En France aussi, évidemment,
et depuis une bonne vingtaine d'années, le "chèque éducation"
(ou "bon scolaire") - en anglais: "voucher" - fait partie
d'un blabla consensuel et yakaiste au sujet des indispensables réformes,
"simples, urgentes et radicales", disent-ils, du système scolaire.
USA : "dans le
Milwaukee, il n'y a pas eu de miracle"
Une consternante pitrerie sur le sujet
[sous forme d'un colloque
intitulé «Nouvelles formules de financement de l’éducation»]
s'était déroulée en novembre 1996 dans les salons
Sous l'égide de l'OIDEL (Organisation
Internationale pour la Défense de la Liberté d'Instruction
- ...ou de l'Enseignement Libre" ?!) et avec la présence
d'«experts», Messieurs Nemo et Sexton, assez peu documentés
sur le produit dont ils faisaient la promotion mais avec un bel enthousiasme,
partagé par une salle assez clairsemée...!
Ses traditionnels promoteurs français
(nos "libéraux", depuis Madelin) ont été vite rejoints
par les extrême-droites (cf programmes présidentiels des FN,
MNR, CNIP...), puis par la droite extrême, conservatrice, et/ou affairiste.
Et même, et donc, évidemment,
par une bonne partie des partisans-pratiquants actuels de "l'école
à la maison" : comme ingrédient indispensable à
d'instruction", ce nouveau slogan fédérateur permettant
de "ratisser large" selon la formule d'un porte-parole et manager de l'association
enfants d'abord". Qui persiste par ailleurs à faire croire qu'elle
a quelque chose de commun avec les analyses ou témoignages de Christiane
enfants d'abord" !) ou de Catherine Baker ("Insoumission
à l'école obligatoire").
(February 13, 2008)
Depuis son perchoir au Manhattan Institute,
le groupe de recherche ancré à droite, Mr Stern, 72 ans,
a une réputation de provocateur acariâtre envers les pratiques
« libérales » en éducation, critiquant aussi
bien les méthodes de lecture que les écoles publiques qui
se soucient trop de justice sociale.
beaucoup de ses alliés intellectuels, Sol Stern a ardemment promu
le chèque éducation comme moyen de donner aux enfants
défavorisés de meilleurs choix en éducation et d'inciter
à la compétition afin d’améliorer les écoles
publiques. Fin 2004, il publiait "Breaking Free: Public School Lessons
and the Imperative of School Choice".
Il vient de faire brusquement volte-face
à propos des vouchers dans un N° du « City Journal
», le magazine de l’Institut en affirmant que le voucher
n’avait pas du tout amélioré le système public. Et
déplore que les écoles catholiques auxquelles il voue une
grande admiration et sur lesquelles il comptait pour s'en emparer,
à grande vitesse !
Hérésie, "trahison", hurlent
de concert conservateurs et libertariens. Tempête...
Après avoir depuis longtemps réclamé
des vouchers et des charter
schools, Stern dans son nouvel essai pointe les défauts
et les insuffisances du voucher. Selon lui, il a perdu le
Il préconise donc aujourd'hui un
« plan B » exhortant les enseignants à se préoccuper
de l’amélioration des programmes.
Pour illustrer son propos, Stern cite l’expérimentation
de Milwaukee, première ville aux États-Unis à adopter,
en 1990, un programme chèque éducation : il n'y a
pas eu de miracle, dit-il.
A New-York non plus, malgré toutes
les mesures d'incitation : primes pour les enseignants "méritants"
.. et pour les élèves, afin de contraindre les écoles
à toujours plus de compétition "comme des chacals"...
... Tandis qu'au Massachussets, pas d'incitation
au "marché concurrentiel", pas de chèque-éducation,
pas de crédits d'impôts, très peu de charter schools,
ni récompenses financières pour les chefs d'établissements
ou les enseignants. Mais une surprenante amélioration des performances
scolaires dûe à des programmes rigoureux à tous
les niveaux, parsemés d'évaluations, de tests, et clôturés
par un examen final.
Conclusion de Sol Stern :
"School choice is not enough"
: Le choix de l'école ne suffit pas.
Il faut, aussi, que ces écoles
enseignent les mêmes programmes.
Et appliquent les mêmes méthodes/recettes.
Qui "ont fait leurs preuves".
Le même "choix", en somme,
qu'entre un hamburger et un hamburger :
au MacDo, au Quick, ou "at
Comme on veut.
A Reversal on School Vouchers,
Then a Tempest
By JENNIFER MEDINA - February 13, 2008 -
Sol Stern is at it again.
“I’ve always been in a dissenting position.”
SOL STERN Senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute
From his perch at the Manhattan Institute, the right-leaning research
group, Mr. Stern, 72, has reveled as the city’s cantankerous provocateur
against liberal education policies, criticizing reading curriculums that
de-emphasize phonics as well as public schools that focus on social justice.
Like many of his intellectual allies, he had ardently supported school
vouchers as a way to give poor and minority children better educational
choices and to create competition that would help improve public schools.
Although colleagues long thought they had him pegged, he made an abrupt
about-face on vouchers in the most recent issue of City Journal, the institute’s
magazine, saying there was little evidence they had done much to improve
public education across the country.
In the circles Mr. Stern inhabits, such a sentiment is a kind of heresy,
and his essay has set off a firestorm. But he is relishing the controversy.
“That’s what I am supposed to do,” he said, chuckling. “I’ve always
been in a dissenting position.”
Many of Mr. Stern’s allies — among them Thomas W. Carroll, the president
of the Foundation for Education Reform and Accountability, which supports
vouchers and charter schools, and Jay P. Greene, another fellow at the
institute — fired off responses to his essay, leading City Journal to post
them in an online forum, a first for the magazine.
“I think he made mistaken claims,” Mr. Greene said in an interview.
“He claimed that the evidence that vouchers have been effective was very
meager, and I do not believe that’s the case. The research community is
settled on this.”
Mr. Stern is known as a contrarian; he supports mayoral control of the
school system but frequently criticizes Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s efforts.
Yet rarely has he backed away from his own views.
Despite his many earlier City Journal articles calling for vouchers
and charter schools, in the new essay Mr. Stern focused on the shortcomings
of the voucher movement. He argued that in recent years, vouchers had steadily
lost political support. And citing the need for a “Plan B,” he urged educators
to focus on improving curriculums instead. To support his idea, Mr. Stern
pointed to Milwaukee’s experiment with school vouchers.
“Milwaukee’s public schools still suffer from low achievement and
miserable graduation rates, with test scores flattening in recent years,”
Mr. Stern wrote. “Violence and disorder throughout the system are as serious
as ever. Most voucher students are still benefiting, true; but no ‘Milwaukee
Miracle,’ no transformation of the public schools, has taken place.”
In his online opposition, Mr. Greene said he was particularly bothered
because the essay was being widely interpreted as setting up a choice between
vouchers and curriculum changes.
“There’s no reason you can’t have both — just like you like brownies
and ice cream,” Mr. Greene said. “You shouldn’t be made to choose.”
In a recent wide-ranging interview in the institute’s offices, Mr. Stern
described himself with a mix of pride and self-deprecation, brushing off
efforts to label him politically. He said he saw himself as a kind of revolutionary
who was now simply reporting and writing about issues he cared about.
“I’m a reporter,” he said, as if stating the obvious.
His 2003 book, “Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative
of School Choice,” relied on his own trips to Milwaukee to measure
the impact of the voucher system on public schools there. In the book,
he found much to praise about vouchers, saying they would give needed competition
to the failing schools. But now he says more recent evidence has fallen
“People have to pay attention to what’s going on,” he said, his gravelly
voice somewhat incongruous to his broad smile. “They have to respond. I
am not ideological about this.”
To describe his current political outlook, Mr. Stern refers to an adage
coined by Irving Kristol: A neoconservative is a “liberal mugged by reality.”
“I’m a liberal whose children were mugged by the public schools,” Mr.
His history with the city’s schools goes back to his childhood. Just
before World War II, Mr. Stern immigrated with his parents from what was
then Palestine. The family settled near Fordham Road in the Bronx, where
Mr. Stern attended Public School 6 until eighth grade. He went on to Stuyvesant
High School and City College, and then started but did not finish a doctorate
in political science at the University of California, Berkeley.
At Berkeley, he became entranced, he said, by the left-wing student
movement and dropped out to write for the radical magazine Ramparts,
gaining national attention. One of his most famous articles included assertions
that the Central Intelligence Agency had infiltrated the National
Student Association, a group of student governments, as part of its
Cold War strategy.
Like other neoconservatives, however, Mr. Stern began splitting
with the left over the Middle East, reacting to what he saw as an anti-Israel
philosophy. In the early 1970s, he became curious about his family’s history
and returned to the renamed Israel for the first time since he was a toddler.
On that trip, Mr. Stern found himself “falling in love with the country,”
he said, and he later met his wife in Jerusalem.
They moved back to New York City in the mid-70s, where Mr. Stern continued
writing for several magazines and newspapers. In the ’80s, he met the City
Council president, Andrew Stein, through a mutual acquaintance and became
his chief of staff.
Although he was involved in several political campaigns with Mr. Stein,
who was a Democrat, Mr. Stern said he was never involved in the city’s
Democratic political circles. And while his political views have gradually
changed to what he calls “somewhat traditionally conservative,” Mr. Stern
has remained a registered Democrat, partly out of “inertia” and the desire
to have a vote in the primaries. (He voted for Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton
last week and says he will probably vote for Senator John McCain in November.)
Mr. Stern prefers personal anecdotes to describe his political evolution.
While he was working for Mr. Stein, he was often able to take his children
to school near their home on the Upper West Side. One morning, he spotted
a man he assumed was homeless wandering through the schoolyard.
“He looked terrible — battered clothes, a worn shopping bag — just terrible,”
he said, grimacing at the memory.
As he tells it, he turned to another parent standing nearby and asked,
“Where did he come from? Should we call somebody?”
The parent smiled and replied, “You don’t know him? That’s Malcolm,
one of our new teachers!”
Mr. Stern became curious and set off to ask the principal about the
“She just looked at me and said, ‘I can’t do anything about it; that’s
seniority,’ ” Mr. Stern said. “It was all about the teacher’s contract.
If they wanted to transfer into the school, they could, simply based on
how long they had been in the system.”
Much of Mr. Stern’s criticisms of the schools center on the teachers’
union, which he says is a “vested interest with far too much power,” pointing
to its objections to longer school days and its demands for more money.
Still, Mr. Stern has been equally critical of Mayor Bloomberg and his
schools chancellor, Joel I. Klein, frequent opponents of the unions. While
he applauds the philosophical underpinnings of many of the administration’s
decisions, like giving principals more latitude in hiring teachers, he
contends that they have made many changes, like the new school report cards,
haphazardly and quickly.
“They are only accountable once, for re-election,” he said. “But they
act as though this is the greatest thing in education since Horace Mann
or John Dewey.
“He’s been able to do that effectively by sheer portrayal,” Mr. Stern
said of the mayor. “It’s as though he views the schools as props.”
Mr. Stern’s criticisms can be irksome to members of the city’s Education
Department, but they are heard.
“Sol is a pundit, and pundits have lots of ideas,” said David Cantor,
a spokesman for the department. “Some of his have been helpful.”
Despite his obvious appetite for stirring controversy, Mr. Stern can
sound as though he is on the edge of despair.
“We’ve been arguing about the same things for the last 10 years,” he
said. “Sometimes I tell my friends that I have fallen into the trap of
writing about the two most intractable problems in the world: American
education and the Middle East.”
School Choice Isn’t Enough
Instructional reform is the key to better schools.
City Journal - Hiver 2008
I began writing about school choice in City Journal more than a decade
ago. I believed then (as I still believe) that giving tuition vouchers
to poor inner-city students stuck in lousy public schools was a civil rights
imperative. Starting in the 1980s, major empirical studies by sociologist
James Coleman and other scholars showed that urban Catholic schools were
better than public schools at educating the poor, despite spending far
less per student. Among the reasons for this superiority: most Catholic
educators still believed in a coherent, content-based curriculum, and they
enforced order in the classroom. It seemed immoral to keep disadvantaged
kids locked up in dismal, future-darkening public schools when vouchers
could send them to high-performing Catholic ones—especially when middle-class
parents enjoyed education options galore for their children.
But like other reformers, I also believed that vouchers would force
the public schools to improve or lose their student “customers.” Since
competition worked in other areas, wouldn’t it lead to progress in education,
too? Maybe Catholic schools’ success with voucher students would even encourage
public schools to exchange the failed “progressive education” approaches
used in most classrooms for the pedagogy that made the Catholic institutions
“Choice is a panacea,” argued education scholars John Chubb and Terry
Moe in their influential 1990 book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools.
For a time, I thought so, too. Looking back from today’s vantage point,
it is clear that the school choice movement has been very good for the
disadvantaged. Public and privately funded voucher programs have liberated
hundreds of thousands of poor minority children from failing public schools.
The movement has also reshaped the education debate. Not only vouchers,
but also charter schools, tuition tax credits, mayoral control, and other
reforms are now on the table as alternatives to bureaucratic, special-interest-choked
big-city school systems.
Yet social-change movements need to be attentive to the facts on the
ground. Recent developments in both public and Catholic schools suggest
that markets in education may not be a panacea—and that we should reexamine
the direction of school reform.
One such development: taxpayer-funded voucher programs for poor children,
long considered by many of us to be the most promising of education reforms,
have hit a wall. In 2002, after a decade of organizing by school choice
activists, only two programs existed: one in Milwaukee, the other in Cleveland,
allowing 17,000 poor students to attend private (mostly Catholic) schools.
That year, in Zelman v. Simmons-Harris, the Supreme Court ruled that limited
voucher programs involving religious schools were compatible with the First
Amendment’s establishment clause. The 5–4 decision seemed like school choice’s
Magna Carta. But the legal victory has led to few real gains. Today, fewer
than 25,000 students—compared with a nationwide public school enrollment
of 50 million—receive tax-funded vouchers, with a tiny Washington, D.C.,
program joining those of the other two cities.
Proposals for voucher programs have suffered five straight crushing
defeats in state referenda—most recently in Utah, by a margin of 62 percent
to 38 percent. After each loss, school choice groups blamed the lobbying
money poured into the states by teachers’ unions, the deceptive ads run
by voucher foes, and sometimes even voters’ commitment to their children.
When the Utah results came in, the principal funder of the pro-voucher
side, businessman Patrick Byrne, opined that the voters failed “a statewide
IQ test” and that they “don’t care enough about their kids.” If vouchers
can’t pass voter scrutiny in conservative Utah, though, how probable is
it that they will do so anywhere else? And denouncing voters doesn’t seem
like a smart way to revive the voucher cause.
Voucher prospects have also dimmed because of the Catholic schools’
deepening financial crisis. Without an abundant supply of good, low-cost
urban Catholic schools to receive voucher students, voucher programs will
have a hard time getting off the ground, let alone succeeding. But cash-strapped
Catholic Church officials are closing the Church’s inner-city schools at
an accelerating rate [see “Save the Catholic Schools!,” Spring 2007]. With
just one Catholic high school left in all of Detroit, for instance, where
would the city’s disadvantaged students use vouchers even if they had them?
Even more discouraging, vouchers may not be enough to save the Catholic
schools that are voucher students’ main destination. Archbishop Donald
Wuerl of Washington, D.C., recently announced plans to close seven of the
district’s 28 remaining Catholic schools, all of which are receiving aid
from federally funded tuition vouchers, unless the D.C. public school system
agreed to take them over and convert them into charter schools. In Milwaukee,
several Catholic schools have also closed, or face the threat of closing,
despite boosting enrollments with voucher kids.
During the 15 years since the first voucher program got under way in
Milwaukee, university researchers have extensively scrutinized the dynamics
of school choice and the effect of competition on public schools. The preponderance
of studies have shown clear benefits, both academically and otherwise,
for the voucher kids. It’s gratifying that the research confirms the moral
and civil rights argument for vouchers.
But sadly—and this is a second development that reformers must face
up to—the evidence is pretty meager that competition from vouchers is making
public schools better. When I reported on the Milwaukee voucher experiment
in 1999, some early indicators suggested that competition was having just
that effect. Members of Milwaukee’s school board, for example, said that
voucher schools had prompted new reforms in the public school system, including
modifying the seniority provisions of the teachers’ contract and allowing
principals more discretion in hiring. A few public schools began offering
phonics-based reading instruction in the early grades, the method used
in neighboring Catholic schools. Milwaukee public schools’ test scores
also improved—and did so most dramatically in those schools under the greatest
threat of losing students to vouchers, according to a study by Harvard
economist Caroline Hoxby.
Unfortunately, the gains fizzled. Fifteen years into the most expansive
school choice program tried in any urban school district in the country,
Milwaukee’s public schools still suffer from low achievement and miserable
graduation rates, with test scores flattening in recent years. Violence
and disorder throughout the system seem as serious as ever. Most voucher
students are still benefiting, true; but no “Milwaukee miracle,” no transformation
of the public schools, has taken place. One of the Milwaukee voucher program’s
founders, African-American educator Howard Fuller, recently told the Milwaukee
Journal Sentinel, “I think that any honest assessment would have to say
that there hasn’t been the deep, wholesale improvement in MPS [Milwaukee
Public Schools] that we would have thought.” And the lead author of one
of the Milwaukee voucher studies, Harvard political scientist Paul Peterson,
told me: “The research on school choice programs clearly shows that low-income
students benefit academically. It’s less clear that the presence of choice
in a community motivates public schools to improve.”
What should we do about these new realities? Obviously, private scholarship
programs ought to keep helping poor families find alternatives to failing
public schools. And we can still hope that some legislature, somewhere
in America, will vote for another voucher plan, or generous tuition tax
credits, before more Catholic schools close. But does the school choice
movement have a realistic Plan B for the millions of urban students who
will remain stuck in terrible public schools?
According to Hoxby and Peterson, perhaps the two most respected school
choice scholars in the country, no such plan is necessary. In their view,
the best hope for education improvement continues to be a maximum degree
of parental choice—vouchers if possible, but also charter schools and tuition
tax credits—plus merit-pay schemes for teachers and accountability systems
that distinguish productive from unproductive school principals.
That “incentivist” outlook remains dominant within school reform circles.
But a challenge from what one could call “instructionists”—those who believe
that curriculum change and good teaching are essential to improving schools—is
growing, as a unique public debate sponsored by the Koret Task Force on
K–12 Education revealed. Founded in 1999, the Koret Task Force represents
a national all-star team of education reform scholars. Permanent fellows
include not only Hoxby and Peterson but also Chubb, Moe, education historian
Diane Ravitch, Thomas B. Fordham Foundation president Chester Finn, Stanford
University economics prof Eric Hanushek, and the guru of “cultural literacy,”
E. D. Hirsch, Jr. (recently retired). Almost from the start, the Koret
scholars divided into incentivist and instructionist camps. “We have had
eight years and we haven’t been able to agree,” says Hoxby. But in early
2007, members did agree to hold a debate at the group’s home, the Hoover
Institution at Stanford University: “Resolved: True School Reform Demands
More Attention to Curriculum and Instruction than to Markets and Choice.”
Hirsch and Ravitch argued the affirmative, Hoxby and Peterson the negative.
Hirsch and Ravitch opened by saying that while they had no opposition
to charter schools or other forms of choice, charter schools had produced
“disappointing results.” Try a thought experiment, urged Ravitch. Say that
one school system features market incentives and unlimited choices for
parents and students, but no standard curriculum. Then posit another system,
with no choice allowed, but in which the educational leadership enforces
a rich curriculum and favors effective instructional approaches. In the
market system, Ravitch predicted, “most schools will reflect the dominant
ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training,
so most schools will adopt programs of whole language and fuzzy math. .
. . Most students under a pure choice regime will know very little about
history or literature or science.” The system with the first-rate curriculum
and effective pedagogy, Ravitch argued, would produce better education
Responding, Peterson and Hoxby paid respects to good curricula and instructional
methods. But the key question, in their view, was who would decide which
curricula and instructional methods were best. Here, the pro-choice debaters
made no bones about it: the market’s “invisible hand” was the way to go.
As Hoxby put it, educational choice would erect a “bulwark against special-interest
groups hijacking the curriculum.”
I had supported the competition argument for school choice as a working
hypothesis, but my doubts about it grew after recent results from the Milwaukee
experiment, and nothing said in the Koret debate restored my confidence.
And something else caught my attention: Ravitch’s comment about “the dominant
ideas of the schools of education, where most teachers get their training.”
The statement slipped by, unchallenged by the incentivist side.
While the arguments about school choice and markets swirled during the
past 15 years, both Ravitch and Hirsch wrote landmark books (Left Back
and The Schools We Need and Why We Don’t Have Them, respectively) on how
the nation’s education schools have built an “impregnable fortress” (Hirsch’s
words) of wrong ideas and ineffective classroom practices that teachers
then carry into America’s schools, almost guaranteeing failure, especially
for poor minority children. Hirsch’s book didn’t just argue this; it proved
it conclusively, to my mind, offering an extraordinary tour d’horizon of
all the evidence about instructional methods that cognitive neuroscience
If Hoxby and Peterson were right in asserting that markets were enough
to fix our education woes, then the ed schools wouldn’t be the disasters
that Hirsch, Ravitch, and others have exposed. Unlike the government-run
K–12 schools, the country’s 1,500 ed schools represent an almost perfect
system of choice, markets, and competition. Anyone interested in becoming
a teacher is completely free to apply to any ed school that he or she wants.
The ed schools, in turn, compete for students by offering competitive prices
and—theoretically—attractive educational “products” (curricula and courses).
Yet the schools are uniformly awful, the products the same dreary progressive
claptrap. A few years ago, the National Council on Teacher Quality, a mainstream
public education advocacy group, surveyed the nation’s ed schools and found
that almost all elementary education classes disdained phonics and scientific
reading. If the invisible hand is a surefire way to improve curriculum
and instruction, as the incentivists insist, why does almost every teacher-in-training
have to read the works of leftists Paolo Freire, Jonathan Kozol, and William
Ayers—but usually nothing by, say, Hirsch or Ravitch?
For a good explanation, look to the concept of ideological hegemony,
usually associated with the sociological Left. Instead of competition and
diversity in the education schools, we confront what Hirsch calls the “thoughtworld”
of teacher training, which operates like a Soviet-style regime suppressing
alternative perspectives. Professors who dare to break with the ideological
monopoly—who look to reading science or, say, embrace a core knowledge
approach—won’t get tenure, or get hired in the first place. The teachers
they train thus wind up indoctrinated with the same pedagogical dogma whether
they attend New York University’s school of education or Humboldt State’s.
Those who put their faith in the power of markets to improve schools must
at least show how their theory can account for the stubborn persistence
of the thoughtworld.
Instead, we increasingly find the theory of educational competition
detaching itself from its original school choice moorings and taking a
new form. Vouchers may have stalled, but it’s possible—or so many school
reformers and education officials now assure us—to create the conditions
for vigorous market competition within public school systems, with the
same beneficent effects that were supposed to flow from a pure choice program.
Nowhere has this new philosophy of reform been more enthusiastically
embraced than in the New York City school district under the control of
Mayor Michael Bloomberg and schools chancellor Joel Klein. Gotham’s schools
are surging ahead with a host of market incentives, including models derived
from the business world. Many of the country’s major education foundations
and philanthropies have boosted New York as the flagship school system
for such market innovations, helping to spread the incentivist gospel nationally.
Disciples of Klein have taken over the school systems in Baltimore and
Washington, D.C., and Bloomberg’s fellow billionaires Eli Broad and Bill
Gates are about to launch a $60 million ad campaign to push the market
approach during the presidential election season.
Don’t get me wrong: market-style reforms are sometimes just what’s necessary
in the public schools. Over the past decade, for instance, I often called
attention in City Journal to the destructively restrictive provisions in
the New York City teachers’ contract, which forced principals to hire teachers
based solely on seniority, and I felt vindicated when negotiations between
the Bloomberg administration and the United Federation of Teachers eliminated
the seniority clause and created an open-market hiring system. Similarly,
the teachers’ lockstep salary schedule, based on seniority and accumulating
useless additional education credits, is a counterproductive way to compensate
the system’s most important employees. The schools need a flexible salary
structure that realistically reflects supply and demand in the teacher
Unfortunately, the Bloomberg administration and its supporters are pushing
markets and competition in the public schools far beyond where the evidence
leads. Everything in the system now has a price. Principals can get cash
bonuses of as much as $50,000 by raising their schools’ test scores; teachers
in a few hundred schools now (and hundreds more later) can take home an
extra $3,000 if the student scores in their schools improve; parents get
money for showing up at parent-teacher conferences; their kids get money
or—just what they need—cell phones for passing tests.
Much of this scaffolding of cash incentives (and career-ending penalties)
rests on a rather shaky base: the state’s highly unreliable reading and
math tests in grades three through eight, plus the even more unreliable
high school Regents exams, which have been dumbed down so that schools
will avoid federal sanctions under the No Child Left Behind act. In the
past, the tests have also been prone to cheating scandals. Expect more
cheating as the stakes for success and failure rise.
While confidently putting their seal of approval on this market system,
the mayor and chancellor appear to be agnostic on what actually works in
the classroom. They’ve shown no interest, for example, in two decades’
worth of scientific research sponsored by the National Institutes of Health
that proves that teaching phonics and phonemic awareness is crucial to
getting kids to read in the early grades. They have blithely retained a
fuzzy math program, Everyday Math, despite a consensus of university math
professors judging it inadequate. Indeed, Bloomberg and Klein have abjured
all responsibility for curriculum and instruction and placed their bets
entirely on choice, markets, and accountability.
But the new reliance on markets hasn’t prevented special interests from
hijacking the curriculum. One such interest is the Teachers College Reading
and Writing Project—led by Lucy Calkins, the doyenne of the whole-language
reading approach, which postulates that all children can learn to read
and write naturally, with just some guidance from teachers, and that direct
phonics instruction is a form of child abuse. Calkins’s enterprise has
more than $10 million in Department of Education contracts to guide reading
and writing instruction in most of the city’s elementary schools, even
though no solid evidence supports her methodology. This may explain why,
on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests—widely
regarded as a gold standard for educational assessment—Gotham students
showed no improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade reading from 2003 to
2007, while the city of Atlanta, which hasn’t staked everything on market
incentives, has shown significant reading improvement.
One wonders why so many in the school reform movement and in the business
community celebrate New York City’s recent record on education. Is it merely
because they hear the words “choice,” “markets,” and “competition” and
think that all is well? If so, they’re mistaken. The primal scene of all
education reform is the classroom. If the teacher isn’t doing the right
thing, all the cash incentives in the world won’t make a difference.
Those in the school reform movement seeking a case of truly spectacular
academic improvement should look to Massachusetts, where something close
to an education miracle has occurred. In the past several years, Massachusetts
has improved more than almost every other state on the NAEP tests. In 2007,
it scored first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading.
The state’s average scale scores on all four tests have also improved at
far higher rates than most other states have seen over the past 15 years.
The improvement had nothing to do with market incentives. Massachusetts
has no vouchers, no tuition tax credits, very few charter schools, and
no market incentives for principals and teachers. The state owes its amazing
improvement in student performance to a few key former education leaders,
including state education board chairman John Silber, assistant commissioner
Sandra Stotsky, and board member (and Manhattan Institute fellow) Abigail
Thernstrom. Starting a decade ago, these instructionists pushed the state’s
board of education to mandate a rigorous curriculum for all grades, created
demanding tests linked to the curriculum standards, and insisted that all
high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam. In its English Language
Arts curriculum framework, the board even dared to say that reading instruction
in the early grades should include systematic and explicit phonics. Now
a professor of education reform at the University of Arkansas, Stotsky
sums up: “The lesson from Massachusetts is that a strong content–based
curriculum, together with upgraded certification regulations and teacher
licensure tests that require teacher preparation programs to address that
content, can be the best recipe for improving students’ academic achievement.”
The Massachusetts miracle doesn’t prove that a standard curriculum and
a focus on effective instruction will always produce academic progress.
Nor does the flawed New York City experiment in competition mean that we
should cast aside all market incentives in education. But what has transpired
in these two places provides an important lesson: education reformers ought
to resist unreflective support for elegant-sounding theories, derived from
the study of economic activity, that don’t produce verifiable results in
the classroom. After all, children’s lives are at stake.
Sol Stern is a contributing editor of City Journal and the author
of Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice.