What Kind of Choice and Accountability?
“Catholic schools reap one benefit from poverty,” the high-school principal hiring me commented ruefully (I’d just glimpsed my pay package). “By the time we’ve scrounged up money for the latest educational innovation, everybody else has figured out it doesn’t work.”
Only systems in which money is ultimately no object (indeed, in which failure often leads to more money) could tolerate public education’s oddly combined tendency to leap on fads and to reform slowly. The factor that makes sense of the paradox is a desire for more public dollars and for less accountability. A new method of teaching math, for example, requires money for training and materials, while also creating the perennial excuse of adjusting to a new system.
This observation is in keeping with the subject of McConnell’s review, The Death and Life of the Great American School System, by Diane Ravitch. The title of the review is “Apostasy Sells,” because Ravitch is a former advocate of “school choice” and “accountability” who has changed her mind.
Unfortunately, as even occasional followers of the choice and accountability debates should have observed, those who oppose such reforms tend to attack the principle on the basis of a particular policy’s results. Consider:
Enter choice. Ravitch contends that voucher programs and public charter schools have failed to demonstrate measurable educational gains. Putting aside the surprising reemergence of test scores as the preferred standard of performance, I wondered what she would say about Catholic schools. The data on charter-school performance is perhaps mixed, but a half century of research proves, as Ravitch acknowledges, that “minority children in Catholic schools are more likely to take advanced courses than their peers in public schools, more likely to go to college, and more likely to continue on to graduate school.”
Claiming that she initially supported vouchers to “help Catholic schools,” Ravitch now contends that charter schools are forcing Catholic schools to close. A strange complaint. Eight hundred of the 1700 poor children who receive District of Columbia vouchers attend Catholic schools. If, now that Congress has killed the program, their parents flee to charter schools, “choice” will not be the culprit.
The allusion to “the surprising reemergence of test scores” refers to McConnell’s prior explanation that “accountability” has become synonymous with “standardized testing,” which (whatever its merits), Ravitch finds herself using again and again as necessary evidence for her other arguments.
Those of us who support reforms in the mold of “choice and accountability” can only continue restating that we’re not talking about “charters and tests.” We’re talking about a systematic rethinking wherein families can use at least some portion of the tax money allocated to the education of their children in order to help send them to any school that they would pick were money not an issue (although they’d remain responsible for whatever cost exceeded the program, of course).
Then, school districts need to be reworked to ensure that public schools can hold their own in the ensuing competition, which requires teacher pay and promotion based on individual merit, not seniority, and administrators’ reclamation of the authority to make significant decisions and responsibility to accept the consequences when results are negative. You know, sort of like the working world that most of us in the private sector encounter.