What if self-interest doesn’t explain everything?

Dear Deborah,

I’m glad you brought up the topic of democracy. In future posts, I plan to explore the habits and attributes we hope to inculcate in our youthful, budding citizens, including a commitment to self-sufficiency. But today let’s continue the conversation about democratic governance of our public schools.

You and I have more in common than we might want to concede, in that we share a somewhat cynical view of politics. Namely, we see most political actors and institutions as acting out of self-interest. You, and many other liberals, are obsessed with “the rich,” worrying that they will buy elections and promote their own narrow interests (while becoming even richer in the process). I, and many other ed-reformers, am obsessed with the teachers’ unions and other “adult interest groups,” worrying that they will buy elections, run their own candidates, and promote their own narrow interests.

Yet look at what just happened in New York City: Neither the candidate of the rich nor the candidate of the unions won the Democratic primary. Bill de Blasio, untethered from both the 1 percent and organized labor, marched to an impressive victory. (Whether he actually becomes mayor depends, of course, on the November election.)

Maybe we both overestimate the clout of our respective boogeymen.

We also might want to consider that what we see as a clash of interests is really just a clash of ideology.

Consider this quote from Robert Samuelson, discussing lessons from the financial collapse of five years ago:

I concede: I’ve told this story before. It doesn’t take, because it blames faulty ideas more than crooks and scoundrels—the tempting targets of most narratives. But the accumulating evidence suggests that false ideas, not evil people, were the main culprits.

Let me admit that I long viewed “union bosses” as “evil people.” How could someone justify defending incompetent, or even abusive, teachers? Why wouldn’t they allow some modicum of meritocracy to seep into the teaching profession? How could they chain children to failing schools to which they would never send their own kids?

I look back on those attitudes and blush. To be sure, I still think it’s wrong to defend bad teachers and the policies that make them so hard to remove from the classroom. I still think it’s a mortal sin to confine kids in bad schools rather than giving them access to sound alternatives. And I still think that strong teachers’ unions make school improvement difficult to achieve. It’s notable that when we at the Fordham Institute studied teacher-union strength a year ago, we found few states with both strong unions and big gains in achievement. Competition is good, and it’s healthy that Democrats in particular now have a variety of education advocacy groups competing for their support, not just the unions.

But I no longer think that union leaders are “evil.” I disagree with their ideas. I know nothing about their character, though I suspect that all of us went into education because we wanted to make the world a better place.

So it is with the “billionaire’s boys club” that reform critics like to lambaste. Some common core opponents have argued that Bill Gates is out to further enrich himself by requiring schools to purchase more computers in order to give the common-core tests. This is a guy worth, what, $40 billion? And people really believe he’s out to make even more? (We at Fordham have been criticized by some on the right for taking Gates money in order to promote the common core. It’s funny that these same folks never complain about our Walton-funded efforts on behalf of school choice.)

So whatever the reason—self-interest, ideology, or just plain ego—now every major election, especially in urban centers, brings a clash of the titans: The unions (and their money) against school reformers (and their money). I don’t see this as undemocratic. If anything, this is more democratic than in the past, when the unions enjoyed near-hegemony over all things education. The unions can still elect the people who sit across the negotiating table with them—but only if the voters allow it.


Deborah, let me move to another issue related to the democratic governance of our schools.

I agree that something is lost when we “remove more and more power from teachers, parents, and communities to direct their schools.” This is why you and I both support charter schools, right? Because we believe in autonomous public schools where parents, teachers, and even students can create something special? Yet many reform critics—Diane Ravitch now chief among them—slap charter schools, apparently all charter schools, with the “privatization” label. (Less than a quarter of them are actually run by for-profit firms.)

Charter schools (and other forms of school choice) are essentially mechanisms to protect and promote the rights of minorities within a majoritarian democracy. Yes, just like in the Federalist papers. If the majority wants vanilla schools, charter laws allow a small minority to have access to chocolate instead. And a Fordham Institute study released last month demonstrates that most parents do, indeed, want vanilla in their education cone. (High-quality vanilla.) There is tremendous, even surprising, consensus about the most important attributes in a school, across all racial, socio-economic, and political groups: A strong core curriculum in reading and math, the development of problem-solving and critical thinking skills, and a focus on STEM.

Yet vanilla isn’t all they want. Once the basics are satisfied, some parents—we identified six niche groups—want something more. Art and music. A heavy emphasis on citizenship and leadership. Vocational training. Diversity.

Most school districts, for a hundred years, have told these parents who want something special, “Tough luck.” Even today, where I live in Montgomery County, Md., the range of choices available to parents is extremely limited. Yet across the border, in Washington, D.C., there’s a cornucopia of curricular diversity: Montessori schools. Language-immersion schools. A language-immersion school that uses Montessori! And on and on.

Why the difference? The District has a great charter law. Maryland does not. D.C. allows for parents in the minority to have access to what they want. Maryland does not.

Which is more “democratic”?

This article originally appeared on the Bridging Differences blog, where Mike Petrilli is debating Deborah Meier.

Thanks to the tireless work of school-choice advocates and wise policymakers, millions of U.S. children and their parents now have education options that were not available to them a few short years ago. But the choice picture is sorely incomplete. Consider:

  • Nine states do not allow charter schools.
  • Only ten states and the District of Columbia have school-voucher programs, and five of these confine their vouchers to children with disabilities.
  • Just eleven states offer scholarship tax credits for attendance at private schools.
  • Many states still make it difficult or even impossible to take advantage of public school choice.


Why hasn’t more progress been made in providing options to children? It’s simple: Most school-choice programs are zero-sum propositions, in which one school or district gains the student and the funding while another loses. And politicians—even Republicans—are loath to take resources from traditional public schools, especially those in the suburbs and small towns that they represent.

In recent years, however, new programs have begun to spring up that allow choice at the more granular level of individual courses rather than through all-or-nothing, enrollment-based, school choice. Rick Hess and Bruno Manno explored this idea in detail in their 2011 book Customized Schooling. Now in a handful of states, children enrolled in a traditional public school can take courses from other public schools, virtual schools, private schools, or even post-secondary institutions.

For choice advocates, this is the next logical step. In fact, reformers enacting these policies in some states, especially where eligible course providers are limited or funding is provided on top of general school aid, have faced surprisingly little opposition. In just the past few years, course choice—or a version of it—has been adopted in several states, causing little ruckus. As an added benefit, programs of this sort should be attractive to families in all schools—even those that are high performing or low poverty—and can help broaden the base of support for the concept of school choice.

The reason may be that course choice is different from other school-choice reforms in important ways. It’s less threatening to districts and other established interests than charter schools, vouchers, or full open enrollment, particularly if students are limited in the number of courses they can take. A parent, for example, may be mostly satisfied with her child's school but frustrated enough to move him to another district if his current school is limited in its foreign-language or advanced-placement offerings. Course choice provides these parents with a less drastic option than switching schools—and perhaps homes—entirely.

Moreover, such programs could allow more public schools to make themselves more attractive to more parents. As our recent What Parents Want survey demonstrated, different types of parents want different things from their children’s schools. Taken together, many public schools feel heavy pressure to do it all with limited resources. But any school in a course-choice state could speedily respond to parental demand for Mandarin, physics, or AP Art History. This is especially helpful for public schools with ardent “demanders” but few resources—or not enough students to justify the hiring of a specialty teacher.

While digital learning may be the biggest winner in a course-choice regime, the inclusion of dual enrollment or other brick-and-mortar options could satisfy parents who are not totally sold on or lack access to online courses.

Finally, such a policy can often incorporate or accompany existing state or local programs that are already widespread and popular, such as Advanced Placement courses or dual enrollment in high school and college.

Sure, there will be some pushback from those who fear that policies like this might shift the balance of power—and funding—away from those who possess it.

Still, any policy that can unite school-choice zealots, digital-learning techies, the higher-education elite, college application–obsessed parents, and the vocal “public schools are incomplete without art/music/foreign languages/STEM” crowd demands attention.

Note: I was involved in the development of Wisconsin's Course Options program.

Journalist and author Amanda Ripley has received well-deserved attention for her book The Smartest Kids in the World—but we’re not sold on her case against high school sports, which headlines this month’s Atlantic. Check out this week’s Education Gadfly Show for an informed debate.

On Monday, Florida governor Rick Scott issued an executive order withdrawing the Sunshine State from PARCC. Bobby Jindal and Scott Walker—governors of Louisiana and Wisconsin, respectively—have also expressed “reservations” about the Common Core of late. As Margaret Thatcher would say, “This is no time to go wobbly!” On the brighter side, earlier today, the Michigan House of Representatives voted 85–21 to adopt a resolution authorizing funding for Common Core implementation.

A Wall Street Journal editorial blasted Philadelphia’s teacher union for dragging its feet on Governor Corbett’s proposal to bail out the failing district, which—if accepted—would be conditional on the elimination of teacher seniority rights and basing future pay increases on achievement-based teacher evaluations. (For more on the roots of Philadelphia schools’ sticky financial situation, see Paying the Pension Price in Philadelphia.) In this week’s podcast, Dara urges Philly’s teacher union, and unions everywhere, to take a more active role in pushing teacher quality.

Does school accountability boost students’ long-term prospects? That’s the question this new study by David Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks seeks to answer by examining the impact of accountability pressure in the Texas public high schools in the 1990s. (Jennings, you might recall, once assumed the moniker “Eduwonkette.”) Most agree that the series of tough policies that the Lone Star State instituted during this era, whereby school performance on state tests was made public and tied to various awards and sanctions, was the foundation of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). The system had several components: 1) Districts received accountability ratings based on their lowest rated schools, which was intended to pressure them to improve those schools; 2) schools were rated based on the percentage of students who received passing scores; 3) the overall rating was based in part on the lowest scoring subgroup, incentivizing school leaders to focus on the worst performing students; and 4) students were required to pass tenth-grade exams in math, reading, and writing in order to graduate. Because math pass rates were nearly always the stumbling block to underperforming schools obtaining a higher rating, how students performed on the tenth-grade math test can be considered a test of the influence of accountability. The analysts tracked five cohorts of first-time ninth-grade students from Spring 1995 to Spring 1999, comparing similar students within the same schools but across cohorts. The upshot: Schools at risk of receiving a low rating responded by increasing the math scores for all students. Students at these schools were later likelier to accumulate more math credits and graduate from high school. On top of that, they were more liable to attend college and earn more at age twenty-five. In particular, students who had previously failed an eighth-grade exam ended up around 14 percent more likely to attend college and 12 percent more likely to get a degree. However, in schools not in danger of a low rating (or those that could feasibly try for a higher rating), the accountability policies had no overall impact—and in some cases, there were even declines in later earnings for low achievers. Finally, schools that were close to being “recognized” (a relatively high rating) responded by classifying more low-scoring students as eligible for special education, perhaps in order to take them out of the accountability pool. The bottom line? Even this crude accountability policy proves that properly applied incentives can translate into long-term betterment of people’s lives.

SOURCE: David J. Deming, Sarah Cohodes, Jennifer Jennings, and Christopher Jencks, “School Accountability, Postsecondary Attainment and Earnings,” NBER Working Paper No. 19444 (Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research, September 2013).

We all know the story: the team that's always way back in the standings employs a brilliant new strategy to try to close the gap between itself and the wealthy powerhouses. The strategy works, but only briefly, as the well-off teams quickly steal the winning strategies to maintain their advantage. No, this isn’t the plot of Moneyball; rather, it’s the plot of Rick Hess and Max Eden’s case study of Douglas County, Colorado. This sprawling, affluent suburb south of Denver has employed reforms typically found in low-income and urban settings. Specifically, the all-reformer, all-conservative school board created a voucher program, adopted a new curriculum, and developed new assessments and teacher-quality initiatives like merit pay. The voucher program, which would have served nearly 500 students if not for a court injunction stemming from an ACLU lawsuit, is especially interesting. Unlike most statewide programs of this sort, Douglas County’s would have used the state charter law to authorize participating private schools as quasi “charter schools.” The “charters,” in turn, receive three-quarters of the students’ state funding towards tuition, while the rest goes to the district. The study draws attention to the false assumption that the average wealthy, suburban school district is fat, happy and complacent, and brings into focus what could happen when districts employ reforms to go from good to great, instead of from poor to passable. Bold reform in even a conservative area like Douglas County is never easy, however, and a separate analysis by Bill Bennett underscores the importance that these reformers have placed on communicating their wide-ranging agenda to interested parties and the general public. Both studies should remind state policymakers of the importance of providing local flexibility—and district policymakers of the importance of availing themselves of such. The coming years will tell whether these changes have had a significant impact on Douglas students—that is, if the reforms even survive that long. (Both political and education junkies will want to stay up late on November 5 to see if four of the seven members of the Douglas school board who are up for reelection survive.) Like Moneyball, this story is worth paying attention to. But unlike baseball strategies, education reforms don’t require equal numbers of winners and losers—which is why the country needs more districts willing to take on bold new reforms that might someday become ideas worth stealing.

SOURCE: Frederick M. Hess and Max Eden, The Most Interesting School District in America? (Washington, D.C.: American Enterprise Institute, September 2013).

Politics aside, the fate of the Common Core begins and ends with implementation. Particularly during this initial transition, it is critical that educators have sufficient support and guidance to successfully teach these standards. Unfortunately, much existing information focuses on content rather than instructional strategy, leaving educators baffled as to how to navigate the shift to Common Core in their own classrooms. Enter the Achievement Network (ANet), a nonprofit serving low-income schools. (Check out Education Next for great background.) Released as part of a collection of Common Core resources published by the Aspen Institute, this paper was informed by substantial on-the-ground work with 460 partner schools in seven states and the District of Columbia. It’s structured around three rubrics: one for “Leader Actions,” one for “Teacher Actions,” and one for “School Structures.” Each is designed to help on-the-ground educators diagnose their school’s current practices and details how to shift from basic to innovative practices in key areas. The report includes specific strategies ranging from how leaders can help teachers understand and plan from the new standards to how to improve teachers’ analysis and use of student data. For example, school leaders are urged to work closely with teachers to set goals based on individual students’ growth potential and to assist them in selecting one or two priority standards and instructional shifts on which to focus. The guide also includes sample questions upon which leaders can frame school-level discussions and provides case studies as examples of how other schools and districts have put these rubrics into practice. Though many of the concepts in this report—such as building a culture of achievement and evaluating individual student progress—are not necessarily new, this guide offers useful structures and practices that may make the transition to the Common Core less daunting.

SOURCE: The Achievement Network, Focusing on the How: Guidance for School and District Leaders on Supporting Teachers Through the Transition to the Common Core (Boston, MA: The Achievement Network, September 2013).

Dara Zeehandelaar, author of The Big Squeeze: Retirement Costs and School District Budgets, explains teachers pensions and the difference between defined benefits and defined contribution plans that states offer teachers.

In this week’s podcast, Dara and Brickman tackle Amanda Ripley’s condemnation of the athlete-centric culture in America’s high schools. They also take on GOP governors’ wobbliness on Common Core and the morally bankrupt Philadelphia teacher union. Amber holds us all accountable.