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Monday, July 1, 2002

A Primer on America’s Schools

Who Should Decide What Students Learn?

This volume presents 11 essays on the state of K-12 education in the United States. It is the first effort by the Koret Task Force, a group of scholars commissioned to “encourage a stronger connection between policymaking and good social science” in the area of K-12 education. The essays in this first publication do three things: they provide basic background on the American system of K-12 education; they indicate what the authors view as the key problems with the current system; and they explain several authors’ preferred means of rectifying these problems.

In the first of those tasks, the volume succeeds admirably. Diane Ravitch and John Chubb give a brief history of K-12 education and a concise overview of current practice (or, more accurately, malpractice). Herbert Walberg discusses what our K-12 education currently achieves in terms of measurable educational goals, and Eric Hanushek examines the (weak) relation between education spending and outcomes. Paul Peterson provides a useful review of the evidence on vouchers.

The volume also succeeds in the second of its tasks. Of particular importance here are Chester Finn’s discussion of teacher certification and Terry Moe’s analysis of teachers’ unions. Both make a convincing case that these institutions impede productivity in K-12 education. Certification and unionization are protections for the education establishment, inhibiting competition and ensuring mediocrity.

In its third task, however, the book is far from compelling. Moe’s Primer is meant more as an outline for future work than as a completed analysis, so it is perhaps premature to judge. Yet the authors appear confident in their prescriptions for improving K-12 education, and there is a consistent perspective from most of them.

The “consensus” view is that to improve K-12 education, policy must “establish high standards” and “hold schools accountable.” In particular, several authors advocate the use of “high-stakes” tests administered on a regular basis to students. The idea is that if students know they must pass such a test to advance, and if teachers, principals, and administrators know their funding depends on these test scores, both sides will make sure students test well, with positive effects on the quality of education.

Testing is undoubtedly a critical part of any educational experience, and some critiques lodged against high-stakes testing are just plain silly (for example, “some students might fail!”). Likewise, lack of accountability certainly exacerbates existing problems: if nothing bad happens when students do not learn, educators have insufficient motivation to change their behavior.

But further reflection suggests the high-stakes testing approach has its own drawbacks. If a state-wide test is not well-designed, all students suffer. The response that policymakers must therefore design a good test is easier said than done. Political forces inevitably intervene.

High-stakes tests are also problematic because over time, political forces push standards down to the point where everyone passes. In that case, testing merely creates more bureaucracy and distracts attention from other reforms.

A further problem with high-stakes tests is that the rewards attached to test outcomes encourage cheating by students, teachers, and administrators. A related problem is “teaching to the test” in ways that are not well-connected to improved educational outcomes. Under such conditions, increased test scores are not meaningful. Indeed, recent research finds that parents do not put much value on improvements in high-stakes test scores.

It is thus unclear that high-stakes testing can induce accountability without causing more harm then good. Is there a better response? Caroline Hoxby’s essay suggests it is to leave accountability to parents, not the government. That is, give parents more choice (for example, via vouchers) and allow them to decide what qualities they want in their children’s education.

This approach is not appealing to many so-called liberals, who do not trust parents to make good choices. Interestingly, it is also unattractive to many conservatives, who similarly distrust parents. That is why they want to impose one curriculum on all schools and hold everyone “accountable.”

This, then, is the central issue that confronts the Koret Task Force: who gets to decide what students should learn? Most members of the task force appear to believe it should be the government. This is a surprising conclusion from a group that generally favors markets over government, and it is one for which the Task Force has so far provided little evidence.

While A Primer on America’s Schools is useful in delineating the grave weaknesses of our “public” (government-run) education system, it is less persuasive in the improvements department. A point worth debating is whether our heavily politicized education system is capable of anything beyond cosmetic change. The Koret Task Force might want to ponder this question in its future work.

  • Jeffrey Miron is a Senior Lecturer and Director of Undergraduate Studies in the Department of Economics at Harvard University, as well as a senior fellow at the Cato Institute.