Reply to Strong

It’s sad that Michael Strong has to end what has been a useful debate by egregiously distorting my position on the best strategies for school reform. He starts his critique by claiming that I believe that “the possibility of significantly better education [is] utopian.” In fact, throughout this exchange, and in all of my writing on education, I have made it clear that we can, indeed, “significantly” improve education outcomes by adopting certain instructional and curriculum reforms. I have also argued that school choice programs have improved education for the disadvantaged. The only time I used the word “utopian” in my previous posts was in characterizing Strong’s statement that free markets in education will lead to “lowering rates of drug use, risky sex, depression, suicide, homicide, and accidents” for the nation’s teenagers. Indeed, I don’t know of a better operational definition of “utopian.”

Strong strays even further from the facts and reality when he resorts to citing Lisa Snell’s article in Reason to show that I misinterpreted the “Massachusetts Miracle.” Snell’s article makes the claim that the extraordinary test score gains in Massachusetts are somehow less of a triumph for the state’s curricular reforms because white students made greater gains than blacks, and therefore the gap between low-income and high-income students grew. This is supremely silly and raises the question of whether free-market education experts are now joining the ranks of the politically correct on questions of race and schooling.

Actually, if Strong is really interested in a useful example of a state with a huge academic achievement gap between white and black students he should look to Wisconsin. On the 2007 NAEP tests in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade writing Wisconsin had the highest gap between black and white students of any state in the country. Wisconsin’s black students also had the lowest absolute scores in the nation on those three tests. Need I remind Strong and other supporters of free markets that Wisconsin also has the biggest voucher program in the country?

Strong also distorts my position on charter schools. I didn’t say that it’s utopian to expect “unlimited charter school growth.” What is utopian is Strong’s belief that urban districts in states that don’t have charter schools will not see improvements in education outcomes. To me this is wildly speculative and utopian, because not a shred of evidence is offered to support this prediction. I also think it’s mildly utopian for Strong to put his hopes for expansion of charter schools on the election of Barack Obama. All I can say is, lots of luck.

Back on earth, there are possibilities for significantly improving education outcomes for minority students if we do the right thing in the classroom. The right thing involves, at the least, using methods for teaching kids how to read that have been validated by scientific research. This should be as controversial as using the findings of science for treating diabetes. Yet I haven’t heard either Michael Strong or Richard Rothstein endorse this obvious and easily implemented school reform.

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.”