Friday Thoughts: Is there really a point to advocating both standardization and choice?

I’ve long been perplexed that the Thomas B. Fordham Institute frames as its top two policy priorities:

  1. Implementing the Common Core
  2. Advancing Choice

Their new web site layout makes this more obvious.

More recently, a report released by the Council on Foreign Relations (referred to largely as the Rice-Klein report in the media and on twitter) argued that our “failing” education system is  a national security concern, and that the road to addressing that concern involves:

  1. expanding the Common Core State Standard initiative to include subjects beyond math and English Language Arts;
  2. an expansion of charter schools and vouchers

Now, as I understand it, there’s at least a subtle difference between these two sources on the point regarding vouchers and charter schools in that Fordham does not appear these days to be out front on promoting vouchers and instead seems to be favoring charter expansion (avoiding the word “voucher” but welcoming “other approaches that provide parents and children solid options and the capacity to make maximum use of them”).

Let me be clear that this post isn’t about favoring or slamming either vouchers or the common core, but rather pointing out that favoring both is entirely inconsistent, unless there’s some weird, warped agenda behind it all. This post IS about slamming the two, when used in combination. It just doesn’t make sense.  Let’s throw into this mix other policies promoting standardization of the operations of traditional public schools like forcing those schools to make personnel decisions based largely on student assessment data.

Collectively what we have here is a massive effort on the one hand, to require traditional public school districts to adopt a common curriculum and ultimately to adopt common assessments for evaluating student success on that curriculum and then force those districts to evaluate, retain and/or dismiss their teachers based on student assessment data, while on the other hand, expanding publicly financed subsidies for more children to attend schools that would not be required to do these things (in many cases, for example, relieving charter schools from teacher  evaluation requirements).

For example, if we believe that improving understanding of core scientific concepts is important for our national security or economic competitiveness, why would we be trying to increase the number of students who opt out of those standards, opting instead to attend fundamentalist religious institutions which may be decidedly anti-science? It seems like it would be one or the other? Certainly, TB Fordham Institute appears concerned with the importance of teaching science, and evolution specifically. When they simultaneously promote “other” choice alternatives, are they suggesting the regulation of science curriculum in those alternatives?

Also, if one believes that competitive pressures create improvement across schools (by stimulating innovation), why set up totally different rules – absurd constraints – in fact – for the largest set of schools in the mix. That seems rather counter productive and certainly limits any potential for real innovation. My critique all along about Race to the Top as a stimulus for innovation was that RTTT was anything but a stimulus for innovation and was instead a bribe to get states to fast-track a handful of preferred and completely unfounded reformy template policies – effectively squelching any real innovation that might have otherwise occurred.

One might instead argue for forcing all schools – public, private (if voucher receiving) and charter – to adopt the common core and evaluate teachers with student test data – and to simultaneously promote a broad based choice program. Yeah… let’s try really hard to make all schools the same and then let individuals choose among them? What we would have is a program that allows parents to choose which school adopts the common core better, and uses testing data better when firing teachers. That doesn’t seem to make a whole lot of sense, either.

No matter how you cut it, combining these two broad preferences leads to a ridiculous mix of policies, whichever side you’re coming from (unless, of course, you’re trying to come from both at once).

So, this all has me wondering if the real objective here – among advocates of these seemingly contradictory policies – is actually to make traditional public schooling so utterly unbearable for both teachers and students by expanding the testing and standards driven culture, expanding curricular standards across areas previously untouched, sucking any remaining creativity out of teaching, and mechanizing the teaching workforce in traditional public schools, making even the worst of the less-regulated alternatives seem more desirable for future generations of both teachers and students?


Published by schoolfinance101

Bruce Baker is an Professor in the Graduate School of Education at Rutgers, The State University of New Jersey. From 1997 to 2008 he was a professor at the University of Kansas in Lawrence, KS. He is lead author with Preston Green (Penn State University) and Craig Richards (Teachers College, Columbia University) of Financing Education Systems, a graduate level textbook on school finance policy published by Merrill/Prentice-Hall. Professor Baker has written a multitude of peer reviewed research articles on state school finance policy, teacher labor markets, school leadership labor markets and higher education finance and policy. His recent work has focused on measuring cost variations associated with schooling contexts and student population characteristics, including ways to better design state school finance policies and local district allocation formulas (including Weighted Student Funding) for better meeting the needs of students. Baker, along with Preston Green of Penn State University are co-authors of the chapter on Conceptions of Equity in the recently released Handbook of Research Education Finance and Policy, and co-authors of the chapter on the Politics of Education Finance in the Handbook of Education Politics and Policy and co-authors of the chapter on School Finance in the Handbook of Education Policy of the American Educational Research Association. Professor Baker has also consulted for state legislatures, boards of education and other organizations on education policy and school finance issues and has testified in state school finance litigation in Kansas, Missouri and Arizona. He is a member of the Think Tank Review Panel, a group of academic researchers who conduct technical reviews of publicly released think tank reports on education policy issues.

8 thoughts on “Friday Thoughts: Is there really a point to advocating both standardization and choice?

  1. In Maine, there is a push for Standards-Based Education (proficiency-based is also used, although I’m never quite sure if it’s the same thing). The concept has always seemed inconsistent to the implementation of Common Core since standards-based has been interpreted here as “each student learns best in her own way and should be able to demonstrate that knowledge individually”. Learning styles and the actual information known are two different things that may, or more likely may not, jibe when assessed by any measure, let alone standardized ones.

  2. My recall is that the idea of establishing national tests and ranking schools while allowing choice among them began with the Thatcher-Major regime in Britain, then adapted by Fordham in the U.S., which I think was first down this path. Standardize what is to be taught (and presumably learn) but allow some diversity in how it is implemented, thus choice. Hollow in many ways, but not completely inconsistent: centralized control of what, decentralize how.

    But as this expands into things like making judgements about teachers and more and more tests with more and more micromanaging, I think you are right, the choice aspect seems more and more absurd. Since the country and its schools are pretty well segregated by race and class already, I am not sure this scheme would even enable much more of such segregation, tho it might in some places.

    If as you suggest the real goal is destruction of public ed (as it clearly is for some, who do not hide it), that will leave the issue of workforce prep aspect of schooling pretty shaky – and workforce prep (college and career ready in its latest terminology) – both content (in some cases) and socialization.

    Thus, as you say, an interesting contradiction.

  3. I find the standardization of curriculum, which will be driven by the assessments, hugely problematic. Aren’t the Fordham people proponents of market driven practices? Also, bribing states to “adopt” the CORE, by grant point gimmicks and by threatening the loss of Title 1 funding, is antethecical to “choice” and market processes.

    How can we expect schools and districts to innovate when the market will no longer be the arbiter of quality. Do the Fordham folks really believe the new assessments will identify and reward,educational excellence? If so, wouldn’t the best private schools already be using some version of this approach?

    I find it difficult to see the Common Core as anything but stifling.

  4. An equally good question is whether it makes sense to oppose both standards and choice. Sure, it’s not a logical fallacy to oppose both, but the combined position is about as self-serving as it is possible to be — opposing both standards and choice means that the public (especially poorer parents) have little ability either to choose a different school or to monitor whether their assigned school is actually accomplishing anything.

    1. I would agree that, for example, broadly providing a public service and imposing no standards regarding quality, and then constraining alternatives would be equally strange. If there’s no interest in providing a certain quality of service – as would likely be imposed through some system of standards – then why provide it publicly?

      So that brings us to figuring out how to find the right balance. I’m increasingly skeptical of heavy handed highly centralized standardization, which has moved from broad curricular standards (as expressed in the Fordham response to my post) to curriculum scripted by the distribution of test items on assessments of much more detailed standards. I guess I could still see a case where a good test tests something worthwhile… in which case teaching to that test might not be so awful. I don’t think we’ve gone that way. And, I’m skeptical that the common core movement, when converted from standards to assessments will be much if any better than what we’ve already seen across states.

      I tend to lean more toward use of data/standards/measures as a less intrusive, but still important, monitoring/public information, and when absolutely necessary, policy intervention system. NAEP in my view provides one useful example of minimally intrusive testing system for monitoring (not high stakes or gate-keeping) purposes. It would likely have to be more intrusive (greater sampling density) to be more useful at the state and local level, but the idea of spending several days per year testing every kid in every grade and subject based on a belief that they should all know exactly the same stuff as they progress from grade to grade (and where that stuff is watered down to the least common denominator) is absurd.

      I entered into education policy research as a strong advocate of choice (early 1990s). As a practical matter (largely a function of economies of scale, population distribution, transportation systems – various geographic barriers – even in urban settings), choice is extremely limited, and frustratingly sacrifices equality in favor of liberty beyond my personal threshold for what’s acceptable in the public interest (where by equality, I’m thinking of equal access to quality opportunities – not equal participation in uniform opportunities). Charter schooling has become a whole other issue, with those who are relatively successful actually doing pretty heavily standardized stuff (not particularly innovative)… but that’s partly because we are measuring their success by state standardized assessments. There’s far more to address on this topic… but way too little time.

      To a large extent, one could argue that equity problems in the public system and across many charter and voucher models boil down to the fact that we’ve become so obsessed with arguments about standards and choice, or standards versus choice that we really haven’t paid much attention to what it takes to publicly (or some equitably blended approach) finance good educational options, however we choose to deliver them, and then to appropriately, non-intrusively (not screwing around with how they get the job done) monitor them. Successful charter schools raise a ton of additional money … and in many cases substantially outspend nearby otherwise similar traditional public schools (far more precise comparisons forthcoming). This creates huge inequities in charter quality/choices and between charter & district schools (in some cases). Private independent schools spend double the going rate of public districts in the same labor market. Yet we try to voucher kids at half the rate – expecting someone else to pick up the rest of the tab.

      My view at this point is that we need to step back and develop a better understanding of the various options that exist – across the widely varied settings that exist in the U.S – and get a much better handle on the costs (full costs), effectiveness and long term benefits of those options. Pushing for common standards without common/equitable/sufficient resources to achieve them is a pointless endeavor. Similarly, arguing that choice will solve equity problems, without any consideration of how we finance equitable choices (access to them & information about them) is unhelpful.

      Figured I should let you know where I stand on this one. Otherwise buried in projects for now… so won’t be engaging in further lengthy debate over these issues.

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