Deregulating Smart

I find myself in accord with Mr. Rothstein on several counts. We agree that it is naïve to imagine that underlying social conditions will not influence student performance, that it would be a mistake to debate the merits of any proposed domestic policy agenda primarily in terms of the educational consequences, and that it is a mistake to judge teacher efficacy solely in terms of reading and math scores. I know of no responsible thinker who would deny that poverty, crime, cultural depredation, or parenting influence academic outcomes. Indeed, the challenge for schools is to help counter the inevitable inequalities in a democratic nation so that handicaps due to education and wealth do not become a baton casually passed from one generation to the next. In this sense, Mr. Rothstein is obviously correct that broader changes in social well-being will influence educational outcomes (although it appears that we disagree about the kinds of policies likely to yield desirable outcomes). Gratifying throughout this exchange has been Mr. Rothstein’s explicit acknowledgment that — whatever the status of our broader social indicators — we can and should expect our schools to perform better than they currently are. At the same time, Mr. Rothstein is right to caution that such recognition should not extend to casual, utopian expectations that even high-performing schools can overcome any hurdles that social conditions and culture throw in their way.

In the meantime, Mr. Rothstein has suggested a variety of domestic policy initiatives which he believes will improve national well-being and deliver ancillary educational benefits. As I noted previously, I find some of his proposed measures reasonable and others less so, but we agree that these proposals can and should be debated broadly and not primarily as educational reforms. In short, while economic and social developments can make the work of teachers and schools easier or harder, they are not likely to be debated or adopted based on their educational impact. Consequently, just as A Nation at Risk focused on educational responses to educational concerns, I find it advisable to focus on how we may improve schools and schooling — whatever the societal context — rather than on how fiscal, monetary, trade, or social policy might yield social changes that could facilitate school improvement.

With that, I shall turn to Mr. Rothstein’s request that I clarify what I mean when I say that “sensible deregulation must be coupled with attention to quality control.” To answer Mr. Rothstein as directly as possible, yes, I am suggesting that new policies governing choice-based arrangement or the teaching profession will require new kinds of regulation. Market advocates in nearly every sector — from trucking to airlines to telecommunications — have recognized that “deregulation” is a term of art.

In just about every realm except education, even the most far-reaching deregulatory proposals have featured extensive attention to specifying just how regulation would unfold, what it would entail, and what new provisions it would require. Unfortunately, the education debates have tended to proceed without this commonsense caution — yielding polarized debates between those who cling tightly to today’s familiar arrangements and those who find themselves proclaiming the primacy of “choice.” This, I have long contended, has been a problematic consequence of our tendency to focus on the more popular notion of “educational choice” rather than the more meaningful, but less palatable, notion of “educational deregulation.”

The implicit assumption by choice proponents has been that creating charter school laws or voucher programs will be enough to spur the creation of new schools and programs and that competition will ensure quality and responsible use of public funds. In truth, of course, relatively “free” markets are plagued by such concerns. School choice is no elixir. The expectation that mere adoption of charter schooling or voucher plans will prompt the emergence of a raft of promising competitors is not borne out by theory or experience. Proposals to promote school choice have done little to eliminate the hindrances posed by licensure requirements or state reporting systems or to replace them with more sensible counterparts. Similarly, proponents of choice-based arrangements have not done enough to refine authorization processes or protocols or to develop more nimble, market-friendly mechanisms for policing the expenditure of public dollars.

Now, I presume Mr. Rothstein’s subsequent question to be: “So what kinds of new regulation do you propose to replace the old?” Here is where I think we have fallen short, focusing for too long on tweaking old arrangements rather than working to construct new ones (and the primary concern I have about the legacy of A Nation at Risk). Such an effort is not the work of one scholar, but should be a central preoccupation of those in the education community seeking to retool schooling, teaching, and learning for the challenges of a new century. Unfortunately, as I conceded in a previous essay, that effort has not been pursued with sufficient seriousness to date.

While there has been enormous effort among advocates to make the moral case for parental choice, to design saleable programs, and to demonstrate that it can serve both students and the larger democratic community, these efforts have been marked by lax attention to market design. After all, in fields like foreign policy and economics, it is taken for granted that vacuums will not naturally or automatically be filled by effective or virtuous actors. Whether dealing with nascent democracy in Iraq in the 2000s or nascent markets in Eastern Europe in the 1990s, reformers have struggled to establish the institutions, norms, and practices that foster the emergence of healthy markets. Proponents of choice programs have too rarely paid attention to such considerations.

As for my own views, what might constitute desirable new arrangements is something I have explored to some extent in volumes including Common Sense School Reform (Palgrave Macmillan 2004) and Educational Entrepreneurship (Harvard Education Press 2006), and which I not dwell upon here, except to say that there will be a place for appropriate oversight, transparency, and accountability when it comes to the public dollars and public purpose at stake in K-12 schooling. For me, the purpose of deregulation is not to break that link between public investment and requisite oversight but to enable us to reimagine how schooling should be delivered and how (and by whom) that oversight ought to be provided.

Also from this issue

Lead Essay

  • Twenty-five years ago this month, a Reagan-appointed blue-ribbon committee published a blockbuster study, A Nation at Risk, about the sorry state of American education. In this month’s lead essay, the Economic Policy Institute’s Richard Rothstein gives his critical assessment. “In 1983, A Nation at Risk misidentified what is wrong with our public schools and, consequently, set the nation on a school reform crusade that has done more harm than good,” Rothstein writes. “The diagnosis … was flawed in three respects: First, it wrongly concluded that student achievement was declining. Second, it placed the blame on schools for national economic problems over which schools have relatively little influence. Third, it ignored the responsibility of the nation’s other social and economic institutions for learning.”

Response Essays

  • In his reply, education entrepreneur Michael Strong challenges Rothstein’s key claims about the success of public schools and their relative unimportance for the further economic advance of the poor. He argues that the attachment to the status quo system of public education is “irrational.” Drawing on his experience as the principal of a successful charter school, Strong emphasizes the importance of the freedom to innovate. “The first nation that creates an educational system that allows educational entrepreneurs significant freedom to innovate will, over time, develop a significant advantage in the global marketplace. I’d prefer that the United States lead this movement rather than follow it.”

  • The Manhattan Institute’s Sol Stern detects “two Richard Rothsteins.” The first praises the public schools for improving student performance and for narrowing inequalities in student achievement. The second argues that nothing further can be done by the schools; for added progress we need other forms of social and political reform. “Either schools are able to significantly overcome family and neighborhood deficits that children bring to the classroom (and therefore ought to be judged by that standard) or they cannot be expected to overcome the social and economic deficits,” Stern writes. “But [Rothstein] perversely insists on having it both ways.” In stark contrast, Stern argues that test scores have become worse, that schools bear the responsibility, but that they can improve through a regime of standards.

  • Frederick Hess, the Director of Education Policy Studies at the American Enterprise Institute, concedes the premises of Richard Rothstein’s argument but contests their implications for the future of education. According to Hess, the key failing of A Nation at Risk was its too-easy acceptance of “the familiar institutions and practices of K-12 schooling.” As a consequence, the nature of teaching and teacher education has barely changed, despite deep changes in the broader labor market. And even the school choice movement has fallen victim to “the dangers of trying to paste preferred policies atop existing arrangements.” Hess concludes that “we must reject both excuse-mongering and overwrought hyperbole in favor of a steely willingness to revisit the shopworn assumptions and tired verities that have so long characterized school reform on the left and the right.”