Choice + Testing << Market-Based

Wed, 03 Mar 2010 14:07:46 +0000

Yesterday, NPR ran a segment on Diane Ravitch and her new book, The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice Are Undermining Education.  Once a proponent of school choice and testing, including the way they were supposed to be implemented in the No Child Left Behind Act, she now regards them as threats to our educational systems.  From the segment:

"She says one of her biggest concerns is the way the law requires school districts to use standardized testing."

"The basic strategy is measuring and punishing," Ravitch says of No Child Left Behind. "And it turns out as a result of putting so much emphasis on the test scores, there's a lot of cheating going on, there's a lot of gaming the system. Instead of raising standards it's actually lowered standards because many states have 'dumbed down' their tests or changed the scoring of their tests to say that more kids are passing than actually are."

I don't disagree with her yet.  High-stakes testing is a means to an end -- the ultimate end is evaluation and assessment of school performance.  But there are plenty of ways to evaluate and assess that don't include standardized testing, let alone the strange mix of non-standardized testing that we have observed with NCLB. 

But then she picks the wrong fight. <!--break--> Continuing from the segment:

"There should not be an education marketplace, there should not be competition," Ravitch says. "Schools operate fundamentally — or should operate — like families. The fundamental principle by which education proceeds is collaboration. Teachers are supposed to share what works; schools are supposed to get together and talk about what's [been successful] for them. They're not supposed to hide their trade secrets and have a survival of the fittest competition with the school down the block."

Competition and collaboration are not mutually exclusive.  Far from it -- almost everywhere you look in nature, the winners of "survival of the fittest competition" are the entities that found ways to collaborate and succeed.  (Cue Richard Dawkins.)  But what does not occur in nature or society, because it is not viable over any reasonable length of time, is a strategy of making a "family" out of disparate actors just by placing them near each other.  (Cue F. A. Hayek?)  Families involve tremendous amounts of sacrifice of the selfish interests of one member for those of another.  The willingness to do that systematically does not occur without strong bonds of kinship.

It is in fact a mistake to think that choice and accountability by themselves will be enough to improve performance, without the other elements of a competitive marketplace.  The most important of those elements is freedom of entry by any producer who thinks he can do a better job than the current producers.  Consider Ravitch's disappointment with NCLB to date, as quoted in Chapter 6 of her book:

But what was especially striking was that many parents and students did not want to leave their neighborhood school, even if the federal government offered them free transportation and the promise of a better school. The parents of English-language learners tended to prefer their neighborhood school, which was familiar to them, even if the federal government said it was failing. A school superintendent told Betts that choice was not popular in his county, because "most people want their local school to be successful, and because they don't find it convenient to get their children across town." Some excellent schools failed to meet AYP because only one subgroup — usually children with disabilities — did not make adequate progress. In such schools, the children in every other subgroup did make progress, were very happy with the school, did not consider it a failing school, and saw no reason to leave.

Schools have many characteristics.  So-called performance, as measured by standardized tests, is only one such characteristic.  What the paragraph reveals is that location is important as well.  And in most cases, the school district has not allowed an alternative provider to come into the market and match the existing school on all of its non-performance characteristics while improving performance.  There is, in most cases, still a local monopoly on enough of the characteristics that matter.  Unless you break that monopoly, until you do in fact allow direct competition with "the school down the block," you should not expect to be treated to service that is any better than what you typically get as a member of a captive audience.

There were a number of interesting reactions to the NPR story.  Here are a few.