As you know by now, education Dropout Nation eschews the pursuit among school reformers of the one silver bullet for overhauling American public education. This is because the nation’s education crisis is so complex that it requires a wide array of solutions all applied at once. Simply arguing that, say, teacher quality reforms are the answer (or worse, that ending near-lifetime employment through tenure is the answer) is counterproductive to the ultimate goal of helping all children succeed in school and in life.
But there will always be those camps within the school reform movement who insist on proclaiming there is just one answer. Take some advocates among the school choice segment of the movement of a conservative and libertarian mode, including Greg Forster of the Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation and Jason Bedrick of the Cato Institute’s infamously less-thoughtful education policy team. These days, many of them have allied themselves with the crew of movement conservatives and hardcore progressives within traditionalist ranks in opposing the implementation of Common Core reading and math standards. Why? From their perspective, Common Core will weaken the expansion of choice, both by restricting the ability of charter, private, and others in developing curricula on their own. Not only would this lead to a lack of innovation in curricula, it would also restrict the choices of families, who may want to choose schools for reasons other than quality of curricula. At the heart of such thinking is the rather simplistic notion that choice is the best and most-effective solution for advancing systemic reform. Such thinking is no different than that of the curricula-as-silver bullet types who have also been called out by your editor for faulty thinking.
Typical is the argument from comes Forster, the otherwise-sensible school choice advocate whose opposition to Common Core (like that of Jay P. Greene of the University of Arkansas) has bordered on the senseless. Earlier this month, in a commentary on Greene’s eponymous blog about former Indiana Supt. Tony Bennett’s resignation as Florida’s Education Commissioner after revelations that he had revamped rules governing the Hoosier State’s A-to-F grading system, Forster declared that Common Core supporters were “putting the cart before the horse” by advocating for implementing Common Core instead of focusing just on expanding choice. Why? Because from where Forster sits, expanding choice allows for “people to try whatever makes sense to them, and see what works” instead of the “One Best Way” he thinks Common Core represents. From where Forster sits, Common Core fails his sniff test because he feels it wasn’t developed in “the open, free interaction of civil society” where state and federal governments play a minimal role (or “as a servant of our civilization”). Declares Forster: “A thriving marketplace of options would ultimately create standards with legitimacy and widespread acceptance.” Forster would elaborate further on these points this week when he criticized former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush for not mentioning school choice expansion in a speech that was largely focused on advancing Common Core implementation.
The fact that Forster ignores the fact that allowing teachers and districts to “try whatever makes sense to them” by developing their own curricula is one of the reasons why we have an education crisis makes your editor wonder if he is actually thinking things through. But this isn’t shocking. As with so many other Common Core foes, Forster seems to act as if an absence of common standards will somehow yield better results for our children. But after 140 years of American public education operating without standardized curricula and standards — and freelancing as it goes along — this is clearly not so. This is especially true when one remembers that far too many teachers lack the subject-matter competency needed to provide high-quality instruction (and that the university schools of education do a poor job in recruiting and training them). Expecting laggard teachers to somehow develop high-quality curricula without any kind of North Star is just intellectually fallacious.
Forster’s contention that Common Core didn’t emerge from interplay within civil society is off-base. After all, while the standards were developed by governors and state education superintendents through their lobbying outfits, the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers, with the help of mathematicians, reading gurus, and others, the fact is that Common Core is the natural evolution of three decades of work on developing standards as well as a logical response to the concerns of the private and public sectors in an increasingly knowledge-based economy and society. Many of the elements of Common Core come from the stronger aspects of standards developed by states such as Massachusetts and Indiana (both of which saw fit to replace those standards with that of Common Core), while other aspects such as close reading have been developed within civil society and have been the gold standards for decades.
Forster also forgets that in a civil society, governments have a proper role of regulating aspects of economy and society charged to it by the citizenry. This is especially the case when one looks at American public education. All state constitutions charge state governments with the role of overseeing and providing education in one form or another. Developing and implementing curricula standards — or in the case of Common Core, implementing standards developed by a national committee — is an appropriate role for any state government to undertake because that is the job the citizens have entrusted to it. This isn’t to say that states overseeing curricula standards is anything close to ideal. But we should expect states to live up to their constitutional responsibilities and, more importantly, moral obligations to children. Expecting state governments to take seriously their regulatory roles in education is especially important if the school reform movement is to achieve its goals, including helping all children succeed and moving away from the traditional (government-run) district model that restricts the expansion of choice.
Meanwhile Forster’s argument assumes that there is plenty of innovation in curricula going on. As I noted last year in my commentary on the moral importance of implementing Common Core, the standards wouldn’t stifle innovation in curricula because there is little of it going on. Certainly there is some amazing work by Native communities on developing culturally based education (including language immersion efforts by Native Hawaiian charter schools), as well as by teachers, schools, and others on the margins. But the reality is that much of the work out there, especially in the nation’s private schools, isn’t all that innovative. If anything, Common Core can actually spur innovation curricula development because there are now commonly agreed-upon content areas around which a variety of curriculum developers can rally. Because Common Core is also flexible, focusing on mastering knowledge and skills instead of on textbooks, it also allows for districts, other school operators, families, and communities of minorities historically disdained by American public education to spur the development of their own curricula. For American Indian tribes for example, Common Core even allows them to incorporate their own languages and cultures into the curricula their children are provided. This is already being done in New Mexico, where the National Indian Education Association is working with school operators, the Pueblo of Jimenez tribe, and the Campaign for High School Equity to incorporate Native culture into Common Core implementation. Such a benefit is one Forster should welcome.
But the biggest problem with Forster’s argument and that of fellow school choice advocates opposed to Common Core lies in Forster’s implicit argument that choice on its own will spur the development of high-quality standards. This thinking ignores reality that the success of expanding school choice depends on the implementation of high-quality standards as well as other reforms and vice versa. Once again, you can’t transform a complex system with just one solution.
Certainly Forster is right in arguing that choice can spur and aid in advancing high-quality standards. But Forster fails to consider a few inconvenient facts. For one, consumer feedback isn’t the only driving force behind such advancements. As seen in the growth of the tech sector and the improvements in safety in the automotive industry, quality is as much driven by efforts by industry players, government regulations, media coverage, and the actions of the technically knowledgeable. This isn’t to say that the demands of families for high-quality education can’t foster growth in the number of high-quality options. It’s just that the evidence has long ago demonstrated that choice alone has never been and never will be the sole driving force in advancing high-quality standards.
The fact that families naturally balance their concerns about the rather high-stakes matter of curricula quality with other matters that are important in choosing schools, also makes choice not nearly as efficient a driver in advancing comprehensive standards as Forster and his fellow-travelers make it out to be. This isn’t exactly surprising. For many families, especially poor households and single mothers, such matters as whether a school is conveniently located next to local preschools can wreak havoc on work schedules, especially if they are the sole breadwinners. If anything, implementing high-quality standards will actually allow for families to concern themselves with other aspects of schools the same way safety improvements in the automotive sector have allowed car buyers to think about features such as whether seats are upholstered in leather or cloth than about whether the vehicle is safe.
There’s also the fact that in the private sector, consumers often have at their disposal information sources at their disposal — from publications such as Consumer Reports to crowd-sourcing sites such as Angie’s List to the product reviews of outlets such as Engadget — that provide comprehensive data on what signifies high-quality in a product, and at the same time, simple enough for laymen to understand. Even with the success of standards-and-accountability advocates, school data system activists, and school choice supporters in getting states to develop data systems, far too many of them provide too little in the way of comprehensive-yet-simple information families need in distinguishing between a high-quality school and a failure mill, the first (and most-important) step in making smart choices. Choice cannot help spur development of standards if there is little in the way of high-quality data on the non-observable qualitative aspects of performance.
Meanwhile Forster and his colleagues ignore the pernicious consequences of existing low-quality curricula standards on the futures of children. This is especially important to consider because curricula standard provide families with much-needed benchmarks for determining how well or poorly schools are doing in improving student achievement. As a result of low-quality standards, families cannot pick a district or school for their child with the confidence that any of them will do the job of providing high-quality teaching, curricula, and school cultures. Given that only one out of every five families can avail themselves of school choice, the lack of high-quality standards within American public education combine with Zip Code Education policies such as school zones and restrictions on the growth of charter schools to frustrate their efforts to provide their children with schools fit for their potential. In fact, the lack of high-quality standards and restrictions on expanding choice are two of the reasons why a mere 13 percent of high school students overall (and a mere seven percent of black students, along with six percent of Latino peers) took strong, comprehensive college-preparatory coursework, according to the 2009 National Assessment of Educational Progress.
[By the way: The fact that Forster consistently skips around the reality that choice remains limited for most children and families in this country makes one wonder about his own intellectual honesty. Not that Forster doesn’t have a right to skip around it if he so chooses. But the question posed by some traditionalists and reformers about how to help those families and children without access to school choice, as much as it is used as an excuse to oppose expanding options, is still an important one. And no choice advocate can fail to engage it in a sensible manner. Telling families to wait for high-quality education until school choice is expanded will not work.]
The impact of low-quality standards doesn’t just fall heavily on children in the form of shoddy curricula. It also makes it harder to expand school choice. One of the reasons why charter schools and vouchers have begun to flourish is because of their role in the education marketplace as high-quality alternatives to traditional district schools. In fact, it is the very efforts by standards-and-accountability advocates to develop high-quality standards — along with the standards for district and school quality put in place by No Child’s accountability provisions — which has helped drive the successful expansion of charters and other forms of choice. But school choice can’t continue to be touted as a way to provide children with high-quality education if quality isn’t embraced. The fact that between 900 and 1,300 charters throughout the nation are among the nation’s failure mills, along with the reality that only a fifth of low-performing charters identified in 2003-2004 were shut down five years later, plays straight into the arguments of traditionalists who will engage in any form of intellectual charlatanism to defend their failed thinking. The recognition of such consequences is why the National Association of Charter School Authorizers launched a campaign last year to shut down failing charters (and hold its own members responsible for their own failures). And it is also why school choice advocates can’t continue to push for expanding charters, vouchers, and tax credit programs — all of which involve using actual or potential tax dollars — and then keep opposing the implementation of standards that are sensible regulation of school and operator quality.
The reality is that high-quality standards is critical to expanding school choice and vice versa. The very history of the school reform movement has long ago proven that one cannot happen without the other. Common Core implementation, in particular, can actually help expand the array of high-quality choices for families For one, Common Core implementation will further expose the educational neglect and malpractice endemic within traditional districts, whose problems in providing comprehensive college-preparatory curricula will be further exposed for all to see; this, in turn, will offer school choice advocates additional data for use in expanding choice, especially for the vast majority of families still burdened by Zip Code Education policies. Because Common Core implementation can also lead to the development of high-quality curricula, it will also allow families to choose schools fit for their kids in ways other than academics by providing them with the confidence that their kids will be provided with knowledge they need and deserve.
In an age in which what a child knows is even more critical to their economic and social success than ever, we cannot continue the social mobility that has helped America bend the arc of economic and social history toward progress, unless we provide children and families with high-quality standards and expansive school choice. We need to provide our kids with the curricula and standards that, along with high-quality teaching, helps make this happen. You can’t transform American public education without both.