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Even Cows Need Care and Feeding

As I noted yesterday, I think my good friend Kevin Carey is mistaken in arguing that vouchers in and of themselves are a recipe for dramatically changing the incentives in education. Look, to take just one example, recognize that non-profits unable to offer discounts to families really have little or no cause to focus on squeezing down the cost of their services. Choice-based reform (vouchers, charters, what-have-you) certainly can help to profoundly change the incentives in schooling, but that depends entirely upon questions of program design, regulation, and context.

It's a mistake to imagine that choice creates a self-executing change in conditions. Even if one graduated from Milwaukee's "half-measure" program to "full-on" vouchers, it's hardly a given that the ecosystem and scaffolding that underlies dynamic sectors would spring into place. When it comes to innovation and dynamism, the differences between Silicon Valley and Spring Valley, U.S.A., aren't that Silicon Valley is "freer," but that it (like Boston or Austin) has acquired over the decades an ecosystem of researchers, investors, social capital, networks, expertise, and the rest that can help surface, fuel, and sustain high-quality ventures. Experience with school choice (or, say, the AT&T divestiture back in the 1980s) has made clear that these ecosystems and habits of mind don't necessarily spring into being with the introduction of choice (or the busting of a monopoly), but may need to be consciously cultivated.

So, I'm skeptical of any "test" in which choice enthusiasts and skeptics continue their genial conspiracy pretending that markets are self-executing reform strategies which can proceed without much worrying about scaffolding, social capital, or broader context (by the way, this "self-executing" expectation championed by so many choice enthusiasts and eagerly seized upon by their critics marks a radical reinterpretation of market thinking as understood by a foundational market thinker such as Friedrich von Hayek).

Some have argued that I'm being disingenuous when I suggest that the key question for the efficacy of choice-based reform should not be whether grades 3 through 8 reading and math scores increase for students enrolled in choice programs. Those making such arguments have clearly not read anything I've written about choice in the past decade, as I have long argued--not infrequently, to the consternation of choice advocates--that one cannot usefully prove or disprove the efficacy of structural reforms like choice in this manner (See, for example, Chapter 5 in Getting Choice Right or "Science and Nonscience").

More fundamentally, as I argued back in my 2004 book Common Sense School Reform, I believe that choice is best understood not as a patch, fix, or panacea, but as part of an effort to unbind and unbundle K-12 schooling so that we can free educators and problem-solvers to improve teaching and learning. As I explained back then:

"Readers may be puzzled by the lack of attention devoted here to the research examining how school choice benefits participants. However, while this question has drawn a lot of media attention...from the commonsense perspective this debate is largely peripheral. The commonsense reformer is agnostic about the merits of any given "school of choice" and is less interested in whether students at these private schools fared better than they would have at those public schools than in how to build a system where excellence, whatever its location, is recognized, touted, and rewarded. The commonsense challenge is to drive system wide improvement, foster schools receptive to the culture of competence, and create new opportunities for excellence."

Doing that is not a question of whether choice "works" in terms of moving reading and math scores in a particular testing window but of treating choice as one crucial tool as we reimagine K-12 schooling to meet new challenges and tap new opportunities.

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The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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