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Thursday, May 06, 2010  

Removing the Goal Posts

For decades, the political right in America has advocated school vouchers as a way to improve student performance, especially in drastically low-achieving urban school systems. Some of these systems quite appropriately tried voucher pilot programs, with results that are not exactly encouraging. Along comes Charles Murray, approvingly noted by Ross Douthat, saying that raising test scores was never the point in the first place:

It should come as no surprise. We’ve known since the landmark Coleman Report of 1966, which was based on a study of more than 570,000 American students, that the measurable differences in schools explain little about differences in test scores. The reason for the perpetual disappointment is simple: Schools control only a small part of what goes into test scores.

Cognitive ability, personality and motivation come mostly from home. What happens in the classroom can have some effect, but smart and motivated children will tend to learn to read and do math even with poor instruction, while not-so-smart or unmotivated children will often have trouble with those subjects despite excellent instruction. If test scores in reading and math are the measure, a good school just doesn’t have that much room to prove it is better than a lesser school.

That's not how I remember the arguments over vouchers at all. The argument against public schools was not primarily that they were a one-size-fits-all-monopoly, but that they failed to educate students to a decent level. Maybe they failed because of the monopoly structure, or because of political correctness, or because of schools' susceptibility to parental indifference (this is the highest praise I've ever seen Charles Murray give, even by implication, to the parenting skills of poor people). Often enough these arguments melded into an against-all-enemies conservative indictment of the government, academia, and urban communities. But that doesn't matter. The key premise of the voucher movement was that several big-city school systems were failing to do their primary job, and about this there was essentially no debate. Vouchers were cast as a drastic but needed policy to improve the educational attainment of poor students who were undeniably languishing under the status quo.

It's been a long time since I've been especially ideological on education policy. I've seen terrible public schools up close and I'm all for radical experiments when you have as little to lose as some systems have (I'd like to see fairer funding for schools on statewide and national levels, too, but even that can't account for all, or most of the terrible inequities we experience). So it gives me no satisfaction to hear that vouchers haven't accomplished what they were supposed to. Now, voucher advocates are trying to say that this was never the intention in the first place. Douthat quotes Scott Sumner, echoing Murray's point about parents being able to choose how their children will be educated: "I’ve always thought parental satisfaction was the proper criteria." Well, I prefer the criterion to be "can the child read, write, and do the basic math needed for daily living?" Test scores aren't ideal, but at least they measure something. Parental satisfaction is, from the standpoint of actual policy goals, nearly meaningless. Maybe Mom is happy because at least at the new school her kid gets paddled for swearing. Maybe Dad is pleased to find past-life regression and transcendental meditation on a curriculum. Who knows? If the service in question were health care and you decided not to measure the vital signs of the child but rather the parent's satisfaction with the treatment, people would call you crazy.

All the same, Murray's point needs to be dealt with, though I'm not exactly surprised he doesn't take it on. It's probably true that education policy debates tend to place too much weight on what can be accomplished by a good school (this was, if anything, the signal exaggeration of the voucher movement). This should prompt us to ask about those other factors--Murray cites "cognitive ability, personality, and motivation" but I would prioritize health, nutrition, public safety, neglect and abuse, and lead exposure--and what may be done about them. This, I take it, is part of what motivates the Harlem Children's Zone. It has been Charles Murray's aim to keep people he considers to have inferior genes, character, or motivation in lives of unrelieved poverty or incarceration, taking particular care not to encourage such specimens to reproduce. Others have reached different conclusions about the malleability of human capacities and the desirability of nurturing even the unpleasant and unworthy. But once the topic has been changed from schools to extra-school environments, the pundit must choose--let the children wither or attempt different, perhaps more far-reaching interventions. I hope that voucher advocates other than Murray are as serious about that question as they were about reforming public education.

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posted by Benjamin Dueholm | 11:56 AM
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