleagues, who examine whether math and English-language-arts (ELA) teachers differ in how they impact students’ long-term knowledge. Specifically, they ask, among other questions, whether ELA and math teachers impact student performance in future years, not just in one—and whether that impact bleeds over by impacting not just knowledge in their own subject area but more generally in both subjects. They use extensive student, teacher, and administrative data from the NYC school system that includes roughly 700,000 third- and eighth-grade students from 2003–04 through 2011–12. There are three key findings: First, a teacher’s value added to ELA achievement has a crossover effect on long-term math performance, such that having a high-quality ELA teacher impacts not only ELA performance in a future year but future math performance, too; yet, math teachers have minimal impact on ELA performance in the long term. This may be due to the nature of ELA, since learning to read and think critically is likely to impact general knowledge, whereas math knowledge pertains more directly to the subject itself and math tests tend to be more aligned in content from year to year. Second, teachers in schools serving disadvantaged kids have less “persistence” (i.e., enduring impact) than their teaching peers with similar value-added scores in other schools, which could suggest that school-level curriculum choices make a difference—or perhaps that teachers in these schools prioritize short-term gains or teaching to the test. Third, within subjects, teachers who attended a more competitive undergraduate college tend to foster long-term knowledge in their students, such that more than a quarter of value-added effects persist into the next year for teachers from these institutions, compared to a rate of less than one-fifth for teachers from less competitive institutions. So in the end, value-added scores continue to be a useful gauge of teacher quality, but let’s not forget that things like subject area, the test itself, school type, and teacher background make a difference in how to think about and interpret those scores.

SOURCE: Benjamin Master, Susanna Loeb, and James Wyckoff, “Learning that Lasts: Unpacking Variation in Teachers’ Effects on Students’ Long-Term Knowledge,” Working Paper 104 (Washington, D.C.: CALDER and AIR, January 2014).


Mike welcomes Ohio's Chad to the podcast to disparage teacher tenure, anguish over the charter assault in Gotham, and debate the realities for charter schools in rural areas. Amber finds value in growth measures.

In this era of results-based academic accountability, teachers and their students spend class time taking—and preparing for—standardized tests. But just how much time? An inordinate amount? Does it vary by locale? What is the ideal amount of prep time? What are the policy implications for districts and states? The curricular and instructional implications? And what are the consequences for children, especially disadvantaged students?
In the largest study of its kind, Teach Plus brings empirical evidence to the table with its new report, The Student and the Stopwatch: How Much Time is Spent on Testing in American Schools? The report examines district- and state-required testing in more than thirty urban and suburban districts nationwide, featuring input from more than 300 teachers.
Join the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and Teach Plus for a discussion on time-on-testing in American classrooms.
Panel I
Joseph Espinosa - Instructional Coach, First Street Elementary, Los Angeles, California
Joe Gramelspacher - Math Teacher, Crispus Attucks High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
Christina Lear - English and Journalism Teacher, Herron High School, Indianapolis, Indiana
Dr. Joy Singleton Stevens - Third-Grade Teacher, Double Tree Montessori School, Memphis, Tennessee
Panel I Moderator
Alice Johnson Cain - Vice President for Policy, Teach Plus
Panel II
Celine Coggins - CEO and Founder, Teach Plus
Dave Driscoll - Chair, National Assessment Governing Board
Andy Rotherham - Co-founder and Partner, Bellwether Education Partners
Panel II Moderator
Michael J. Petrilli - Executive Vice President, Thomas B. Fordham Institute