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Friday, March 19, 2010

How not to attack local control of education

Susan Jacoby's op-ed piece in today's New York Times beautifully illustrates how not to attack local control of education. Jacoby calls for a national curriculum, national teacher standards, and national investment in teacher training, arguing that local and state control of education "is ill-suited to the needs of a 21st-century nation competing in a global economy." She unfavorably compares the United States' system of K-12 education to that of France by noting that "No Frenchman could conceive of a situation in which school officials in Marseille [sic] decide" on local curriculum the way that the Texas school board can choose to make Texas' textbooks more conservative.

Aside from misspelling Marseilles' name, Jacoby's piece follows the usual script first written by Horace Mann when trying to import a Prussian model of the Common School into Massachusetts during the 1830s: Serve up a Yankee's delusional fantasy of European bureaucratic competence and Jacobinical nationalism as a standard by which to measure American schools' alleged shortcomings while ignoring real conditions in America. If such pieces are intended only as a way for elites to blow off some frustrated steam about goings-on in Texas, then their failure to come to grips with, or even mention, the problems of educational centralization can be ignored as irrelevant to their purpose. For those, however, who want to write a serious critique of American educational decentralization, however, Jacoby's piece nicely illustrates three blunders that any competent fan of centralization should avoid: Don't simply ignore the ways in which centralization might exacerbate the problems of (a) bureaucratic sclerosis; (b) cultural conflict; and (c) parental self-interest.

(1) Don't ignore the problem of centralization and bureaucracy. There is a substantial literature, starting with Chubb's & Moe's 1988 book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools and more recently exemplified by the empirical work of Paul Peterson (see, e.g., his contribution in a volume edited by Caroline Hoxby) suggesting that students are better served by many competing educational providers than by a single large school district. Chubb & Moe suggested one causal mechanism behind these findings: Schools are more effective when principals have more autonomy to choose a team of teachers united behind a single educational vision, but schools governed by larger and more centralized school districts tend to deprive principals of the necessary autonomy. In particular, teachers' unions may insulate their members from meaningful performance measures, including discipline or re-assignment by principals, such that stronger teacher unions diminish educational performance (see, e.g., Hoxby 1996), and unions may be stronger in larger school districts (see, e.g., Rose & Sonstelie 2004), where parents have fewer choices and more costly routes to political participation. Caroline Hoxby's study of charter schools, published last Fall and suggesting that charters significantly improve student performance, is only the latest piece of important empirical evidence suggesting that centralized control of schools might not serve the best interests of students.

One does not have to accept the conclusion that competition improves performance. There is a voluminous and conflicting literature on the question, some of it highly technical -- indeed, nit-picking -- about how to code variables like district competitiveness (for instance, the Rothstein-Hoxby debate of five years' ago on Hoxby's use of rivers and streams as proxies for exogenous school district fragmentation to deal with the issue of reverse causality). But one cannot write an op-ed that simply ignores the controversy and expect to be taken seriously.

(2) Don't ignore cultural conflict. Since Jacksonian Democrats resisted Horace Mann's called for greater state and professional control of education in Massachusetts, there has been a tendency for educational reformers who like centralization to assume that their opponents are defying some obvious national consensus about what constitutes a good education. But the problem in America is that we Americans lack much of a consensus on what makes for a good school. Whigs like Horace Mann thought that their program of civic morality was non-sectarian, while their Democratic opponents thought that it was a Yankee Pietist plot to brainwash their kids, denigrating their traditional Catholic, Baptist, Lutheran, or just anti-Yankee cultures. (On this conflict, see Carl Kaestle's classic account, Pillars of The Republic, at 139-69).

Jacoby assumes that a federally led curriculum reform would enforce "a curriculum consensus reached by genuine experts in the subjects being taught," thereby avoiding the foibles of Texas. Oddly, she ignores the fact that the feds were led by a Texan not so long ago: Does she think that those eight years were a bad dream that will never repeat itself? In any case, the putative "curriculum consensus" might be a fantasy if we Americans are bitterly divided over everything from whole language (versus phonics) and sex ed (versus abstinence). The French govern a far more homogeneous culture than American society -- one far more tolerant of expert leadership and far less tolerant of religious and linguistic minorities, where (for instance) wearing a head scarf on public school property is grounds for expulsion. The notion that Americans would tolerate a similar level of expert control is a dirigiste delusion: Rather than enforcing the expert curricular ideals of Harvard Yard in Texas, the federal government would more likely become enmeshed in a quagmire of irresolvable cultural conflicts that would make health care reform look easy.

(3) Don't ignore the self-interest of parents. How does one get anyone to invest in the education of other people's children? Centralized finance is one mechanism -- if one assumes that voters' incentives to maintain school funding does not decline as the money is spent farther from home. Voters, however, might lose interest in financing schools when the nexus between their dollars and their own kids' education or house values becomes more attenuated. This, at least, is the suggestion of some research suggesting a link between school finance equalization efforts in California and declines in per capita educational spending. Again, one need not accept such claims: The evidence linking Serrano v. Priest with Prop. 13 is contested. But one cannot simply ignore the controversy: Even an op-ed with a word limit ought to acknowledge that there could conceivably be a link between voter interest in education and voters' perceived returns on their educational dollar.

On the New York Times op-ed page, however, one can apparently ignore a quarter-century of controversies over educational centralization without losing credibility as a pundit. If the only point of such a piece is to rally the faithful to the Whiggish banner of the One Best System of schooling, then I guess such a piece does no harm. But it does tend to confirm the stereotype that the New York Times is just one more echo chamber for the ideologically like-minded.

Posted by Rick Hills on March 19, 2010 at 06:10 PM in Current Affairs | Permalink


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Just for what it's worth on French spelling: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Marseille

Posted by: Jason W. | Apr 18, 2010 5:51:49 PM

I enjoyed Rick's post. One problem with Texas imposing its values stems from market-driven centralization. Texas is a huge buyer of textbooks, so the information that Texas chooses doesn't just end up in Texas books. By the way, though I attended public school in the dusty oil-field town of Iraan, Texas, and am therefore familiar with the Texas mindset that produced the textbook controversy, I am also skeptical that ceding power to a federal bureaucracy would produce a better outcome.

Posted by: lyrissa | Mar 20, 2010 6:25:54 PM

I think the problem with Jacoby's piece was less what it said than the forum and context in which it said it.

The problem is not with NYC schools.

The problem is with schools in rural/semirural East Central Redneckistan, like where I live (in a Big Ten university town surrounding by a hundred miles of soybeans in every direction). And the people who need to hear and understand what Jacoby has to say are precisely the ones who will reject her opinion because it's in the NYT, and because it's coming from a big-city-school perspective.

Jacoby's piece fails not at the detail level, but because it's the wrong argument aimed at the wrong people. It presumes a certain existing sophistication in education policy that doesn't exist in the heartland, or the deep South, or the rural and semirural West. (I've lived in all three areas, and been in close contact with public education in all of them.) It presumes a certain concern with effects outside of the local community that doesn't exist in the heartland, or the deep South, or the rural and semirural West. In short, it tilts at windmills without ensuring that there are any shoes on the old nag.

Posted by: C.E. Petit | Mar 20, 2010 2:14:57 PM

Anona's comment illustrates how damaging pieces like Jacoby's op-ed piece can be. Jacoby's op-ed piece uses the Texas School Board's recent curricular decisions as a stick with which to beat localism in education and manages to fool Anona into believing that localism in education is a "huge problem in education today." But the Texas School Board is hardly an instance of local control of education: The Texas Board is suppressing local control, by imposing a single set of standards on counties as diverse as Travis (liberal), Bexar (moderate) and Lubbock (very conservative). The best way to prevent such centralization at the state level is to press for district and even school-level autonomy, not to argue for unrealistic and probably destructive levels of federal control over schools.

In fact, Jacoby's call for curricular centralization and the Texas School Board's actual centralization of curriculum both use a similar tactic: Use some bogeyman (For the Texas School Board, "secular humanism" or "liberal bias" in textbooks; for Jacoby, those scary Fundamentalists down in Texas) that you know will mobilize your base (for Jacoby, secular NY Times readers like anona; for the Texas School Board, Texas Fundamentalist Christians), thereby distracting that base into supporting an antidote -- centralization of educational authority -- that is utterly irrelevant to the problem used to whip up those supporters in the first place.

To repeat: You will not get an expert and apolitical curriculum by turning over teaching to the federal Department of Education. You will simply create a bigger incentive for both sides to politicize those curricular choices at the federal level. Just because the Texas School Board's effort to centralize education is dumb does not mean that Jacoby's effort to centralize education is smart. In fact, these decisions are dumb and dumber.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 20, 2010 8:51:48 AM

I'm not following the "your side" comment in the post above.

Admittedly, I just gave it a quick once over, but it seemed like Professor Hills was coming down on the side of informed and nuanced discussion, and not on the side of the yahoos running the Texas school board.

It may be that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, but that doesn't mean that he who criticizes me is on the side of my enemy.

Posted by: anon | Mar 20, 2010 3:06:10 AM

You're attacking an argument which attacks a huge problem in education today. Your post is just odd. I get it. You don't like the big bad liberals snubbing their noses at conservatives. Well, in this case, your side deserves it. Your side is acting like morons.

Posted by: anona | Mar 19, 2010 9:47:30 PM

My rule of thumb is that one knucklehead per post is enough.

Posted by: Rick Hills | Mar 19, 2010 7:19:47 PM

It's odd that you don't attack Texas's school plan in your post.

Posted by: anona | Mar 19, 2010 6:57:26 PM

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