Why “Competitive Marketplaces” are an Awkward Fit for Education



As always, there’s lots of thoughtful replies in the comments below, including many who disagree with me. Worth a read!

UPDATE 11/3/2016: I’ve now closed comments on this thread. As far as I can tell the productive discussion had been exhausted, and it had turned into a reiteration of disagreements.

89 thoughts on “Why “Competitive Marketplaces” are an Awkward Fit for Education

    1. 99.9999% of humanity is normal medioquer people, so you will close school for them…

  1. There might be an argument against privatisation of education, but this one isn’t it, I think.

    You say “nine companies may fail, but if the tenth succeeds, we call it a win”. Actually, we don’t care much for how many companies fail, the measures of success aren’t ‘at least one company succeeded’. The measure is – consumers want thing X, and they are receiving thing X, and the cost they pay for receiving thing X is reducing year on year.

    So when you think of competition and privatisation working in education, imagining 9 schools failing while one succeeds is the wrong way to think about it. Consider another industry – grocery stores. They deliver to consumers goods which are possibly even more important than education – food. We definitely do not want 9 out of ten grocery stores failing, and 90% of our people deprived of the products they sell. And the industry somehow manages to avoid that outcome despite not being a service delivered by the government. Individual grocery stores fail, but others manage to come up and serve the customers’ need at better efficiencies or lower costs.

    Now, I agree that people only get one childhood. But a lot of public schools across the world are also failing to educate their students, so it’s not like we have a system where everything is working fine right now. The comparison to a non-existent perfect system where no schools fail or where no childhood goes by without a bad education does not help clarify what needs to be done to improve educational outcomes, especially for the poor.

    Here’s an alternate pov, suggesting private schools are in fact helping a lot of the global poor educate their children: https://fee.org/articles/malala-like-much-of-the-worlds-poor-went-to-a-low-cost-private-school/

    The following sections from that article suggests that in some cases at least, the markets are in fact working to educate children better than governments:

    “The sheer number of low-cost private schools is staggering. In India alone, there are 400,000. In one state of Nigeria, Lagos, there are at least 8,000, while a similar number is reported from rural Kenya.

    Our research typically shows the majority of schoolchildren in poor urban communities attend low-cost private schools — usually between 64 and 75 per cent. For example, in some of the poorest slums in the world, in Monrovia, Liberia, our household survey showed that, for children aged five to 14, 71 per cent were in private schools 8.2 per cent were in government schools and 21 per cent were not in school.

    In rural communities, a significant minority of children are in private schools.

    Children in low cost private schools do better than in government schools. For instance, in Western Area, Sierra Leone, we tested a stratified sample of 3,000 grade 4 students in English and mathematics, controlling for family background and IQ. For English (reading), in a government school, an average boy was predicted to achieve 15.5 per cent, while a girl would achieve 10.8 per cent. In a low-cost private school, the boy’s result would nearly double, while the girl’s result would nearly triple. “

    1. Interesting – thanks for sharing the research findings from West Africa. I have to confess my knowledge about education in developing nations is basically zilch, and I had developed industrial economies more in mind when writing this post.

      I think our disagreement about my third argument probably stems from the different settings we have in mind.

      I’m thinking, for example, of charter schools in the US: a market-competition-inspired reform movement that has led to the creation of lots of schools. Their average performance seems comparable to public schools – higher in some urban areas, but about the same overall. But their variance is *much* higher, and many close after just a few years.

      In some cities (like New Orleans), charters are now the dominant type of school, having almost fully supplanted traditional public schools. But replacing a low-variance state-run system with a high-variance quasi-private marketplace doesn’t seem like a great move. Whereas grocery store customers can just switch stores, the graduates of a failed charter school that pursued a high-risk strategy are kinda out of luck.

      So that’s why I don’t see a competitive marketplace as a particularly appealing direction for reform in developed countries with stable (even if deeply flawed) public educational systems. But for a country with a literacy rate below 50% like Sierra Leone, I imagine you’re right that markets can offer real solutions.

      1. So what happens after the literacy rates increase that makes market solutions untenable?

        Within countries with low literacy rates, there are areas with better educational outcomes. Kerala, a state in India is one of them. The state government focused on education heavily from right after independence, and by the eighties we had developed a stable public school system. Kerala (government claims to have) achieved 100% literacy in 1991. However, even here, parents who have any choice at all send their children to private schools. Interestingly, the two states in India which have the highest literacy rates have at least two-thirds of their children in the age group 6-14 enrolled in private schools. The public schools in Kerala are by no means bad. Even in the district with the worst development indices (where my family lives), parental involvement with public schools ensures that problems that beset schools in other parts of the country – teacher absenteeism & lack of accountability just aren’t seen much. Even so, we find that public schools tend to have worse outcomes, and parents prefer to send their children to private schools.

        I understand your point about variance, but you’re seeing the system at a particular point in time. If it turns out that the average performance of public schools are tending lower over time, despite continuing to be low-variance, you might consider ensuring that alternate solutions exist. You surely know a lot better than me about how charter schools in the US perform, but I’ve read at least a few folks who think they’re better for minority and marginalised students than public schools: http://www.dispatch.com/content/stories/editorials/2016/08/16/1-column-black-students-thrive-at-charter-schools.html

        Perhaps our disagreement is because you’re thinking of ‘replacing’ public schools with private ones. Although I suspect that’s not going to be terrible, it doesn’t have to be done that way at all. Back to Kerala again – what we’re seeing here is not government action to close down public schools to pave the way for private ones. They are in fact being closed down, but slowly, village by village, as parents entirely voluntarily move their children to private schools and the enrolments at public ones fall lower and lower until one day they fall below the level that is deemed sufficient to keep schools going.

      2. Just came across this blog post with a wealth of information about how charter schools in the US are doing, thought it might be of interest: http://www.aei.org/publication/naacp-disgrace-its-not-promoting-advancement-of-black-students-with-a-vote-to-trap-them-in-failed-public-schools/

        One of the links goes to this study on charter schools in Michigan: http://credo.stanford.edu/pdfs/MI_report_2012_FINAL_1_11_2013_no_watermark.pdf . From the chart on page 10, it doesn’t look like closing down is a very common outcome. They seem to have more students in poverty than other public schools, and the study does discuss variance in outcomes compared to traditional public schools:

        “Compared to the educational gains that charter students would have had in a
        traditional public school (TPS), the analysis shows that, on average, students in
        Michigan charter schools make larger learning gains in both reading and
        mathematics. Thirty-five percent of the charter schools have significantly more
        positive learning gains than their TPS counterparts in reading, while two percent of
        charter schools have significantly lower learning gains. In math, forty-two percent
        of the charter schools studied outperform their TPS peers and six percent perform
        worse. These findings position Michigan among the highest performing charter
        school states CREDO has studied to date.

        Charter students in the city of Detroit (27% of the state’s charter students), are
        performing even better than their peers in the rest of the state, on average gaining
        nearly three months achievement for each year they attend charter schools.”

        1. Try spending time in a cross-section of these schools. Not everything that comes out of Stanford is objective truth. But if Michigan is at the top of the list of charter school performance or nearly so, that is terrifying to anyone who actually has worked in these places, particularly the for-profit chain types. If you want a better sense of reality, take a look at the corruption that has been rampant in places like Florida and Ohio when it comes to charter schools. Districts in the latter state have started suing to recover the funds that went up in smoke at charter schools that should have gone to public school districts. The Ohio State legislature was close to a wholly-owned subsidiary of White Hat Management and a couple of other big charter school management companies until relatively recently. I wouldn’t send my son to one of those schools if YOU paid for it and gave me a percentage of the cost on top of that.

        2. Michael Goldenberg – spending time or visiting any of these schools is not an option for me since I live halfway across the world. However, since this is a topic I’m interested in, I’m willing to read up on the topic if you point me to some material.

          This being the internet, I won’t just defer to your opinions on the matter – they might be absolutely true, I just have no way of knowing, sorry. 🙂

          (A nitpick, your son having better options is not an argument against the existence of these schools. I probably wouldn’t send my kids to the schools my cook sends hers to, but that school is the best among the options available to her, and closing that school down would just force her to settle for her second best option).

        3. I’d love to be able to share my experiences with various public neighborhood, small charter, and chain charter schools in Detroit and similar communities in Michigan and New York City gained over the last 25 years, but short of directly wiring you to my brain, that’s not possible. I claim no expertise on education in other countries. I in no way ask you to take my word for anything. I do suggest that you be reasonably skeptical about studies that purport to make meaningful distinctions among schools strictly based on standardized test scores. If you can’t visit schools and see for yourself what goes on in their classrooms, it is best to suspend judgment. The human reality of any school is impossible to capture with data from such tests.

        4. “students in Michigan charter schools make larger learning gains in both reading and

          Learning gains is measured in terms of scores on standardized tests which we know are meaningless to evaluate educational quality. How would standardized tests reflect the learning these kids are doing?

    2. In Australia, we benchmark schools using standard tests (NAPLAN). If we use that measure as success, each state in Australia has equal numbers of successful public and private schools.
      However, the private schools take the pressure off the public system. Mind you, private schools are subsidised, but there’s less of an administrative burden.
      Private schools increase choice and ultimately, that’s a good thing. One of the not so noble benefits is that wealthy families send their kids to wealthy schools to rub shoulders with the right kids. If you want to be a part of the club, you send your kids to one of these schools and you socialise. We call them “boys clubs” but they are actually “rich clubs” and apply to anyone with $$$.
      So, it is a complex landscape. A friend of mine (a tutor) describes one of the local private schools as one of the worst he’s seen based on student feedback, textbook work and homework set. The school NAPLAN results reflect that (coincidence is possible). It’s a religious school though, and that still gives choice.
      I am not sold that privatisation is the best for education. It creates class hierarchies. You need strong leadership, KPIs and a culture of teacher improvement. You can get that in public and private education if there’s a commitment.

      1. Agreed that I don’t think private schools mean automatically better outcomes. But like you said, the presence of private schools does increase choice, and I haven’t seen a convincing argument that taking that choice away from parents is a necessary feature of education.

        I don’t think it’s privatisation alone that creates those boys clubs. Excellent schools typically tend to. In India some of the better public schools are considered to be the places you send your kids so they can rub shoulders with the right peers. And if you know a politician or a minister, it is easy to send your kids to those schools. No such luck for the maid who cooks your dinner.

        My maid sends her kids to a nearby private school, rightly reasoning that that’s the way her kids are going to escape their current socio-economic class. She would be devastated if she had to settle for some bad government school nearby. I agree with her that would be a disaster for her family. I’ve visited some of those schools – I walked into a class room in the middle of the school year and picked up one of the text books and asked the student to read out the first chapter, to be quickly intercepted by the teacher and informed that the text books had only been distributed to the kids a day before, and anyway this was an English text book and these kids don’t know the alphabet, so they probably can’t teach that text book this year. I’ll never forget the disdain with which she informed me that ‘these kids’ don’t even know the english alphabet yet.

    3. ” The measure is – consumers want thing X, and they are receiving thing X, and the cost they pay for receiving thing X is reducing year on year.”

      Not at all. Especially here, in the US, competition is not as you describe. It’s not the best company, the one serving consumers best wins. Do we get the best internet service or just whatever the two giants, Comcast or AT&T are willing to give us for 5 times the price people pay in Europe? How about air travel? Are we happy about the low prices, the mergers? Cell phone services?

      Bigger and bigger and less less companies control more and more of the market.

      The fact is, competition in the billionaires economy is not a competition at all because the big companies kill the competitors.

      Does this sound similar to what we are allowed to do in sport?

      So no, “competition” in the US economy is exactly as it described in the cartoons.

      1. Those market places aren’t competitive, due to heavy regulation. This post was about competitive market places.

        1. “Those market places aren’t competitive, due to heavy regulation. This post was about competitive market places.”

          What’s “those” referring to?

          The people pushing for school reform, hence charters, common core, technology, etc, are those who took out the competition from the market: Gates, the Waltons, Broad. Still, they claim their main tool is introducing competition—and they do it exactly the way they did it in their buisnesses: they overrun other competitors and the force people to race.

          Hence I don’t understand your comment—especially, since competition among teachers, students, and among schools has never been shown to be conductive to education. Also, competition assumes scoring, which assumes measurability, and that is exactly which makes no sense in education.

        2. Noel Wilson, “Educational standards and the problem of error”
          Educational Policy Analysis, 1998


          Abstract: This study is about the categorisation of people in educational settings. It is clearly
          positioned from the perspective of the person categorised, and is particularly concerned with
          the violations involved when the error components of such categorisations are made
          Such categorisations are important. The study establishes the centrality of the
          measurement of educational standards to the production and control of the individual in
          society, and indicates the destabilising effect of doubts about the accuracy of such
          Educational measurement is based on the notion of error, yet both the literature and
          practice of educational assessment trivialises that error. The study examines in detail how
          this trivialisation and obfuscation is accomplished.
          In particular the notion of validity is examined and is seen to be an advocacy for the
          examiner, for authority. The notion of invalidity has therefore been reconceptualised in a
          way that enables epistemological and ontological slides, and other contradictions and
          confusions to be highlighted, so that more genuine estimates of categorisation error might be

          Concluding Statement:

          Before I commenced work on this thesis I had already worked on this particular
          aspect for two years, and had written about ten chapters for a book on the
          subject. Further work during the past two years at Flinders University has
          developed and enlarged the scope of the work. As well, I have traversed some
          side roads, taken some wrong turnings, and come to a few dead ends. For
          example, at one stage it seemed the whole focus of the work would be on
          competencies. At another point interviews with assessment experts,
          administrators, teachers and students loomed large on the agenda. So at various
          times I was diverted from the main topic but always returned to it, often with
          fresh insights.
          Tying the focus to the concepts of validity and invalidity was a relatively late
          development, only possible after the literature on validity was reframed as an
          advocacy for the test taker. The centrality of comparability to the whole
          assessment issue was similarly a late discovery.
          I am personally pleased at the outcome. I can now make some sense out of what
          seemed non-sense; I have shown how some of the fudging was accomplished,
          and why it was important, in terms of social stability, to do so. At the same time
          I have, I believe, forged a powerful tool for the analysis of invalidity of
          assessment, and hence of error in the categorisation of individual persons–a
          tool based on a shift in positioning from test giver to test taker.
          In a rational world the thirteen sources of invalidity, developed in many cases
          by reframing and repositioning the accepted scholarship in the field of
          assessment, should be sufficient to halt the conceptual blindness, the blatant
          suppression of error, the subtle fudges, and the myth of certainty that permeates
          the “science” and expertise of categorising people. Full acceptance and
          individual specification of even one of these sources could revolutionise current
          practice. However, as the study indicates, the world in which assessment
          resides is far from that rational world to which much of the writing in this thesis
          I have tried to be clear about some of the forces that work on all of us that will
          encourage the reader to react strongly and negatively to many of my
          arguments, to dismiss them as anathema. The work is immoral in that it
          conceptually threatens the inviolability of standards and their measurement, a
          2 of 2
          lynch pin of the cultural production of the modern individual. And it is
          revolutionary in that action based on its conclusions would destabilise to a point
          of destruction many, probably most, educational and work practices that result
          in the categorisation of people.
          On the other hand, the basic contentions of this project are not contentious at
          the top levels of evaluation in Education, Medicine, or Law: Ph D theses in
          Education are assessed by different examiners and it is expected that such
          assessors will often differ in their judgments of quality; when expert opinions
          are sought in medicine both diagnosis and treatment prescriptions may differ
          markedly; and the seven judges in the high court often give conflicting verdicts.
          The work could be criticised as being unduly negative. Even if the claims of the
          thesis are true, or partially true, is its position not destructively unhelpful? We
          need to categorise people, so take away the standard and what remains? How
          can people live with the certainty of uncertainty? At the very least, give us an
          alternative. And whilst I have not developed the alternatives, I have certainly
          presented them. The Responsive frame has many developed modes of
          assessment within its boundaries. The chapter on quality clearly indicates one
          way to go. We live in a world of complexity and uncertainty, a fuzzy
          multi-dimensional world of immense variety and diverse interpretations. What
          is challenged in this work is the myth that this complexity can be reduced to
          simple linear dimension by some sort of examination, as a preliminary to
          comparing with some standard of adequacy somewhere defined.
          This thesis does not contend that people cannot be pinpointed along such
          dimensions, butterflies permanently fixed on the board. It happens to millions
          every day. What is shown is that such categorisations are inevitably permeated
          with confusion, uncertainty and error, that genuine rather than fudged
          estimates of much of this error can be made, and that this particular violation of
          the human mind and spirit will continue until they are.

      2. This is actually incorrect. While it may appear that in some industries a series of mergers has created large companies, that’s because those industries tend towards being natural monopolies in the first place. This is particularly prevalent in telecommunications, in which consumers are most effectively served by companies that have access to large networks.

        The majority of industries, however, do function in terms of competition resulting in competition leading to more choice, lower prices etc. as has been summarised by karimpootam.

        1. “that’s because those industries tend towards being natural monopolies in the first place. This is particularly prevalent in telecommunications, in which consumers are most effectively served by companies that have access to large networks.”

          Sounds like a telecommunications rep. Your argument shows exactly that telecommunications, similarly to healthcare, should not be privatized/deregulated. What we see in telecom/internet service in the US is ridiculous. In Europe I pay 20% of what I do here for an internet service that is almost 10 times as fast. 10 times!

          Services which are “naturally monopolistic” should be regulated by the taxpayers, hence the government and not by greedy CEOs and billionaires who try to accomplish their overblown American Dream through controlling the whole country and beyond.

          As for not so naturally monopolistic adventures: is there a fair competition in computers, software, department stores? Even restaurants have difficulties surviving in this country.

        2. I’m afraid that by saying “[e]ven restaurants have difficulties surviving in this country” you fundamentally misunderstand the purpose and nature of competition. It’s aim is to ensure that inefficient firms exit production and only efficient ones that can provide consumers with what they want remain. Hence, that is why inefficient restaurants shut down – they do not provide the price, range, quality, or service that consumers want.

          However, you are partially correct that natural monopolies could be state-run, but you neglect to take into account that they also require vasts sums in terms of investment in infrastructure etc. that a government would have to fund via taxes if the firm was state-run. That’s why a system of price regulation, such as that which is already in place here, is often best for these industries.

          Finally, the general lack of competition cases currently being reviewed by the CMA, DGComp, and the FTC/DoJ suggests that 9for the most-part, and Google excepted) competition computers, software, department stores etc. is functioning perfectly well.

          However, if you disagree, then you can and should file a complaint with your national competition authority. I’d be interested to see how far that complaint gets!

        3. @rpshah wrote in part: “I’m afraid that by saying “[e]ven restaurants have difficulties surviving in this country” you fundamentally misunderstand the purpose and nature of competition. Its aim is to ensure that inefficient firms exit production and only efficient ones that can provide consumers with what they want remain. Hence, that is why inefficient restaurants shut down – they do not provide the price, range, quality, or service that consumers want.

          However, you are partially correct that natural monopolies could be state-run, but you neglect to take into account that they also require vasts sums in terms of investment in infrastructure etc. that a government would have to fund via taxes if the firm was state-run. That’s why a system of price regulation, such as that which is already in place here, is often best for these industries.”

          Purpose of competition? Talk about social Darwinism. People who misunderstand Darwin seem to insist that there’s some “goal” or “purpose” to natural selection (and beware putting value judgments onto the word “natural” there) which pulls evolution forward to some “higher” aim. But that ain’t the way of things. What we have is change (driven in no small part by extremely complex RANDOM interactions systems and forces) and more fortuitous or less fortuitous responses, some of which prove to look, in hindsight, like brilliant adaptations, as if the individual, species, even gene or chromosome “knows” that if it does A instead of B, then the result will be the desirable X rather than the undesirable Z. And that is mysticism, not Darwin, not science, not the way of things.

          Believing that the superior “fitter” businesses thrive and the inferior “less fit” decline, fail, and die is even more absurd in a host of ways. Was the Dvorak keyboard the inferior design or was it ,in fact, QWERTY that was repeatedly shown to be less efficient? And how much of the way things fell out (the dominant victory of the latter over the much better design) due to chance, in particular specific limitations of typewriter technology that were eventually worked out due to other advances and innovations that were necessary because even though the intentional “slowing” of typing speeds due to QWERTY reduced jams, there were still plenty of them, and so the technology surpassed the keyboard layout design but there was no correction in the market. People didn’t want to learn a different style of keyboarding for the most part and teachers didn’t want to teach it and so the inferior technology “won.” How great was THAT for us all, particularly today when there are almost no significantly moving parts to jam in either keyboards or printers (by which I mean that the entire way we print from keyboarding is free from clashing key-arms; there are still paper jams, etc.).

          That’s just one example, and there are others where unfair trade practices, including criminal ones, tipped the direction of the market to the inferior design/product. In restaurants, a volatile business because almost the entire food industry is volatile and all but the vastest of companies can get the sort of good credit arrangements necessary to grow. I worked in the food importing business in NYC for three years: we were huge and got great credit from banks: few of our customers were similarly positioned. And their customers were restaurants. Do you imagine many of THOSE got credit from distributors who themselves had to pay cash for nearly everything? Not quite sure where “natural selection” comes into play there, but easy to see how black market, organized crime, and loan sharking would.

        4. Your reference to the QWERTY keyboard demonstrates complete ignorance of the concept of network effects. The fact that it would require huge amounts of re-training for people to sue a different keyboard is precisely why it continues to be most efficient for people to keep using the Qwerty keyboard.

          As for the rest of your comments, your anecdotal evidence is clearly insufficient to reverse the copious amounts of peer-reviewed literature on the subject of competition within economic systems.

          As a competition economist myself, I implore you to read up on the subject – it is rather interesting.

        5. I get it. Nothing I wrote could possibly gainsay your expertise, particularly not my comments about the actual mechanisms of evolution and natural selection, because, after all, it was economists, not a naturalist, who discovered and formulated the biological mechanisms and principles at work which capitalists and their apologists used to “explain” why raping the country and exploiting its workers was “just the way of nature.” :^)

          Further, you missed the entire point of my post. I am perfectly aware of the rationalizations, not all of them completely self-serving, for not retooling, though I suspect you know perfectly well that companies make short-term sacrifices to retool an industry (and consumers manage to live with what industry foists upon them) when the former see it as more profitable to make something obsolete and replace it with an alleged innovation, and the latter are given little or no choice but to adjust to the new technology, as the older one is permanently phased out.

          But if the real goal were to have “competition” and “market forces” sort out the wheat from the chaff, we wouldn’t be quite so subject to the same randomness on the one hand and arbitrariness on the other (and greed on the part of the true invisible hand running marketplaces) as we often do. Your notions remind me of Milton’s intent in PARADISE LOST to “justify the ways of God to man.” He failed, too.

  2. Lot’s of stuff to think about here, so thanks for sharing! I’ve long enjoyed this blog.

    …and right from the start something felt “off” with this whole thing (so, perhaps there’s more Awkwardness tangled up in this mess than a brief blog post can address… which would make sense [smile]). For example:

    “Public education is stagnant!”

    This is somewhat the opposite of what a number of homeschoolers feel. Indeed, a complaint I hear more often is that the government keeps using our children as guinea pigs to test out the latest fad in education (e.g. No Child Left Behind, Common Core) rather than sticking to what we know works. And, as you rightly point out, the most recent fads focus on the short term measurable stuff that may not actually point to success… (and I have argued truly don’t).

    What’s more interesting to me is the findings (at least within the homeschool research I’ve seen) that the approach to education doesn’t matter nearly as much as parental involvement/the home situation. If that proves true for public schools as well, then every attempt to “fix schools” may be looking in precisely the wrong place. Indeed, Malcolm Gladwell points out how simply asking a student to select their ethnicity dramatically impacts their test scores (sorry, I don’t recall which book it was). The many excellent teachers out there — I had the privilege of having quiet a few — were able to connect with me on a level that further pushed me forward, much like a parent. It’s not the school, but the wonderful teachers who make the difference, often in spite of what “the system” is directing them to do.

    And if we want to talk failed schools, Trump University is currently in the news [smile]. But while we have those that fail hard, I can’t help but think of all the public schools that continue to provide terrible experiences and results for the students who attend them (typically in poorer socioeconomic areas). There’s no utopia in public education for these students who also have but one childhood.

    At the same time, you bring up is this odd thing that I’ve started thinking about over the last year or so: Schools provide a product/service that has no immediate payback. So how do we measure results? How do we encourage people to pay for such a thing? What is the right remuneration for teachers who don’t create things but rather help build a society? …which brings my mind back to the immeasurable value of mothers (which too often isn’t measured at all)…

    There is a ton of great stuff to consider here. Thanks for getting my wheels turning!


    1. When listing fads in education, don’t forget the “New Math” trend of the 1960s.

      1. I will bet you have never read the history of the New Math projects (decidedly plural). There were some admirable ones that never got the opportunity to be used beyond the schools where the projects worked (most particularly Robert Davis’ Madison Project) because of decisions by publishers – not parents, teachers, or students – to push out one particular set of materials nationally. This was a classic case of business decisions trumping actual quality with the general public never getting any sort of “free market” choice. So we have the myth of THE New Math and its alleged failure, rather than what actually was available from a variety of projects. We could have had the Dvorak keyboard of mathematics programs and instead got saddled with QWERTY. It wasn’t because the latter was in any way the superior product.

        The notion that the New Math projectS were fads is simply ahistorical nonsense that has replaced facts with simple-minded media-fueled bilge. And you are repeating it thinking you know something. Some of the Madison Project’s materials are still available online free.





        You’ll find the quotation from Walmsley’s book on the history of the New Mathematics Projects eye-opening, should you bother to look.

        1. I can tell that this is an important topic for you. I can tell that you were upset by my point. I did not mean to offend, but since it seems that I did, I apologize.

          I admit that I never researched New Math in depth, so most of my understanding comes from the Wikipedia page, passing mentions from acquaintances, that Tom Lehrer song, and the fact that my dad told me they tried to teach him the abstractions of set theory when he was in grade school.

          (For the song: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Zq86Simq6xg )

          I did check your links and I am not sure what should be opening my eyes.

          The Christian Science Monitor page is a fluff piece by a teacher talking about her experience talking about her experience with the Madison project. She spoke more about race relations then Mathematics education. (Important, but not the issue at hand.)

          The next two links establish the fact that the Madison Project existed.

          The last link does not go to any specific passage from the book. I am sorry, but I cannot read the quote that you wanted me to.

        2. I knew people at the University of Michigan in the ’90s who were involved with some of the work that sadly all got lumped into the much-maligned category of “THE New Math,” and hence dismissed as a failure, a fad, ad nauseam. I also knew the son of the late Robert B. Davis of the Madison Project. Because the innovative ideas that were informing various K-12 curriculum projects in the late ’80s and through the ’90s were being dismissed as “the NEW New Math,” I felt it was incumbent upon math educators and researchers to find out more about the various projects that were all lumped together as if they’d been one monolithic set of ideas and materials. And what I discovered was that such a characterization was deeply misguided.

          Does it mean a lot to me that a lot of great ideas and decades of work get cavalierly dismissed by people with a three-word phrase? Yeah, it does.

        3. Okay there are three topics I want to address here.

          1. The Madison Project.
          I feel like this is the result of a communication failure.

          Earlier, in my ignorance, I made a short, thoughtless jibe using the term “New Math”. Mr. Goldenberg then kindly told me that the trend now called “New Math” was a lot more complicated then I had been lead to believe. Thank you for that by the way, Mr. Goldenberg. Even if I learn nothing else in this conversation, at least I know more then I did before.

          I asked him to direct me to more information, he did. I wanted the following questions answered:

          What was the Madison Project’s legacy?
          How successful was the curriculum when implemented on a trial level?
          How successful was the curriculum when implemented on a larger scale?
          What outside factors hindered its implementation?

          The links that I followed did not immediately answer these questions.

          Looking back at it now, I can see that this was my own fault for not being clear about where my curiosity was. Additionally, I acknowledge that the right thing for me to do would have been to search these things out myself. (Possibly starting with a deeper look at the pages offered.) However, at the time I expressed disappointment that the links did not lead me where I wanted to go.

          I am sorry about the confusion, and I will concede that using the term “New Math” derisively was a bad move on my part.

          2. School Choice
          I apparently have not been arguing my point very well if people can assume that I am just making assertions without backing. Again, my bad.

          Let me try to rectify that now:

          Quote: “Only one of Detroit’s charter authorizers is local—DPS, which authorizes 13 schools; the rest are colleges and universities with headquarters outside of the city.”
          Source: http://educationnext.org/fixing-detroits-broken-school-system/
          This seems to go against the assertion that the Detroit charter schools are controlled by evil Wall Street types.

          Assertion: In the US, to my knowledge there have been 15 random assignment studies to see how students who receive a voucher perform. The conclusions are as follows:
          Gains for all groups: 4
          Gains for subgroups: 8
          No significant difference: 1
          Loss for subgroups: 0
          Loss of all groups: 2
          Oddly enough, the Milwaukee program falls into the “gains for all groups” category.
          Source: https://www.edchoice.org/school_choice_faqs/does-school-choice-have-a-positive-academic-impact-on-participating-students/

          Assertion: In the US, to my knowledge there have been 29 studies of the effect of voucher programs on the performance of public school students. The results are as follows:
          28 studies found improvement in the performance of students of public schools after the implementation of a voucher program.
          1 study found no significant change in the performance of the students.
          0 studies found a drop in the performance of the students.

          Vouchers are not a panacea, but based on they seem to do some good.

          3. Toxicity
          This conversation is getting close to the level of mean spirits that would cause me to just walk away. I have already learned something from this conversation, and I would like to learn more.
          Please, give me a chance to be taught. I know that you are a teacher Mr. Goldenberg. Can you please do that?

        1. @Maté, you can’t expect the willfully selectively blind to see what “can’t exist”: evidence that their off the cuff judgments of that which they have never studied might just be badly mistaken.

        2. Funny how when I click on the last link in my first post about the Madison Project that Mr. Eldredge claims didn’t go to “any specific passage” in the Walmsley book, it takes me to the exact page that begins her treatment of the Madison Project. Hence, I think that Mr. Eldredge has zero interest in reading evidence that undermines his wrong-headed snap judgment of “the New Math.”

          Nor would I expect him to bother to look at the evidence of how utter ineffective vouchers have been in improving the lot of poor children of color in Milwaukee. I have little doubt, however, that they have served the financial interests of a handful of more affluent white people.

          I could copy 20 years or so of arguments with other advocates of having the public subsidize the private education of the children of elite and/or otherwise relatively privileged Americans while claiming to simply want choice that allegedly will help the desperately poor and ill-served segment of the population “lift itself up” by the bootstraps on its non-existent boots, but there’s a limit to my willingness to repeat fruitless engagement with willfully blind and nakedly self-serving elitists.

  3. As a proponent of vouchers and other forms of school choice I would like to offer a rebuttal:

    1. Education as a commodity is hard to evaluate.
    This is true, but I have a hard time seeing what makes public schools immune to the lack of information problem.
    The fact that we have elected school boards in much of the US indicates that we feel that schools need to be held accountable in some way, but since public schools are hard to evaluate for the same reasons, a typical voter cannot make any kind of informed decision on what kind of policies and candidates to endorse.
    On the other hand a parent is more likely to know what kind of education is best for their child then what kind of educational policy is best for their district.
    I think the lack of information problem, properly considered, is an argument for educational choice.

    1a. Competition in Education is over test scores and collage admissions. (instead of important meaningful things)
    First, most polls that I have seen indicate that this is not true. Most parents seeking a new school for their child will place test scores low on their priority list.
    Second, Public schools don’t have the same incentive to compete, so instead of focusing on things like test scores they have incentives to focus on [blank].
    Please fill in the blank, because I don’t see how you get from not caring about test scores to automatically caring about meaningful things.

    2. Education is (or can be) a public good and private providers will not have an incentive to provide education with these positive externalities.
    Public schools have a strong incentive to avoid anything even remotely controversial. That kind of resistance to confront anything controversial means that discussion of politics and current events is discouraged in the public school setting.
    Private schools have more freedom to talk about these things.

    3. We don’t want schools to fail.
    What do you mean by fail?
    Do you mean you don’t want schools to close? Public schools close all the time. I don’t even see why a school closing is necessarily a bad thing. I admit it can be disruptive to the students, but I think we can agree that avoiding disruption is not the be-all-end all-goal of education.
    Do you mean you don’t want students to attend a school and not learn what he/she should learn? Again, that can happen with public schools. In fact it did. I went to public school and the Economics teacher was only a teacher because in our district coaches need to be teachers. He never tried to get us to learn everything, he just went through the motions of teaching and structured the classes and quizzes in such a way that we all got good grades.

    Most of the “failures” that can happen with a private school could not also happen with a public school. I favor school choice because than if I was not satisfied with my child’s education I would have something that I could do about it.

    Anyway, thanks for putting up with my rant.

    I like your comics by the way, even if we do disagree on this issue.

  4. We have nine out of ten fail now, but they just keep on going. It’s like keeping the Yugo and Chevy Vega on the market because Transportation is Important.

    1. As someone that cares deeply about statistics, (What? I do. Don’t give me that look.) I would to point out that saying “9 out of 10 schools fail” is cannot be meaningful statistic because it does not define what “failing” means in this context.

      It has been my experience that most of our public schools are OK. Not good, not horrible, just OK. Individual teachers may be great or abysmal, but on average they are mediocre.

      I think we can all agree that doing better then that is a worthwhile goal even if we disagree on the best way to accomplish that.

        1. My comments were based on my personal experience as a consumer of public education, rather then a poll of Americans.

          Parsing two conflicting polls is something that should be done with care and with knowledge of the specifics of the polls. Since I do not have that knowledge, I can only offer speculation. But since you asked, I will give it my best try.

          If someone is asked how they feel about their own Public School they might first recall the principal and teachers they have met at the school. Whatever the question asked they might answer “If you could tell the people that you are thinking about right now how you feel about their work what would you say?”
          In that case their criticism may be filtered through their dislike of offending others.
          On the other hand if someone is asked about public schools in general, the personal filter may not be as strong.

          This is of course speculation. I could be way off base, but I think it is a valid theory.

  5. Here in the UK we have a relatively long history with both public and private schools. The private schools mostly operate very successfully and minimalise short-termism by surviving on the success of their former pupils in adult life. Their heritage and prestigue is worth not worth sacrificing for a short-term boost.

    Public schools policies tend to change each generation. We have been in the comprehensive era for the last 50 years. Until the mid-90s everyone went to their local school and there was no education market place. Then parental choice was introduced alongside league tables and we got issues on both the funding and education sides of the equasion.
    Educationally, the introduction of league tables, pushed schools away from a balanced education to focus actions which boosted their rating. Later metrics were expanded to limit this problem but there are still temptations to choose easier exams or withdraw weaker pupils from sitting exams in non-core subjects.
    Financially, the more successful schools took in more pupils. The less successful schools, funded per child and with relatively high fixed costs, found themselves in financial difficulties making it harder for them to be successful resulting in a vicious circle with failing schools that have only had pupils because there was no room for them elsewhere (we are very bad at building new schools in the UK). The solution was to paracute in new management teams led by superheads with a fantastic educational records and pump the school full of money to turn it around. This worked well (most of the time), but due to the limited number of educational superstars is something you can only do for a small number of schools. The government, searching for more (and cheaper) expert managers, decided that prior educational success was no longer required. Now let local communities, faith groups and businesses can get into managing the schools.

    Of course, politicians tend based on ideology which can lead to some “interesting” outcomes. In recent years we’ve had on education secretary say it was unacceptable for any school to be below average and another say that no pupil should ever be happy with mediocre (ignoring that for some children, getting mediocre results from their education would be a huge success).

    1. We have a similar situation in Australia.
      In areas where property is expensive, schools (public and private) perform well on standardised tests (NAPLAN). Map the top 20 schools in each state. Not only are they 50/50 public/private, but they are all in small pockets where housing is expensive.
      Parents who care about education look at the results and move to the areas where students perform well. These are the parents who get involved in their kids’ education (as someone else mentioned). This makes the prophecy self-fulfilling in a way. Consequently, schools in poorer areas don’t perform as well.
      If you privatise the education system, this situation will be even more skewed. The best performing schools set high fees and the wealthy families will pay.
      To be honest, I moved my family to the right part of town to access the best schools. So, when I’m criticising those with money, I am playing the same game as I could afford a house in the right area.

  6. A major problem remains that one family’s successful school may be identical to another family’s failing school. Depends on what each family wants.

    Perhaps it’s easier to discuss by analogy. Consider school lunches. The panel of nutrition and dietary experts evaluates options and determines that, adjusting by weight, fish sticks or beef patties are both completely acceptable offerings. But any kid (and his family) who prefers fish will find an offering of beef a failed lunch. Another kid (and HER family) will find fish a failure. Assume the fish/beef preference is equally split among students and the cafeteria alternates fish Mon/Wed and beef Tue/Thur (with chicken every Friday, which nobody likes but no one actually objects to) the cafeteria will be “failing” 100% of the students at least 40% of the time. If the kids, alternatively, are loose for lunch at a choice of McDonalds or Long John Silvers or even KFC, individualized lunch selections match expectations, preferences, and needs more often. Never perfectly, and never without some participants exercising what the rest of us would consider poor preferences — skipping lunch entirely, say. But spending dollars in a market is a much more liberal exercise than voting, once every few years, for a neighborhood representative to a board of nutritionists to develop a “one menu for all” system.

    A school that emphasizes STEM to the detriment of fine arts is, for artistic kids, failing. A school that enforces zero tolerance strict discipline to ensure safety for all is, for the exuberant student, failing (or at least, a mismatch). The school that insists on self-paced programs fails the kids who need more structure. And in fact age-based class groupings — especially during “middle” school for 12, 13, and 14 year olds — leave kid-kids poorly served by curricula suited to post-pubescents and partially-adult students poorly served by child-oriented pedagogy.

    I see no particular way around these failures in a compulsory “one size fits all” government-run bureaucratic school system.

    1. Though interestingly your analogy points out a large flaw in allowing the choice that private schooling brings. Children and families of children make choices that are bad for their health and wellbeing, and are often presented with/aware of only options that are unhealthy and detrimental, not to mention being further limited in their choice by their financial situation. In your analogy… the kids (or their families) choose between three (notoriously unhealthy) fast food restaurants or not eating, or three days out of five eat something they like and five days out of five eat something healthy.

      In the real world, parents may choose to send their kid to a school that refuses to teach sex education, or sports or religious education. The kids fail to learn things that make them a well-rounded individual who is capable of effectively participating in society. A parent’s choice can hold a child back, that child then makes bad decisions for their kids and so on.

      1. I count two arguments against school choice in your post:

        1. Some parents are too ignorant or misguided to be trusted with having any important input in their children’s education.
        Answer: Who should make decisions about my children’s education? The current system puts those decisions in the hands of teachers (4 year degree and often little to no experience outside of an education setting), administrators (more experience and training then teachers, but very little interaction with the students), and voters (more ignorant then parents and less personal involvement then administrators).
        None of the people I listed just now will have much interaction with my son after he leaves the school, so they will have very little feedback on the results of their education policy.
        Who should make education decisions, and why is that better than parents?

        2. Financial restrictions will force poor families to send their children to bad schools.
        Answer: Nobody I know wants to abolish public schools. If the public school is the best choice for a given child that option will still be available even if a voucher program (or some other program) is implemented.
        The whole point of a voucher program is to give low income families the financial resources they need to avoid having to choose between bad options.

      2. “parents may choose to send their kid to a school that refuses to teach sex education, or sports or religious education. ”

        Yes. Yes they may.

        Shockingly, these people also exercise choice in voting — including for representatives to the local school board. In districts which, by law, parents are required to serve alongside teachers and administrators in textbook selections, these so-called “parents” may choose the wrong textbook — ones that have pretty pictures of people that “look like them” but fail to actually teach the subject. In some communities, ordinary people may be on committees to help choose what books to buy for the library, or what architect may spend the school bond money for buildings, or what local dealership will earn the business for the school’s vehicles. And they may, after all, choose wrongly.

        How terrible! Surely it would be better to drive these “parents” out of the system entirely and leave such decisions to experts.

        In fact, given that some might not only choose the wrong school, or book, or building or vehicle or elected official, why do we let them vote at all? Why, indeed, do we let such people have children? What good, after all, are they to the state? Surely the best and highest use of such “parents” is mere breeding stock.

        This “choice” thing is obviously too dangerous to be contemplated.

        1. Good sarcasm, Pouncer. But no one is denying anyone the right to vote here. Nor would the US constitution deny anyone the right to send their kids to private or parochial schools. Just not on the public dime. Sorry, but that’s the price for insisting on a non-secular education: you want to protect your children from 21st-century scientific knowledge? You want to ensure that they’re not exposed to crazy things like Darwin or genetics or the germ theory of disease or how to avoid unwanted pregnancies, STDs, etc.? You want to do your level best to make sure that they don’t attend school with “THEM!!!”? (You know: THEM!!!) Well, you have options, but again, it will cost you extra.

          It’s still not illegal to be a moron, but at least it’s not legal yet to impose religion on kids in public school or set up a system whereby the public pays to keep children in abject ignorance.

          The last 25 years or so have, when it comes to public education, almost made the McCarthy Era a time of relative sanity. In those days, it was only the psychotic Right Wing trying to ban books and limit what could be taught, read, or spoken. Now it’s nearly everyone.

          And at the same time, few parents in the ’50s seemed to believe that they knew more about everything than did teachers. Now, everyone’s an expert on what to teach, how to teach, when to teach it, ad nauseam. I wouldn’t like to go back to the 1950s, but some conversations do give me pause.

  7. Free choice of school is also a way to let market forces play, without the need of private schools. That’s how it works in most of Flanders (Belgium). My nieces and nephew go to a school in a city 15 km from home, while there is a school at 3 km from home and others in between.
    However, in some regions of Flanders, schools have become oversubscribed. They work with waiting lists until they get enlarged. Parents camp outside some oversubscribed schools for days (and nights) to get their children registered.
    In some cities the admission criteria are different and distance between home and school is partly used (e.g. 50% of children based on distance, 50% based on preference). When you see what happens in the UK and Australia (and the US too?) to the house prices near good schools, you can already predict what is going to happen in those Flemish cities.
    Note, there are no standardized tests for the children, and no league tables for the schools.

  8. I think that instead of arguing that education shouldn’t be run as a business, it is better to criticize traditional models of it as a business as incorrect. For example, students aren’t the customers. The customers are the general public and the companies that hire these students. Since in most models it is the customers who pay for a product or service, it follows that education should be paid for by the general public and private corporations. So what are students? Students are both the product and one of the producers. Throughout the process, the student and teacher work together to produce the final product: the graduating student. A better description of this process is that the student is a client of the professional teacher, and clients unlike customers aren’t deemed equal or superior to expert professionals with regard to the service provided. Just like a doctor and patient work together to improve the health of a patient, but the patient is not necessarily regarded as better qualified to make medical decisions.

  9. Schools should be competitive, and they are. A good school will attract and select the better students by its reputation. Better students and better reputation will attract better teachers, which in turn raises the reputation. That is so on all countries I know. Two problems remain.

    The first problem is tuition. If you base better education on parent money you distort the natural competition of students and schools. It is like asking a basketball player to pay instead of paying him. You won’t get the best ones this way. You are practically destroying your educational system. If competition, then a fair one.

    The second problem is that you cannot allow to leave any school too much behind. You need to help the schools that have problems because of the economical or social environment they are situated in, or because of other reasons. Competition must have limits.

    1. Unfortunately, that is not how it works in the USA.

      In much of the nation, if the parents are not financially capable of paying the full cost of their children’s schooling out of pocket they must send the child to a school that is determined completely by their physical address.
      The only way to send the child to a better school is to move to the neighborhood of a better school. Since this is not usually an option parents are stuck with a choice of exactly one.

      There are a few states that have a program where parents can get a government rebate if they do pay for a private school, but those programs are strongly limited, and have not seen large scale implementation. (Usually they are only available for the very poor, are limited in number,or for children with some kind of disability.)

  10. http://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-03-17/study-charter-schools-suspend-more-black-students-disabled-students

    I suspect that results like those in the above study will be ignored and/or dismissed by some. I also suspect that the major offenders in the study are charter chains with for-profit private management companies running them.

    For a good example of charter chains running amok, take a close look at Detroit, where the barracudas are starting to eat each other. There are only so many students and with no real limit to the springing up of new “competitors,” not only are neighborhood public schools losing funds to charters, but small, non-chain charters are being destroyed by lust for every last public buck. It’s funny how in many states with weak or virtually non-existent oversight, charters are public when it comes to collecting public money and – magically – private when it comes to showing their financial and other records. For hedge-fund managers and the rest of Wall Street, these places are almost as good as printing money.

    1. Quote: “I suspect that results like those in the above study will be ignored and/or dismissed by some.”

      I get the feeling you think poorly of those of us that support school vouchers. I feel like you view us as being willfully ignorant, to the point where you can call us out on not following a link before you even post it.

      That hurt my feelings a little.

      Anyway, I did follow the link to the USN&WR page. I even went one step further and found a page posting a pdf of the original study

      I quote the authors directly “Readers are cautioned not to make generalizations about all charters simply because some have alarmingly high suspension rates. As this report highlights, it is important to remember that, like non-charter schools, most charter schools are not high-suspending.”

      If you go through the report itself with the proper context, it becomes clear that the authors feel that charter schools can (and should) be a force for good. They are merely identifying a problem that they found and endorsed a solution.

      As for Detroit, I had no idea that there were barracudas in Lake Erie. (Or was it Lake St. Clair?)

      Sorry, I couldn’t resist.

      Anyway, if the situation in Detroit proves my position on school choice incorrect I would like to know more about it. Can you direct me to some source of information on the subject? Specifically, I would appreciate third party articles or papers verifying the following:
      1. Chain schools owned by Wall Street investor types are dominating the education market in Detroit.
      2. The high-suspension schools are disproportionately owned by the aforementioned Wall Street types.

      Thanks for your time.

      1. What would I know about education in Detroit? I’ve only worked there in various capacities since 1993. And in Pontiac, Flint, and other high-needs communities and districts. I’ve worked with public neighborhood schools and small charter schools and with the kind of predatory chain schools that I think have turned a good idea by experienced public school supporters into the monstrosities that the free market lovers are trying to flood the nation with, most specifically inner-city neighborhoods of high poverty (without looking, I will bet that there aren’t a lot of charter chains opening schools in places like Grosse Pointe, MI or Shaker Heights, OH, or Mamaroneck, NY).

        I’m not going to waste my time arguing with people who take ANY criticism of charter schools as practiced as the blanket denial of the potential or actual efficacy of ALL charter schools. Such people are as stiff-necked, doctrinaire, and unreasonable as are those supporters of public schools who take ANY criticism of public education as practiced as the blanket denial of the potential or actual efficacy of ALL public schools. I simply don’t have the patience.

        When you back away from the usual blindness that infects these debates, you find on the one side people whose primary goal is to defend SOME aspect of the status quo: it might be some local charter school they send their kids to where everything is just ducky and where most of the kids are white, middle class and up, not special education or emotionally impaired, etc., and where one of the motivations for creating the school in the first place is so such kids don’t have to go to school with “them” and yet do so without their parents have to pay for private education. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, as long as you don’t give a damn about anyone else’s kids. Or they are defending a vision of education (regardless of what school it’s taking place in – public neighborhood, small charter, charter-chain, or private) that serves to preserve “the way we’ve always done things in school” – with “always comprising the introduction of the factory model of education coupled with principles taken in no small part from 19th century Prussian military training. Kids are “operated upon” by teachers whose primary goals are killing independent thought and creativity, instilling discipline and obedience, inculcating values that serve the economic and social demands of the power elite.

        Since I have serious disagreements with much of the above, I am pretty good at pissing off nearly everyone in these debates. I don’t buy the anti-democratic arguments of the free-marketeers and their “choice” arguments, business metaphors, etc., even if I am happy to acknowledge that it’s a fine idea to have charter schools as originally conceived by Al Shanker (though I wouldn’t agree with a lot of things Shanker wrote about particular educational practices in school buildings and classrooms). Nor do I buy many of the self-serving arguments about preserving conservative and reactionary practices in brick-and-mortar neighborhood public schools. And while I thoroughly understand the historical need for teachers’ unions, I don’t blindly accept the way they operate in practice.

        I suppose if I could wave a wand, we’d wake up tomorrow in a country with democratic socialism and an approach to public education that looked a lot more like Finland than what we have here and have had for over a century. But I have no such wand. So I’ll continue to piss off people about charter schools, unions, letting Wall Street dictate public education, letting the federal government (or even the states’ governments) dictate public education, and the continuation of abysmal mathematics teaching, assessment, etc., because that’s my particular professional focus.

        And I’ll continue to applaud mathwithbaddrawings over some of the more conservative and reactionary discussants who can’t see beyond their own neighborhoods and appear to have absolutely no conception of what it means to value or work for the Commons.

        1. “I am pretty good at pissing off nearly everyone in these debates.”

          Well, if that is the goal, then you seem to be succeeding.

          If the goal is to change minds, then not so much.

          The math of the situation is simple. Any choice determined by vote will leave the losing minority unsatisfied with the outcome. Any choice that bundles issues for voters will leave EVERY voter making individual internal compromises: do I vote for the board member who, as I do, supports phonics over whole-language but, as I do NOT, believes pre-K cost-effective — leaving me voting for educational outcomes? Or do I vote my preference and pocketbook for the opponent who shares my attitude about wasting money on the majority of 4 year olds, but is, I think, wrong about reading methods? Only one candidate will win. I will be 50% dissatisfied either way. Given only these two issues and — in a tinker-toy mathematical model, a nearly equal distribution of votes across four preferred of possible outcomes — 75% of voters will be unhappy with their representative in the school system they are compelled to support and – if voters are also parents — compelled to consign their children.

          Any two priority issues. Seventy-five percent of voters will be compelled to support schools on at least half the issues they personally oppose. About half the voters will be compelled to accept compulsion on two issues. Pure math.

          Madison in the Federal Papers suggests “Factions” will form to sort out such issues and put together coalitions where representative candidates assemble “interests” into platforms supporting a majority. But Madison wrote about how this was true in VERY LARGE republics such as the new United States — not in a neighborhood school district. But Madison is dead and irrelevant — sort of like Al Shanker.

          So, let’s don’t call names. Let’s don’t invoke dead authority figures — and subject of Woody Allen’s jokes — like Al Shanker. If you would, please, explain to me where my math goes wrong. (With, or without, “Bad Drawings”.

        2. Woody Allen? How did he get into this conversation, Pouncer?

          As for Al Shanker being “irrelevant,” I’m afraid you’ll have to explain that one. Charter schools were basically his brain-child. And as he conceived them, they were supposed to be opportunities for districts to try things outside the box which, if successful, could be ported into other district schools. They were not intended as: tools to restore racial, ethnic, religious, or economic segregation in violation of Brown v. Board of Education and a host of civil rights, anti-segregation, and anti-discrimination laws. Yet that is precisely how they have been used in places like Alabama and neighboring Old South states. Were you aware of that?

          Shanker had a good idea. It wasn’t intended as a way for Wall Street to buy public education as a multi-billion dollar profit center. It’s difficult to imagine anything more anti-democratic and dangerous. Try teaching lessons on various economic, social, and political issues when your school is owned by a company that is a subsidiary of, say, the Koch Industries or Viacom or Union Carbide. Try resisting the product placement of Coca Cola machines or studying the health effects of their products when they own your school.

  11. As English economist John Maynard Keynes stated, “Capitalism is the extraordinary belief that the nastiest of men for the nastiest of motives will somehow work for the benefit of all.”

    Like in the last gilded age, we see in today’s gilded age that they won’t work for the benefit of all, because the “free” market is about business people meeting their bottom line, making profits and taking care of themselves, and ultimately we see fewer and fewer companies competing against them, as they gobble up their competition, such as through mergers, acquisitions, and buyouts, including hostile take overs. They want few regulations because then they are more able to manipulate the “free” market.

    That’s a lousy model for providing important social services, like education, health care and prisons, because meeting basic human needs is a lot more important than producing widgets to make money, but people can trump profits in the business model only on a wing and a prayer.

    The players’ names may change, but those “nastiest of men” have had a long history of showing they are driven more by greed than altruism, including through the demonstrations of their newest money making ventures, vulture philanthropy and social entrepreneurship. In education, that includes the rapid growth of the charter school industry, as well as related services and ancillary businesses that can capitalize on expenditures of taxpayer dollars, like school management organizations, real estate companies and the testing industry. That also includes the use of social impact bond projects to prevent providing costly special education services for disabled children. None of this should be confused with the common good, because there is nothing altruistic about programs that aim to make big bucks in the private sector from public funds off the backs of the most vulnerable, needy and voiceless.

    1. @Homeless Educator: very well put. Thanks for that refreshing dose of reality. A bit too much free-market fantasizing going on here for my taste. It’s a bit like what happens when someone posts a criticism of Khan Academy: out come a host of his True Believers to explain that anyone who doesn’t see Sal as “the greatest teacher they’ve ever seen” is obviously just threatened. :^)

  12. I understand how frustrating it can be to argue with someone that refuses to change his mind even in the face of overwhelming evidence and logic. For that reason, I try to keep my mind open to the possibility that I am wrong. This includes arguments against school choice as I see the issue.

    Unfortunately, most of the arguments that I see here are incomplete.

    To convince me that privatization is a bad idea it is not good enough to point out in imperfection in the education market. You have to give a plausible reason public education is better at dealing with this imperfection then private markets.

    Example: The market for parks for children to play in is imperfect because it is hardto charge the people who use the service. City governments can resolve this issue by charging everyone and making the park available to everyone.

    If you really want to change my mind finish any of the following:

    Teachers may avoid contentious issues at the expense of a complete education. Public schools are better at resolving this because….

    Schools have little incentive to teach important qualities that are not tested for. Public schools are better at resolving this issue because….

    Having a large monolithic entity responsible for education is a bad thing. Public education is better at resolving this issue because….

    Selfish human desires in the people in charge of education can lead to bad outcomes for our children. Public schools are better at resolving this issue because….

    Different children thrive in different circumstances, so an education that works well for one child will not work for another. Public schools are better at providing these various environments because….

    Feel free to add your own argument if I missed something. Please just make sure the arguments is complete.

    Thanks for listening.

    1. Michale Eldridge “Schools have little incentive to teach important qualities that are not tested for. Public schools are better at resolving this issue because….”

      This is typical education “reform” logic: “let’s assume a situation we created, and public educators opposed and warned against all along, and then pressure them to resolve it, and if they can’t, we have yet another thing to blame them for.”

      On the other hand, I am glad you brought this up: market minded people keep trying to measure education, so they introduce more and more tests, more and more ways to obtain data, and they ruin education all together.

  13. Mediocrity? How does this work? The Administration sits down with the School Board and decide to strive for “Mediocrity” and then Administrators develope Staff Development activities around the process to achieve “Mediocrity”? Really?

  14. Badly operationalized performance metrics may not be the root of *all* evil in our education system, but they are definitely abundant. Further, the vast majority of the most “profitable” companies are often externalizing the real costs of their business, meaning that we are silently picking up the tab for their windfalls, if not outright subsidizing them. The ideal of a “free market” is an abstract fantasy. What implementing policy based on that fantasy would mean in education is pouring cement over the current class hegemony, which is often what it’s proponents are really after.

  15. Some schools are already failing. if you try to deny this fact, who are you helping? You are not helping the students!

    Where there is no school choice, students are trapped in a failing system. If you strip the the school of its accreditation, and shutter the school (perhaps temporarily) students can be relocated to an environment where at least they have the opportunity to be successful. Then there is the possibility to reform the institution, repair the facilities, or if it is beyond rehabilitation raze it and start anew somewhere else. You are not hurting the graduates when you do this, you are helping the enrolled student body, and the future students in the community.

    You probably don’t want to fail your students in your class. But if you have a student who does not deserve to pass, you are neither helping the student to process them along to the next class for them to fail, nor are you helping your students who deserved to pass your class.

    Similarly, no one wants to hear that their local school is failing. But, if we are less than honest in our assessments of the quality of our schools, we are hurting everybody.

    1. “Where there is no school choice, students are trapped in a failing system. ”

      You may not even notice, but you are making the usual reformist statement that if students are doing well in school, schools are at fault, and hence a different school will make a difference. But this implication has been proven incorrect. The main reason kids are failing is because of their circumstances: poverty, mostly.

      1. Take the example of Normandy High School in Furguson Mo. The school was failing, and poverty was a major contributor to that school’s failure. Ultimately the school lost its accreditation. The school was closed, and students were relocated to other schools. Academic achievement was generally growing for these relocated schools. Then the school was re-opened, yet is still un-accredited.

        Tell me that that is a good outcome for the students!

        And, I think it is unfair to blame the students. Some schools are poorly run. And in these cases, it is more humane to close the school, then to pretend that either the problem does not exist, or the problem is insoluble.

        1. So the humane solution would be to what? Cluster bomb the old school building to ensure that it never reopens? Maybe napalm the community itself.

          Oh, wait: let’s PRIVATIZE the education system in places like Ferguson. That is CERTAIN to improve the lot of their students. How could it possibly go wrong?

    2. And the undefined term “failing school” is a huge part of the DEFORMist propaganda campaign to privatize public education and turn it into another profit center for the already-privileged and powerful. But never mind that: let’s blame poverty on bad character and ethnicity, and blame the inability of neighborhood public schools – which don’t get their pick of students or even a representative mix of students from the general population – to overcome the enormous concomitant disadvantages of poverty, on lazy teachers and unions. What a lovely, self-serving argument! No need to address economic, social, or political inequity at all!

      1. Why do schools have an accreditation if it is not to identify failing schools.

        It is very well defined.

        1. By all means, Doug, characterize for us a “failing” school. Because to the best of my knowledge, loss of accreditation is not necessary for schools to be classified as “failing” under NCLB and subsequent bullshit-filled education laws.

          But here’s a better exercise: try to guess where the “failing” schools are located without resorting to any such laws or rules implemented by Congress and/or the US DOE. If you’re familiar with the socio-economic data for the 50 states, I bet you can do a heckava job.

  16. Thanks to MPG for bringing in Wilson’s work. It is THE, bar none, most important piece of educational writing in the last half century. For those not familiar with his work allow me to give you a summary (and that summary is like reading the Cliff Notes for “War and Peace”, in other words quite lacking in the total thought and content that Noel has put in his dissertation):

    “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” found at: http://epaa.asu.edu/ojs/article/view/577/700

    Brief outline of Wilson’s “Educational Standards and the Problem of Error” and some comments of mine. (updated 6/24/13 per Wilson email)

    1. A description of a quality can only be partially quantified. Quantity is almost always a very small aspect of quality. It is illogical to judge/assess a whole category only by a part of the whole. The assessment is, by definition, lacking in the sense that “assessments are always of multidimensional qualities. To quantify them as unidimensional quantities (numbers or grades) is to perpetuate a fundamental logical error” (per Wilson). The teaching and learning process falls in the logical realm of aesthetics/qualities of human interactions. In attempting to quantify educational standards and standardized testing the descriptive information about said interactions is inadequate, insufficient and inferior to the point of invalidity and unacceptability.

    2. A major epistemological mistake is that we attach, with great importance, the “score” of the student, not only onto the student but also, by extension, the teacher, school and district. Any description of a testing event is only a description of an interaction, that of the student and the testing device at a given time and place. The only correct logical thing that we can attempt to do is to describe that interaction (how accurately or not is a whole other story). That description cannot, by logical thought, be “assigned/attached” to the student as it cannot be a description of the student but the interaction. And this error is probably one of the most egregious “errors” that occur with standardized testing (and even the “grading” of students by a teacher).

    3. Wilson identifies four “frames of reference” each with distinct assumptions (epistemological basis) about the assessment process from which the “assessor” views the interactions of the teaching and learning process: the Judge (think college professor who “knows” the students capabilities and grades them accordingly), the General Frame-think standardized testing that claims to have a “scientific” basis, the Specific Frame-think of learning by objective like computer based learning, getting a correct answer before moving on to the next screen, and the Responsive Frame-think of an apprenticeship in a trade or a medical residency program where the learner interacts with the “teacher” with constant feedback. Each category has its own sources of error and more error in the process is caused when the assessor confuses and conflates the categories.

    4. Wilson elucidates the notion of “error”: “Error is predicated on a notion of perfection; to allocate error is to imply what is without error; to know error it is necessary to determine what is true. And what is true is determined by what we define as true, theoretically by the assumptions of our epistemology, practically by the events and non-events, the discourses and silences, the world of surfaces and their interactions and interpretations; in short, the practices that permeate the field. . . Error is the uncertainty dimension of the statement; error is the band within which chaos reigns, in which anything can happen. Error comprises all of those eventful circumstances which make the assessment statement less than perfectly precise, the measure less than perfectly accurate, the rank order less than perfectly stable, the standard and its measurement less than absolute, and the communication of its truth less than impeccable.”

    In other words all the logical errors involved in the process render any conclusions invalid.

    5. The test makers/psychometricians, through all sorts of mathematical machinations attempt to “prove” that these tests (based on standards) are valid-errorless or supposedly at least with minimal error [they aren’t]. Wilson turns the concept of validity on its head and focuses on just how invalid the machinations and the test and results are. He is an advocate for the test taker not the test maker. In doing so he identifies thirteen sources of “error”, any one of which renders the test making/giving/disseminating of results invalid. And a basic logical premise is that once something is shown to be invalid it is just that, invalid, and no amount of “fudging” by the psychometricians/test makers can alleviate that invalidity.

    6. Having shown the invalidity, and therefore the unreliability, of the whole process Wilson concludes, rightly so, that any result/information gleaned from the process is “vain and illusory”. In other words start with an invalidity, end with an invalidity (except by sheer chance every once in a while, like a blind and anosmic squirrel who finds the occasional acorn, a result may be “true”) or to put in more mundane terms crap in-crap out.

    7. And so what does this all mean? I’ll let Wilson have the second to last word: “So what does a test measure in our world? It measures what the person with the power to pay for the test says it measures. And the person who sets the test will name the test what the person who pays for the test wants the test to be named.”

    In other words it attempts to measure “’something’ and we can specify some of the ‘errors’ in that ‘something’ but still don’t know [precisely] what the ‘something’ is.” The whole process harms many students as the social rewards for some are not available to others who “don’t make the grade (sic)” Should American public education have the function of sorting and separating students so that some may receive greater benefits than others, especially considering that the sorting and separating devices, educational standards and standardized testing, are so flawed not only in concept but in execution?

    My answer is NO!!!!!

    One final note with Wilson channeling Foucault and his concept of subjectivization:

    “So the mark [grade/test score] becomes part of the story about yourself and with sufficient repetitions becomes true: true because those who know, those in authority, say it is true; true because the society in which you live legitimates this authority; true because your cultural habitus makes it difficult for you to perceive, conceive and integrate those aspects of your experience that contradict the story; true because in acting out your story, which now includes the mark and its meaning, the social truth that created it is confirmed; true because if your mark is high you are consistently rewarded, so that your voice becomes a voice of authority in the power-knowledge discourses that reproduce the structure that helped to produce you; true because if your mark is low your voice becomes muted and confirms your lower position in the social hierarchy; true finally because that success or failure confirms that mark that implicitly predicted the now self-evident consequences. And so the circle is complete.”

    In other words students “internalize” what those “marks” (grades/test scores) mean, and since the vast majority of the students have not developed the mental skills to counteract what the “authorities” say, they accept as “natural and normal” that “story/description” of them. Although paradoxical in a sense, the “I’m an “A” student” is almost as harmful as “I’m an ‘F’ student” in hindering students becoming independent, critical and free thinkers. And having independent, critical and free thinkers is a threat to the current socio-economic structure of society.

    1. Great summary, Duane. Tack onto it the work of various standardized test debunkers, going back to Banesh Hoffmann (THE TYRANNY OF TESTING) and that of Alfie Kohn on the psychological problems associated with grades and other extrinsic “motivators” and how they comprise manipulation of children that undermines real learning, (PUNISHED BY REWARDS) and it becomes clearer that studies like the cited one from Stanford really are close to meaningless, particularly when used as the sole or primary criterion for evaluating schools, teachers, and/or students.

      1. “manipulation of children” is exactly what is occurring. A truly sad state of affairs. And Wilson’s critique of standards and standardized testing holds true for the “grading” of students. The grading of students has to be one of the most culturally ingrained malpractices that we have to get rid of in order to have public education fulfill it’s constitutional duties, at least in 20 of the states where there is a reason given for the state mandates for public schools. From Ch. 1 of my forthcoming book:

        I propose, then, the following concise statement of the purpose of public education with which, hopefully, most in the United States could agree:
        “The purpose of public education is to promote the welfare of the individual so that each person may savor the right to life, liberty, the pursuit of happiness, and the fruits of their own industry.”

        Any educational practice that is shown to hinder, block and/or otherwise cause an individual to not be able to indulge in any of aspect of his/her rights as stated has to be considered as harmful and unjust not only to the individual but also to society and therefore must rightly be condemned as educational malpractice and ought to be immediately discontinued. Trampled rights are rights that are non-existent and the educational malpractice that tramples any right is unjust and as noted in Alabama’s constitution “is usurpation and oppression” and as Missouri’s declares “. . . when government does not confer this security, it fails in its chief design.”
        I contend that many of today’s federal and state mandates-standards and standardized testing and even long standing educational practices-grades are, indeed, malpractices that trample the rights of the most innocent in society, the children, the students of all ages attending public schools, in essence “it [public education] fails in its chief design.” Should the government through the public schools be sorting, separating, ranking, and/or grading students through rationo-logically bankrupt invalid practices discriminating against some while rewarding others? I contend it should not! Where is the justice in discriminatory practices? By evaluating those malpractices against the aforementioned purpose we will be able to ascertain whether or not they are just.

    1. I don’t live in Philadelphia, and I do not have the resources to travel there just to see a documentary.

      As I write this, there is no way for me to see the documentary online.
      As I write this, there is no way for me to purchase a DVD of the documentary.
      As I write this, there is no way for me to read the reviews of people who fact checked the documentary.

      So really, the only way the existence of “Backpack Full of Cash” to change my point of view is if I change my point of view based on what Matt Damon thinks.

      Sorry, Mr. Damon. I liked The Martian a lot, but not quite that much.

  17. Thanks for everyone giving their perspective as teachers.

    If you will indulge me, I would like to give my perspective of the situation as a parent.

    Imagine that I am trying to choose a school for my child. For the sake of this hypothetical, assume that I live in a state that allows charters and vouchers and I have a choice of a number of schools, including public schools.

    How can I decide where to send my child?

    1. I can base my choice on average test scores.
    Counterargument: Pubic school advocates say that average test scores have no value in predicting if a school is good.

    2. I can base my choice on Collage Admissions.
    Counterargument: Pubic school advocates say that collage admission rates have no value in predicting if a school is good.

    3. I can base my choice on the school’s philosophy on educational methods.
    Counterargument: Public school advocates say that I, not having a teaching degree, am not qualified to assess the best kind of teaching environment for my child.

    4. I can base my choice on the school’s annual schedule. Specifically, I can pick a school that does not use the outdated, and harmful, summer break model.
    Counterargument: Public schools typically have the summer break. I have never had the chance to raise it with public school advocates, nevertheless I suspect that they will tell me that I am misinformed about the concept of “summer slide”.

    5. I can base my choice on the motives of the people running the schools.
    Counterargument: I don’t know these people well enough to judge their moral character, and neither do you.

    6. I can base my choice on a desire to support the public school system.
    Counterargument: This is the one that public school advocates tend to push. I am never clear why I should make decisions for my child based on what is best for some institution rather then what is best for my child. Nevertheless, this is the philosophy behind the “Save our Public Schools” argument in the anti-voucher debate.

    I could keep going, but I think this is enough to make my point.

    Now, I want the public school advocates to resist the first impulse to explain why I am wrong. Instead, please take a minute to think about things from my perspective. Even if that was not your personal intent, I have felt like your side has been trying to bully me into accepting the decision your side has decided is right, without listening to any of my concerns or input.

    If you can give me some way of empirically determining what kind of school would be best for my child, I would greatly appreciate it. If that empirical evidence comes back that public schools are best for all children in all circumstances that happen in the USA, I will also become a public school advocate.

    Right now, my position is that more school choice (regulated, and monitored) is better. My biggest arguments for school choice are as follows:
    A. Different children need different educational environments. Private sector competition is better at producing variety then public services.
    B. Service providers are typically more responsive to their customers if the customers have the option go to a different provider with their concerns. My public school system in my home town was unresponsive to the concerns of my family on multiple occasions. I feel that the educationsl system can be improved by additional choice.

      1. For those who cannot see the video linked by Mr. Goldenburg let me provide a summary:

        One guy asks a question. (The actual question is not answered, nor given proper context. It can be ignored)
        The other guy says something about battles being less helpful then coming together.
        He then says that public schools have done an okay job, though they have room for improvement. (I agree for the most part.)
        He points out that lots of factors outside of a school can influence test scores. (Also agree, that is why you need to account for such things in studies.)
        He says we should be talking about students without access to counselors.
        He then asks “Why is choice only a black choice?” I do not understand the question. And then he says that white communities are not met with these decisions, and as he is starting to explain and add context the video ends the segment mid-sentence.

        I like this guy. I suspect we may disagree on the issue of school choice, but in the two minutes that I saw of him he expressed genuine concern for people and a desire for improvement.

        Unfortunately, the video did not deliver anything that significantly challenged my worldview. Nothing I disagreed with was given enough context to form a cohesive argument. In fact, I don’t know for certain he disapproves of school choice. For all I know, he supports school choice but feels that it is less important then the issues he brought up.

        Speaking of those issues, I suspect that school choice can help with the issue of counselors. Imagine if schools advertised themselves saying “We have a full time counselor for every X students.” These schools will attract more attention and students then those without counselors.

    1. Michael, when I try to decide which school I should send my kids to, I try to talk to parents, teachers and, most of all, to students. I don’t investigate academic reputation, rankings and similar objective sounding descriptions. None of that matters to me. What matters is the human environment: whether my child will like learning if she or he goes to a given school.

      Why? Because the biggest problem I see is that kids get bored with school and burn out by the time they get to college. I want my kids to be life-long learners. I then know that they will be happy, and will have interesting lives, and they will make good choices. Guaranteed.

      1. That . . . is a really good idea.

        Thanks Mr. Wierdl. If I do have school choice when the day my child is old enough to enter school I will keep this advice in mind.

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