Reading & Reacting: Tom Friedman’s Right: There Is No Shanghai Secret

Photo: Wall Street

cc licensed ( BY ) flickr photo by thetaxhaven

Marc Tucker @ Edweek’s Top Performers blog

Part I

In looking at the recent release of Endangering Prosperity: A Global Review of the American School, by edreformists Eric Hanushek, Peter Peterson, and Ludger Woessmann, Marc Tucker takes on market-based reform and usesNew York Times columnist Thomas Friedman to show that the edreformy Emperor indeed stands naked.

My objection to these strategies has nothing to do with ideology. It is pragmatic. First, after years of implementation, as I have written elsewhere, there is still no evidence that market solutions will produce results superior to the results that we have been getting, certainly not the kind of results we would have to have to overcome the gigantic deficiencies that Hanushek, Peterson and Woessmann document in this book. The authors are correct in saying that teacher quality is the most important factor in improving the performance of our schools, but, as far as I know, they can point to no country in the world that has used the strategies they advocate to get decisive improvements in teacher quality. There is, in short, no evidence that the strategies they want the United States to bet on will work.

His objection may be a pragmatic one but it bears repeating. There is no evidence that market-based reforms are effective. In fact, there is more evidence to suggest that they are actually more damaging. Yet, as I have been writing for some time evidence is not terribly important to edreform activists like Hanushek and pals. In fact, as Tucker explains, Hanushek, Peterson, and Woessmann don’t even present much in the way of solutions, just more piling on pointing out problems.

Hanushek has long been a critic of education programs, teachers, and their unions. I first remember coming across his work, in the Malcolm Gladwell New Yorker piece “Most Likely to Succeed How do we hire when we can’t tell who’s right for the job?” a few years ago. Like Gladwell, Hanushek makes an everything-you-think-makes-sense-is-actually-wrong case for how teachers are trained or effective.

Then Tucker cites Friedman’s recent column, where he is in Shanghai with the Teach for America and their international spin-off in search of their secret. Ironically, what Friedman discovers is that there is no secret, much to Tucker’s delight. While praising China for their education efforts, Tucker uses them to undermine the entire voucher, charter, and punitive teacher accountability agenda.

What might be even more fascinating is that according to people like Yong Zhao, who I wrote about yesterday, China is actually trying to infuse their education system to be more American, at least what America has been before the rise of edreform.

Part II

Perhaps even more interesting is Tucker’s linked examination of market-based reforms. After making a case for just how American markets are thought to be, he begins interrogating certain assumptions.

So it seems obvious that, if we want to improve student performance and drive down the skyrocketing costs of education, we need to create effective markets in education and lubricate those markets with choice.

But do we really know all that?  What I have just stated is the theory behind some of the most popular education reform strategies in the United States today.  But there is no evidence, in the field of public education, anywhere among the advanced industrial countries, to back those propositions up.  In fact, the evidence points in the other direction.  Wherever these theories have been turned into policy in the field of education, they have not produced the advertised results.  They have neither raised student performance nor lowered costs at the scale of a state, province or nation.  The record actually shows that they can even make things worse.

Tucker goes on to explain the reality is that few parents select a school primarily based on the test scores, student achievement, or even the academic program. There are a variety of factors considered first. In fact, the idea that parents seek schools based on spurring academic achievement is undermined when authorities try enforcing school closures for “failing” schools.  As he explains, “Communities across the country rise up in anger when an administration proposes to shut down its poor-performing schools and those who are angriest are the parents of the students currently in those schools.” Yet, he doesn’t stop there.

Contrary to Arne Duncan’s recent rescinded comments about white suburban moms betting their houses and where they live on their children’s education,  Tucker cites an interesting study. In 1965, University of Chicago sociologist James Coleman found that “one of the most important factors explaining student performance was the socio-economic background of the other students in the school.” Perhaps the prevailing thinking about moving into a community where wealthier, better educated parents might live might not be the worst decision after all, in terms of their children’s education, brilliant be they or not.

As Tucker further explains,  market-based reforms only exacerbate the existing inequalities. After a lengthy comparison between haves and have-nots, it becomes clear that a “choice system and its market incentives will not improve average student performance, but it will, over time, work to make good schools better and bad schools worse.” Of course, this is does not fall along the everything-you-think-makes-sense-is-actually-wrong line of thinking.

Parents with any kind of means have been moving to communities with the best school districts, where the the wealthiest and best-educated parents are, extending themselves as much as possible hoping to make good on that common-sense understanding.

Again, there are no secrets. In this country the best education goes to the most affluent. If anything about the system needs fixing it concerns that fact. Market-based edreforms not only won’t work, they will only serve to make existing problems worse. In market-based thinking there are usually winners and losers. So what happens with the school children on the losing end of the market, because spoils go to the victors?

Image: iPad

posted via and flipped to Teaching Today

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