Learning as We Go: Why School Choice is Worth the Wait

Learning as We Go: Why School Choice is Worth the Wait

by Paul T. Hill


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Learning as We Go: Why School Choice is Worth the Wait by Paul T. Hill

Paul T. Hill examines the real-world factors that can complicate, delay, and in some instances interfere with the positive cause-and-effect relationships identified by the theories behind school choice. He explains why schools of choice haven't yet achieved a broader appeal and suggests more realistic expectations about timing and a more complete understanding of what must be done to make choice work.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780817910143
Publisher: Hoover Institution Press
Publication date: 01/01/2010
Series: Hoover inst press Publication
Edition description: 1
Pages: 138
Product dimensions: 6.10(w) x 9.10(h) x 0.80(d)

About the Author

Paul T. Hill is a distinguished visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution and a member of the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. He is the John and Marguerite Corbally Professor and director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education at the University of Washington-Bothell.

Read an Excerpt

Learning As We Go

Why School Choice is Worth the Wait

By Paul T. Hill

Hoover Institution Press

Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8179-1014-3



Have publicly funded school choice programs — charter schools in forty-three states and vouchers in a few localities — been qualified successes or crashing failures? Only sworn opponents of school choice will argue for failure, but no one can argue that it has been an overwhelming success. Neutrals and choice supporters alike will agree that these initiatives have been qualified successes. Even the most rigorous studies of student achievement in charter and voucher schools find some dramatic successes and many mixed results.

How does this square with the rhetoric of choice supporters who promised much more effective schools and an era of innovation? Predictions of quick and dramatic success for school choice were in part the normal over-promising associated with advocacy. But to my knowledge choice supporters didn't consciously make inflated predictions. Even in secret, choice supporters did not say to one another, "This will take a long time and the early results will be meager but we can't admit that publicly." To the contrary — strong choice supporters were the truest believers.

Is there something wrong with the theories behind the school choice movement? No, indeed. But are the theories valid as generalizations but too simple to predict real events, and much slower to act than choice supporters expected? The answer is yes. The theories behind school choice are valid in the same sense that Newton's basic equations in physics are valid: they identify inexorable forces and fundamental relationships but in doing so they assume idealized conditions that are never perfectly met in the real world. To explain, predict, or control real events one would have to take account of factors the theories assume away, like friction and atmospheric pressure in the case of Newton's laws of motion. The same is true of theories of human or market behavior. This book will consider the real-world factors that can complicate, delay, and even in some instances interfere with the cause-and-effect relationships identified by the theories behind school choice.

The core predictions of choice theorists are true: that allowing parents to choose their children's schools and allowing people with new ideas about instruction to compete for students and public funds will create performance pressures that raise the quality of schools available to everyone. But they are true in the same sense that Newton's predictions that objects fall to earth are true. However, just as the falling of real-world objects can depend on many factors not considered in Newton's original equations (e.g., temperature, air resistance, structures blocking movement), so also the progress of choice in the real world can be complicated.

Questions about complex causality and realistic timing are important for people convinced as I am that choice is a necessary condition for improvement of K-12 education. It is important for school choice supporters to know how choice is likely to work and how long it will take to have its promised effects. In ignorance of these things, and especially expecting choice to work instantly, people who know public education needs to change might nonetheless decide that they must abandon choice in favor of something else. That would not make choice any less inevitable in the long run, but it would delay the full development of choice, to the detriment of children and ultimately our nation's economy.

Feeble results and long delays provide ammunition for defenders of the status quo who fear choice and who hope to roll back any gains made. Increased foundation support for strengthening bureaucracy and standardizing instruction in all schools is an example of perverse reactions. As one prominent foundation head who had invested a lot in choice recently said, "Charter schools are killing me with my board. I have to find something to support that will work quicker." Former choice supporters, including Diane Ravitch, have switched sides, arguing for curriculum standardization, not competition and innovation.

Important choice supporters in foundations, elective office, and academia have been slower to draw conclusions. As Robin J. Lake has shown, state legislators who sponsored charter legislation did not expect dramatic results overnight, and are not driven to action by studies showing mixed results for students. Jeffrey Henig has also shown that anti-choice sentiment among elected officials has not grown appreciably despite widely publicized studies critical of charters.

That said, it is not clear how steadily key elected officials and foundation heads will maintain their support for choice. It would help if choice supporters were much clearer than they have been about how choice is likely to work, through what sequences of events and over how long a time. In order to build realistic expectations among supporters whose commitment can't be presumed over the long run, it is also important to know what is likely to get in the way of choice, and what can be done to facilitate its operation.

Figure 1, below, summarizes the "virtuous cycle" of continuous improvement that school choice was supposed to introduce to public education. It depicts the theory behind school choice:

• Parents will seek the best schools for their children and will therefore withdraw children from schools that are either of low quality or do not match the needs of particular students.

• New schools will emerge to compete for students on the basis of either quality in some general sense or a match to the distinctive talents and motivations of a particular group of students.

• Existing schools, forced to compete, will strive to improve their appeal to parents, either by raising quality or by ensuring that their programs are better targeted to match the needs of particular students.

• Entrepreneurs will try to develop innovative schools that can be highly productive and therefore attractive to parents.

• Potential innovators will work to meet the demand for new, more productive ways to provide instruction.

• New and existing schools will pay premiums for teachers who are either extremely productive or have rare skills (e.g., the ability to teach math or science).

• Talented people who might not have considered teaching will be attracted by prospects for better pay and working conditions.

• Incumbent teachers will also respond to incentives to upgrade their skills.

• Together, existing schools' efforts to improve, instructional innovation, and enhancement of the teaching force will improve the overall supply of schools.

• Once competition starts to work, schools that were initially successful might find students leaving for even better schools, so that the virtuous cycle will be unending, as innovations and new competitors force all schools to continue improving.

This is the same kind of theory that predicts greater innovation, lower prices, and greater customer satisfaction in a competitive market for any good or service, compared to monopoly provision. However, as in other markets, there are time lags and other complexities that can, at a particular time, make it look like the market is not working as predicted. In the 1970s American automakers acted as if they had no competitors except one another and cars got worse, not better. For years they ignored signs that many Americans were switching to Hondas and Toyotas, but when the U.S. companies woke up to the threat they desperately tried to improve their products.

The model sketched in Figure 1 shows that the current debate, about whether improvement of America's schools depends more on choice or curriculum, is based on a false premise. Both choice and changes in instruction are necessary, and they are causally related. Curriculum innovation and other changes in human resources and instructional methods are needed to improve students' instructional experience and ensure better results for the millions of children now in ineffective schools. But choice is needed to create circumstances that let those changes come about. Under our system of politically controlled public education, curriculum is a product of interest group bargaining, innovation is constrained by regulatory controls on use of time and dollars, and human resource pools are constrained by certification rules and labor agreements that protect incumbents.

Choice opens up what our public education system now holds tight, and therefore allows innovations in curriculum and other aspects of instruction that are now not possible. That is why, for example, innovative schooling models like KIPP and E.D. Hirsch's Core Knowledge schools rely so heavily on chartering. Leaders of those schools must have freedoms that school districts and collective bargaining agreements seldom permit. Thus, choice is a necessary if not sufficient condition for needed innovations in curriculum, methods, use of time, and human resources.

In education, the process pictured above has started, though slowly and in isolated places. Some money is moving with children to charter and voucher schools. Enough new charter schools have emerged to serve nearly 4 percent of public school students. Some districts are struggling to improve their schools and replace their weakest ones. In a few notable cases (e.g., the District of Columbia; Dayton, Ohio; and New Orleans) charter schools serve a quarter or more of all students and have forced school districts and even teachers' unions to search for ways to become more competitive.

However, growth of choice is much less evident in the rest of the country. Charter schools are operating in only about 1 in 20 school districts, meaning that the vast majority of U.S. school districts have none. Moreover, most states with laws permitting charter schools have very few: the median number in 2007 was less than forty. Seven of these states had two, one, or zero charter schools.

Choice is growing, but slowly. Under current circumstances its effects — and the likelihood that it will drive the kind of virtuous cycle explained above — are modest. No doubt the numbers of charter schools will continue to grow incrementally. But under current laws and at the current level of investment and effort, it is not clear when if ever choice will reach its full potential.

Most of the following discussion focuses on charter schools — independently run schools that operate under performance contracts with government agencies and receive government funding on an agreed rate for every child they enroll — because they are the most numerous publicly funded schools of choice. Vouchers — government funds to pay tuition in any school parents choose — entail less governmental oversight and thus support purer forms of choice. However, vouchers are now limited to a few big cities with large numbers of available parochial schools, and to a few state programs that provide only a fraction of the cost of enrolling a student. Though voucher programs have produced important local benefits, they have not sparked a significant supply response of new schools, teachers, or changes in district-run schools. This is due in part to the fact that voucher programs provide lower per-pupil subsidies than do state charter laws, making chartering the more workable mechanism for anyone wanting to start a new publicly funded school.

Though different voucher designs (covering more students and paying full tuition in private schools) could fuel the virtuous cycle, today's voucher programs have much more limited effects than the much larger and better-funded charter school initiatives.

Charter schools offer some benefits regular public schools don't, especially safer environments for children in inner-city neighborhoods and grade configurations (e.g., K-8 and K-12) that parents want but districts are not well organized to provide. In some localities, hundreds of individuals from elite schools, who previously chose other professions, are agreeing to teach in schools of choice.

However, these effects do not amount to full operation of the virtuous cycle. The average quality of new schools is not uniformly high, and existing schools can often hold onto their students without making significant changes. The predicted technical innovations and labor force transformation have not yet occurred.

The effects cited above are also limited to a few localities in which district-run public schools are in disastrous shape. The new schools offered are not particularly innovative and are attractive only in comparison to very bad available options. New instructional methods and uses of technology are too expensive to develop on charter schools' slender budgets, and existing charter schools can draw students by providing more caring environments, not by teaching differently. Where charter schools have made the greatest inroads they also rely heavily on very shallow pools of human resources — Teach For America alumni, veteran public school teachers who are maxed out on their government pensions and who want a new challenge, people who have made their fortunes in business or engineering and want to give something back to the community. Such people are tremendous assets to charter schools, but their numbers — and the numbers of charter schools that can rely on them — are strictly limited.

These facts point to serious constraints on the numbers and competitiveness of charter schools. Charter schools now appeal to parents and teachers who are grossly unhappy with conventional public schools, because of a lack of safety or inattention to individual students' needs. Public school parents whose children are reasonably safe and are learning at a moderate rate, or teachers who have made their peace with an annoying but reliable employer, have little reason to switch. Thus, charter schools are more a safety valve for parents and teachers who can't find a comfortable place in public schools than a superior product that everyone wants.

Why haven't schools of choice yet achieved a broader appeal? Four factors explain the delay. The first and most important factor is political opposition. Choice creates benefits for families, students, and educators who have new ideas about effective instruction, but it also breaks monopolies and puts institutions (e.g., traditional school districts) and jobs at risk. It also generates opposition from people who believe that governmental control is the only way to promote social justice. As the next chapter will show, opposition to choice does not go away easily; it takes time to create new coalitions in support of choice and weaken the coalitions that oppose it.

The second factor is composed of policies and regulations — themselves the results of politics that favor incumbent administrators, educators, and interest groups — that either create big obstacles to the success of school choice or go only halfway toward creating the conditions necessary for its full operation. Halfway provisions include voucher and charter programs that provide only fractions of the amounts of money necessary to support a school, and provisions that make it difficult for students and teachers to transfer to schools of choice. Obstacles include caps on the numbers of charter schools and laws that let school boards decide whether to allow charter schools to compete in their jurisdictions.

Third is an entrenched system built on procedure, compliance, employee protection, and secrecy about resource use and productivity. The habit of living inside such a system makes it very difficult for parents and educators to imagine working differently even when there are opportunities to do so. As Westerners learned when they tried to introduce capitalism and democracy to the former Soviet Union, building a system of choice on top of one based on regulation is a very different problem than creating choice from the ground up. As in Russia, efforts to introduce transparency, performance accountability, and personal initiative clash with habits of secrecy, lack of accountability, and passivity. Naïve market-based initiatives often encounter unexpected problems and produce meager results.

A fourth source of delays is a set of time lags intrinsic to the operation of a system of choice. It takes time for educators to learn how to operate effectively in new competitive environments and for new school providers to learn how to provide effective schools. It takes time to develop, test, and refine instructional systems that make new uses of technology and student and teacher work, and to develop approaches to instruction that are more effective but cost no more than conventional public schools. It takes time to build a pipeline of people who know what it means to run a school in a competitive environment, and to figure out how to operate stable schools with non-traditional teachers who have many skills and can move rapidly between education and other careers.

Even if politics, policy, and regulation were less hostile to school choice, the necessary process of dismantling a strongly defended system and building knowledge, capacity, and human resources would take a significant amount of time. Choice supporters need to acknowledge that positive results will not just come automatically, and full development of the virtuous cycle will take time. To reach its potential in education, choice will need steady, persistent support based on an understanding of what it will take, not doctrinaire insistence that analysis and strategic investment are counter-productive because the market will automatically provide whatever is needed.


Excerpted from Learning As We Go by Paul T. Hill. Copyright © 2010 Board of Trustees of the Leland Stanford Junior. Excerpted by permission of Hoover Institution Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

1. Introduction
2. The Slow but Steady Progress of Pro-Choice Politics
3. Too Little Money Moves with Students
4. Quality New Schools Are Rare, Hard to Start
5. Instructional Innovation Is Slow
6. Influence on the Educational Labor Force Is Slight
7. Bad Schools Don’t Always Close
8. Choice Can Move More Rapidly
About the Author
About the Koret Task Force on K-12 Education

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