Saturday, May 8, 2010

Changing rationales for 'school choice'

For decades now conservatives - and some liberals - have decried the state of American primary and secondary education, citing selected test scores that compared US students to those in other countries,  comparing scores among US schools themselves, and also citing racial disparities in educational outcomes.

For conservatives especially this concern for education was never really about educating students. Instead they were motivated by extending the "free market" religion to education, despite there being no real "market" for schools, and for de-funding their Democratic political opponents by obliterating one of the last bastions of unionism - public school teachers' unions.

The campaign against public schools picked up steam when the alarmist Nation at Risk study hit our collective consciousness in 1983.  Since then such numbers of our supposed deficiency  have been effectively used in political arguments that consistently place blame with public schools, and particularly public school teachers' unions. I don't need to rehash the facts about this - education is not the ticket to prosperity it once was, and educational attainment - as measured by test scores - is about what it was in 1983. The real point is that education cannot hope to remedy what "free market" economics has destroyed .

Nevertheless, test scores - as flawed a tool as they are for measuring human development -  have been the coin of the education realm since this debate began. Unfortunately for conservative education reformers, their suggestions for injecting "choice" into primary and secondary education have not borne statistical  fruit. If anything, charter schools and vouchers do a worse job of educating students, overall, than regular public schools. It turns out that all that bureaucracy surrounding regular public schools is there for a reason - it makes them better and more accountable.

Now that their rationale for destroying teachers' unions has itself been debunked by experience, conservatives had two honorable choices: The first would be to admit they were wrong about their concept that school choice is a way to better schools, like Diane Ravitch has done, and try to help undo some of the damage they have done. The second would be to admit that the real goal all along has been to eliminate teachers' unions, in which case to hell with the kids' educations, and press on with more charter schools, vouchers, and loosened teacher standards.

Admittedly the second choice is merely a thought exercise on my part - conservatives would never confess to the naked political ambition that underlies their education strategy. Perhaps the biggest strength of the school choice movement is the notion that it exists to benefit children, not Republicans.

Now the ever-creative Charles Murray, writing in the New York Times, has suggested a third way for school-choicers: Forget about the numbers, says Murray - they never really captured the fullness of educational achievement anyways. No - the great thing about charters and vouchers is that the parents are happy.

Thus it is with Republicans: The endpoints are always the same - "political war" in the words of David Horowitz - beat the unions, free the corporations. The current rationale doesn't matter - only that it works, politically, now. Leaders need not worry that any change in argument is a direct contradiction of decades-long held positions; all they need do is whip up the Wurlitzer to erase that history.

When George W. Bush first came to office in 2001 welcomed by huge budget surpluses he said we needed tax cuts to productively invest the money; later when the economy slowed and the surpluses were disappearing, Bush advocated the same policy, tax cuts, only for different reasons: to stimulate the economy. Same policy, different reason.

But back to Murray.  Does the New York Times deny the outright racism of Charles Murray, the man who wrote a book dressed up as science, filled with lies, that sought to prove  that blacks are genetically intellectually inferior to whites, with no chance of remediation? Or does the Times endorse Murray's view? Certainly the Times would never publish the writings of a raving anti-Semite; why do they do that with a racist and intellectual fraud?

One thing that is really maddening about Murray's duplicitous change of rationale for school choice is the reaction by some in the Reality Based Community, specifically the usually reliable Daily Howler website, which in critiquing Murray's arguments essentially endorsed his view that charter schools should be expanded, despite the lack of empirical evidence they do a better job of educating children. But the Howler went even further, actually spreading misinformation about the purported success of those schools in closing the achievement gap between whites and minorities, and implicitly equating any educational gains over the past 30 years with the advancement of high-stakes testing and school choice.

The Howler, in its typical dismissive tones, wrote that "liberals" are in denial about the "success" of that regime:
Does Murray know that black kids and Hispanic kids have actually shown large score gains in reading and math (especially math) in the past dozen years?...Most liberals have never heard that fact.
It seems strange that the Howler would introduce questionable numbers about the academic achievement of students in response to the racist Murray admitting that school choice is a bust. The Howler leads off his criticism by citing writing done by Ravitch, who, the Howler must admit, is "technically accurate."

In fact, here in Minnesota, at least, the advance of "school choice" and the wrong-headed No Child Left Behind law have left minorities further behind whites in academic achievement. That is not an assertion - it is the conclusion of  a study done by the University of Minnesota Law School. Charters in Minnesota - the state where they were invented -  do a particularly bad job of educating minorities
“Rather than being a solution to the educational problems faced by low-income students and students of color, charter schools are deepening these problems.”
I wish I could say that the discovery by real researchers that school choice has been an academic bust had turned the nation away from charter schools and vouchers, but that wouldn't be true. Instead, our pundits and opinion leaders - for their own personal reasons - sadly including The Daily Howler - have either ignored or misinterpreted the results. Charles Murray's admission, and the Howler's half-hearted agreement with the scientific racist that charters are justified even without evidence that they better educate students, are just the most recent examples.

ADDING: It is particularly disappointing to see Democrats (Obama included) stay on the charter school bandwagon long after they have been discredited academically, especially when the issue should be both a policy and politics win. Policy because getting rid of charters would improve the education of more children, while freeing up funds for their schools. Politics because many charter schools don't require union membership, thus the expansion of charters means fewer teacher unions, which are a predominant Democratic constituency. By pushing charters the Democrats are actually shrinking their own base in order to make schools worse.

UPDATE: Not to put too fine a point on it, or to put too much stock in prostitute toe sucker Dick Morris, but his most recent outburst spells out in clear detail what Republicans would like to do to public education: 
Huge Republican Gains are Going to All But do Away With Public Education.


Spot said...

Great job of pulling things together, Rob.

The job of the education system is to educate children, not simply please parents. The two are related, of course, but the latter certainly does not always lead to the former.

Rob Levine said...

The theme of happy parents isn't a new one. In the first evaluation of the Milwaukee voucher program a government appointed evaluator reported that the voucher students weren't doing better academically, but their parents were happier. And why wouldn't they be? It is merely self-satisfaction!