A plea to Marc Tucker (and his colleagues)

Neerav Kingsland

Marc Tucker is the author of an important new report: Fixing Our National Accountability System. You can find the executive summary here.

Although Marc and I disagree on the promise of Relinquishment (most specifically on charter schools), I agree with much of this thinking.

But, in this report, Marc makes a strategic mistake in dismissing choice-based reforms.

To put it another way: if there is a grand bargain to be made that significantly increases student achievement in the United States, it could look like this:

  • Reduce testing frequency and increase testing rigor
  • Improve the quality of the teaching force
  • Increase charter schools and choice

Why could this bargain work? Because both Democrats and Republicans might actually support all three strategies.

Why might Marc’s vision not be realized without a charter strategy? Because, without charters, his reforms reduce testing accountability and increase spending, without increasing any elements of choice, competition, or entrepreneurship.

This is likely a nonstarter for many Americans, especially centrist and conservative policy makers.

Seventy percent of the public supports charter schools. Urban charter schools outperform traditional schools. And countries such as South Korea have shown that choice and competition can increase student achievement.

Pragmatically, Marc would be much more likely to see his vision realized if he embraced charter schools. And I believe firmly that this would be better for students.

So here’s my plea: Marc, embrace charters and choice in addition to your other excellent policy recommendations.

Regarding the report, I had mixed feelings, which I divided as follows:

Where I agree with Marc:

  • Testing: Marc’s main proposal is that we conduct three high stakes tests: fourth grade, eighth grade, and any time after tenth grade. And that we make these tests extremely rigorous. I support this. This model is both more compatible with personalized learning (students do not have to master the same material on an annual basis); it provides much more room for innovations in curriculum; and it provides real measurement of progress at key points in a child’s development.
  • Accountability: Marc proposes that states maintain websites that publish the performance of every school’s performance on these aforementioned tests. He is against letter grades—and while I find letter grades useful in translating complicated data into digestible information—I would not die on the alter for letter grades if the state provided transparent information. Additionally, one could imagine non-governmental organizations taking this data and creating their own rating schemes.
  • Teacher quality: Marc’s main proposals are to increase teacher pay, overhaul teacher career ladders, and give more time for planning and collaboration. I generally agree with these recommendations (though I would rather have the latter two be developed by schools rather than by state mandates). I would also add overhauling colleges of education into the mix. I would also have spent much more time detailing how we’d pay for increased teacher salaries.

Where I disagree with Marc:

  • The impact of NCLB: Marc overstates his case against NCLB. Marc admits that NAEP “scores for nine- and thirteen-year-olds have risen over that period,” though he also states that “the rate of improvement before NCLB was passed was greater than the rate of improvement afterwards.” The NCLB era was not a controlled experiment. Perhaps without NCLB gains would have stagnated. Given that scores on NAEP have continued to increase, we should be more cautious in dismissing the impact of test-based accountability.
  • How the real world works: Marc notes that countries with the best education systems have developed more professional work settings for teachers—and he asks us to “consider the modern law firm.” I have many friends who work in law firms. Law firms are often led by partners who are poor leaders; law firms often promote partners based on a single measure (the ability to make money); and law firms have instituted a form of compensation (the billable hour) which micromanages a lawyer’s time down to fifteen minute chunks. Holding up law firms as an example of a great profession leads me to believe that Marc does not fully grasp how and why successful organizations produce results—or the costs that some organizations incur to achieve these results.

Where Marc really lost me (and perhaps many others):

  • Monopoly of public schooling: “In our market economy, market forces punish the lazy, incompetent, and inefficient by putting them out of business. But public education is a monopoly, so we need other ways of ensuring that the people delivering the service have strong incentives to work hard and deliver high quality at a reasonable cost.”
  • Accepting the monopoly: Marc spends zero sentences exploring whether we might want to consider eliminating the monopolistic conditions of public education. In a report full of international comparisons, Marc fails to note that South Korea, perhaps the world’s leading education system, owes much of its success to its free-market tutoring schools. (Of course, given that these schools exist on top of a dysfunctional public system, we probably don’t want to adopt their model wholesale.) Marc doesn’t detail the rigorous research that consistently demonstrates that urban charter schools better serve low-income African American students than traditional public schools.

Marc astutely details many of the dysfunctions of our current education-policy regime. For example, he says that we rely too much on high-stakes testing, we use low-quality assessments, and we implemented aggressive teacher-evaluation systems before actually trying to recruit and prepare better teachers.

But, in failing to embrace choice and charters, Marc makes both political and substantive mistakes. Charters are widely supported by the public and both political parties. Charters continue to demonstrate real gains with low-income students. And countries such as South Korea provide evidence that competition between education providers can increase performance.

So why not include charters in the platform?

Neerav Kingsland is the former CEO of NSNO. He blogs at relinquishment.org, where this post first appeared