let’s take a deep dive into that Times article on school choice

The other day the New York Times published a big investigative piece into the school choice movement here in New York, by Elizabeth A. Harris and Ford Fessenden. Typical of its venue, it’s well reported and a serious attempt to grapple with complex issues. But it fails in ways that are very common to our educational reporting and which stem in part from the Official Dogma. Let’s dive in.

Student Outcomes ≠ Teacher Quality

First, a biggie: the assumption that you can simply compare relative outcomes of different groups of students and learn something meaningful about teacher or school quality, using graduation rates and similar raw measures to reflect on school quality.

This is galling in part because the Times just made the same mistake in a piece on the Upshot, where they misused research on performance relative to grade level. That’s not me saying it was misused, that’s the researchers themselves saying it was misused. As I hope is clear to anyone who reads this blog, simply comparing different outcomes is an invalid way to measure schools and teachers because students come in with large, preexisting differences in prerequisite ability. The sources of that inequality are multiple and complex, but they are real and inarguable. Even if you have a higher opinion than I do of various value added models and other efforts to adjust for ability effects, you should know that you have to at least do something to account for these differences. Here’s the caveat we get:

Graduation rates are not a perfect proxy for education quality. In many schools, students arrive far behind, and it is a major effort to help them graduate on time. Elsewhere, ninth graders show up on Day 1 doing work at grade level or above, so the steps required to get them diplomas are less onerous. And it is difficult to say how much of a school’s success is because of what happens within its walls — the curriculum, the teachers, the leadership — and how much is because of advantages children bring from home. But graduation remains a meaningful measure of a school, and of the opportunities it provides.

Graduation remains a meaningful measure of social outcomes – but not a measure of school quality.

Selection Bias at Its Most Stark

Here’s the kind of paragraph that lays out the basic dynamics so starkly it amazes me that the writers don’t really catch on.

The citywide graduation rate for all kinds of high schools is 72.6 percent, according to the Education Department. But that average masks sharp variations between schools based on their admissions methods. When Measure of America analyzed the rate for each method, it found that selectivity and graduation rates declined essentially in lock step, and that as graduation rates fell, the students were more likely to be poor and black or Hispanic.

Yes, indeed – selectivity and graduation rates decline in step. The screening mechanism is the single most powerful determiner of their own metric of school quality! The black and Hispanic students live and learn in conditions that are, on average, profoundly different than those of their white peers, in ways that are apparent to anyone who knows the distribution of advantage in this country. That the reporters don’t make the obvious conclusion here would be remarkable if not for the context of education journalism in general. In that context, it’s sadly common.

Everyone Cannot Be Above Average 

Again, I don’t mean to be endlessly previewing a post, but I keep meaning to lay out this basic point about education policy: we think what we care about is absolute educational gains (are students learning?) but what we really care about is relative educational gains (are students who typically perform poorly relative to peers making gains?). If the question was simply whether students are learning as they age, the news would be very good. Average people keep getting smarter all the time, across every identifiable demographic grouping. Meanwhile, the biggest impediment to closing the racial achievement gap is the fact that white and Asian kids keep learning too; black students, as a class, learn as much as white peers during the school year. They simply start off behind, even prior to formal schooling. So “are students learning?” isn’t really the question. Are students learning “enough” in an absolute sense? It’s not a question that we can answer coherently because no one knows what enough might be.

What people really care about is relative performance, but they don’t know it, and lack a vocabulary to really understand what they’re asking for. So consider this passage.

Kristen Lewis, one of the directors of Measure of America, said the data revealed, in essence, two separate public school systems operating in the city. There are some great options for the families best equipped to navigate the application process. But there are not enough good choices for everyone, so every year thousands of children, including some very good students, end up in mediocre high schools, or worse.

“The average kid has to be able to get a good education, because most people are average,” Ms. Lewis said. “It’s great that the highfliers are succeeding, and they deserve the chance to succeed. But so do the average kids.”

Now: I absolutely agree that what matters is the median student, not the ones at the top. Ed talk tends to be obsessed with the kid who pulls herself up out of poverty, goes to Stanford, and founds a startup. But those cases are necessarily few and far between. (When people talk about creating equality in education, what kind of equality do they mean? Actual, summative equality in terms of quality of life? Or an equal chance to leave the rest behind? I don’t think the people who talk like that have the slightest idea.) So I want to affirm that focus on Johnny Average and Jane Average.

But: what then can a “good education” mean, if it’s combined with the idea that most people are average? What can succeeding mean if we concede that most people are average? What people typically mean by a good education is strong relative performance on academic benchmarks. But the average student can only ever reach an average position on those benchmarks, in the basic, Lake Wobegon sense. If a student climbs above others, those others necessarily move down the rankings. There’s only one valedictorian, only 10% of a graduating class in the top 10%, only so many spots at Harvard. Indeed, the value of those relative rankings derives directly from the limited number of slots within them. And it’s truly a zero sum game. One kid climbing up to the top 10 of her class means another kid loses his spot. That’s inevitable; it’s a basic fact of life. If you’re her, or her parents, then fine – you got yours. But from the point of view of the system, which is the point of view of policy, swapping one kid out and another one in is only a victory if you favor the interests of the kid who’s made it to the top. This is an persistent source of enormous confusion in our conversations about education.

You could say that what we want is to squash the variance in outcomes – to narrow up the bell curve on test scores and GPA and the like so that all students are more tightly spread near the average. That would necessarily reduce the number of high outliers too, which seems contrary to the whole American ethos of excellence, but as a commie I’m cool with it. But is that what we really want? And do we have any evidence that, at scale, we can narrow the spread in that way? I’m skeptical.

Rather, the implicit endorsement here and elsewhere seems to be of academic mobility, not of academic equality. Just as people implicitly treat the economic system as more just if any individual can rise out of poverty to get a good job, people think that the system is more just if a poor black kid can rise out of a Bronx public school and go to Yale. While I would love it if more poor black kids could rise out of Bronx public schools to Yale, those students would simply be leaving most other kids behind. Why should we value the interests of the risers over the mass of students? Again, we just said that the average student is what matters, and the average student will always be average. And as with students, so with schools. If you close the poorest performing schools, you simply move the next set of schools down the rankings of performance. There’s always going to be a distribution of outcomes in any ordinal metric; that’s a basic feature of a world of variability.

The fact of the matter is, mobility is necessarily antagonistic to equality. Every student who moves up pushes another one down. These values are in direct tension, and yet no one seems to pause for a moment and really critically evaluate what we’re asking for. If your interest is in promoting equality then you should agitate against mobility, as true mobility will result only in more outliers – both above and below the mean. If instead you are concerned with simply providing a better quality of life for the most possible people, then you should focus on redistributive economic systems that ameliorate the effects of poverty and create a downward pressure on the wealth of those at the very top. Then you can allow education to go back to being education, rather than seeing it constantly as an instrument of economic manipulation – a role for which it has proven totally unsuited.

What We Want From Education is Completely Undertheorized

I don’t want to be harsh to the reporters here. Their concern for these kids is genuine and commendable. But I am struck again and again in the piece by the sense that they don’t know, really, what we want from schools. The reporters want, in a vague way, for all students to be able to attend a “good school.” And so do I, of course. But they don’t define what a good school is in a way that makes sense, and ultimately this contributes to an environment where schools and teachers are blamed for conditions they can’t possibly control. Consider this passage.

Sean P. Corcoran, an associate professor of economics and education policy at New York University, has researched the choice process and how students match. He said that the best option is for students to reach for the best possible school for which they are qualified, and indeed, most students get one of their top choices. But in many cases, students reach either too low or too high.

Again: there are limited seats at every school. And if you could somehow dramatically upscale the carrying capacity of individual schools, there’s no reason to believe that they would maintain the relative advantage Dr. Corcoran is talking about here. Indeed, the selection bias that haunts the entire article suggests that expanding access to disadvantaged students will result in poorer outcomes and thus lower perceived school quality. Moreover, what about the students who are not qualified for a “good” school? What happens to them? Here’s a sentence from later in the article:

These improvements make real differences in the lives of students, but they leave plenty of room for children to fall through the cracks.

This should go without saying: if we’re looking for the students who are most qualified, we are ensuring that some students fall through the cracks. To elevate one student up an ordered ranking is to deepen the fall of the student left behind. If instead we insist that all students are equally qualified, we are necessarily erasing the notion of a good student entirely. These contradictions are basic and unavoidable, and yet they simply are not discussed in prominent educational writing and reporting.

All of this stems from good intentions and a commitment to social justice. But what’s utterly clear is that neither of the reporters who put together this article, nor many of the stakeholders, really understands their own desires. This is broadly true of education policy in general. It’s not just that we can’t get what we want. It’s that nobody really knows what they’re trying to accomplish. Our educational system cannot simultaneously be a tool for creating equality and an instrument for rewarding excellence. Nor has education ever been demonstrated to end poverty or reduce inequality. And until we have some tough conversations about what schools can and can’t accomplish, all of our promises are going to be broken.

nihilism in, nihilism out

Someone recently asked me about the growing anti-homework movement. I said I was agnostic, but generally felt that most students are probably getting assigned too much. But was it really true, she said, that research suggests that homework doesn’t improve grades or test scores? I told her that results are somewhat mixed – they’re always mixed – but yeah, the research is not encouraging. But how, she wondered, could I then not be more adamantly anti-homework than I am?

I laughed and told her that if teachers only did things that we knew had a meaningful impact on grades and test scores, they wouldn’t have anything to do.

This is the sort of thing that gets me accused of being an “edunihilist” sometimes. People accuse me of hopelessness and cynicism. I am told that my read of the data and of the policy context means leaves us with nowhere to go. But to me this implies a much larger nihilism. It implies that the only thing that matters in education is quantitative metrics, and it also implies that broader socioeconomic changes that could reduce inequality and close achievement gaps are impossible. What people who are stuck in test-scores-and-neoliberalism mindset are saying is that only a very narrow perspective on education matters and that the basic distribution of economic advantage in this country will never change. Who’s the real nihilist?

So for example, the funding question. Conservative types love to say “we can’t just throw money at the problem.” Are they right? Well, if you’re in an advanced economy and all you care about is test scores, sure:

But if we recognize that schools perform a set of vastly important social functions that have nothing to do with standardized tests or even with learning as traditionally defined – including housing, and often feeding, children in a safe environment for half their waking day, providing them with socialization and the ability to form meaningful peer-group relationships, and providing the only support for those with developmental and cognitive disabilities that many families will ever be able to take advantage of. I support public schools because I believe in education as typically defined, yes, but I also support public schools because they are one of the most direct forms of redistributive social programs in our country. If they provide nothing else for a warm place for kids to stay in the winter and a library of books for kids to read when they get bored, I’m fine with it. And if education has gotten much more expensive, it might be time to look at the runaway capitalist profiteering in this country that has also raised the costs of medicine, housing, and childcare.

It’s true: I believe that the degree of assumed plasticity of outcomes for both individual students and groups of students at particular performance bands has been broadly exaggerated in our educational debates. That is, I think what’s plausible in terms of improving quantitative outcomes through education-specific policy interventions is far more limited than the “no excuses” rhetoric lets on. I believe this because of a vast array of research showing remarkable continuity in individual student outcomes over the course of life, even in profoundly different educational circumstances. Is that nihilism? No. There are all sorts of other benefits that education can provide, to individuals and society, than just raising test scores or graduation rates. But assigning the people who perform poorly in school to lives of economic distress and drudgery, even though we know much of that outcome is the result of accidents of birth and bad luck? Sounds like nihilism to me.

Study of the Week: Nicaraguan Sign Language and the Speaking Animal

As I’ve mentioned before, research into childhood development is tricky, thanks to ethical and practical constraints on what researchers can do. Consider randomized controlled experimental studies – that is, taking a group of test subjects, dividing them at random into a group that receives some sort of experimenter-determined influence and a group that does not, and noting the differences between the two groups after. This is considered the gold standard for making causal inferences, and it is the way that, for example, we test the efficacy of drugs that are in development.

But there are obvious constraints. For one, ethics prevents us from deliberately causing harm; you can’t apply the condition of abuse or malnutrition to children, of course. But we remain interested in how these conditions affect development. There are also practical constraints. Even aside from ethical reasons, we have no way to randomly assign dyslexia or aphasia to people. More pragmatically, in educational research we often can’t randomly assign condition to individual students in a class setting. It’s simply not feasible or fair to ask a teacher to give, say, 7 students one lesson plan and 13 students another in the same class setting. Typically we instead assign condition to classes rather than individuals – Class A doing the conventional lesson plan (control) and Class B a new one (test). But there are issues with alpha and statistical inference there, though we can address them with things like hierarchical linear models and other types of nested models.

One of the places where research constraints have significantly limited out ability to investigate core developmental questions lies in language acquisition. The degree to which language is learned vs. acquired – indeed, what that distinction even means – remains somewhat unsettled. So does the question of a “critical period,” the idea that there is a time in the life cycle when children’s brains are particularly attuned to acquiring language. We have developed this intuition, in part, from the sturdy observation that children seem to be better able to acquire (learn?) a second language than adults, particularly when in an immersive environment. But conclusive proof of the existence of the critical period remains elusive, in part because we have limited ability to study what happens when children grow up in unusually linguistically poor environments. Given that we can’t go out of our way to stunt the language development of test subjects, for obvious reasons, we often have to turn to “natural experiments” – that is, situations where circumstances have conspired to create something like a natural assignment to condition. There’s all sorts of complicated epistemological questions in these cases, but they are often the best we can do give constraints.

Today’s Study of the Week concerns the development of language and just how powerful the human language instinct is, through one of the most fascinating natural experiments I’ve ever read about: the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language.

The Poverty of the Stimulus

Modern syntax has a kind of communal origin story, and like so many other aspects of linguistics, that origin story comes back to Noam Chomsky.

Chomsky famously rewrote the study of language, placing theoretical syntax at the fore of the field and declaring the study of language to be fundamentally part of cognitive science. Since at least Ferdinand de Saussure, the emphasis on mental structures (as opposed to exploring the development and “meaning” of arbitrary phonological shapes of particular words in particular languages) has been core to linguistics, but Chomsky took this work further than anyone, leading to a state where Chomsky acolyte Akeel Bilgrami could write in a 2015 book,

[The theory of language] is not a theory about external utterances, nor is it, therefore, about a social phenomenon. The nomenclature to capture this latter distinction between what is individual/internal/intensional and what is externalized/social is I-languages and E-languages respectively. It is I-languages alone that can be the subject of scientific study, not E-languages.

This is High Chomskyanism at its most frustrating, as I’ve written about before, but for our purposes will suffice to define his project. And this focus on the interior, cognitive dimensions of language is intimately connected to a central concept of Chomsky’s approach: the notion that the language capacity is a part of our genetic endowment, and that learning language is therefore fundamentally different from learning algebra or how to skip a rock. It was this contention that led to a book review which helped to make Chomsky’s reputation and which is part of the origin story of modern linguistics I mentioned above.

The book in question was written by BF Skinner, then the most famous and influential mind in psychology and human development. Skinner’s ideas – still prominent in parts of human psychology and especially in animal behaviorism – were centered on the idea of conditioning, the notion that behavior is the product of external systems of reward. Pavlov’s dog salivated when it heard a bell ring because it had been conditioned to associate that bell with a food reward; a neglected child throws tantrums because she has be conditioned to see doing so as the only way to get the reward of attention. In basic terms we can still see the truth of this essential insight, that behaviors that are rewarded tend to be repeated.

But Skinner, like a lot of great minds, over-generalized his most famous theory, seeking to push it into more and more domains. In particular, he wrote a book called Verbal Behavior, published in 1957, that sought to explain language acquisition through behaviorist principles. A child cries in a particular way, his mother learns that this cry means “I’m hungry,” and he is rewarded for communicating. As he grows, he makes more and more sophisticated sounds, modeling the words he hears around him, and is similarly rewarded. Eventually he develops adult language capacity through stimulus and reward.

Chomsky wrote a famous, famously scathing review of Skinner’s book. I suspect that the review has become somewhat overemphasized in the story of Chomsky and how he came to dominate contemporary linguistics, but there’s no question that it was a prominent early moment for his theories, or that taking on the old guard in that way was highly symbolic. Central to Chomsky’s critique was the concept of the “poverty of the stimulus.” The poverty of the stimulus argument depends on a simple observation: what even very young users of language can accomplish with language far exceeds what they’ve been exposed to. That is, the stimulus (their observations of the language use of others) is insufficient (impoverished) as an explanation for what they can do. The average five year old is perfectly capable of combining words and phrases in such a way that they produce a sentence that has never before been uttered in the history of the world. Language is made up of discrete parts that humans arrange into meaningful expressions without consciously controlling them, and the implicit rules through which we do this arranging are the natural subject of linguistic study. Or say say the followers of Chomsky.

Chomsky used the poverty of the stimulus theory as indirect evidence for the notion of a genetic language capacity, something unique to the human genome that gives us the ability to master the incredible complexity of real grammars without ever being formally trained in their use. (You don’t, I hope, sit there showing your 6 month old flash cards of the parts of speech.) Rather than arriving at language tabula rasa and acquiring it through the kind of rote practice that you learn to tie a tie, you “learn language in a way a bird learns wings,” as he once put it. We are the language-using animal, and this is the product of evolution and not of culture.

Where exactly this language capacity resides in the brain, and where the language instinct can be found in the genome, remain unanswered questions. And as with any prominent theory there are detractors and skeptics. The inability to conduct an experimental study to see how linguistic deprivation might influence the acquisition of language complicates our ability to sort these questions. But in the late 1970s, the government of Nicaragua inadvertently provided us with clues.

Nicaraguan Sign Language: the Language of the Truly Stimulus-Impoverished

For much of the history of the Nicaraguan state, deaf children had essentially no formal support from the government. As has been sadly typical in the history of children with disabilities, deaf Nicaraguan children were often socially isolated, kept at home away from peers and the greater community, typically lacking any formal education at all. Obviously, lacking the ability to hear and often to speak, and never being taught any kind of formal sign language, these children faced enormous obstacles to communicating effectively.

But in the late 1970s, a part of a broader set of social reforms, the government opened an elementary school for children with disabilities. Later on they would found a similarly-focused vocational school. For the first time, these communicatively-deprived children were granted the opportunity to interact with peers and learn in a formal setting. But they were still not granted the chance to be fully-functioning communicators. The school administrators had decided, for whatever reason, to restrict the students to signing – letter by letter – in Spanish, rather than teaching them a mature sign language. The communicative insufficiency of this should be obvious. Try speaking to someone you know by spelling out each word by the letter and you’ll see what I mean. So the kids took matters into their own hands: they generated their own human language.

Within a few years, a complex and robust language, Nicaraguan Sign Language (NSL), had been born. It has been passed down through generations of deaf Nicaraguan children, advancing and evolving quickly as it does. In time, researchers realized what this represented – a natural experiment on the linguistic capacities held by children who faced enormous disadvantages, and the chance to watch the birth of a new language in real time.

The Study

The story has been told in several places, but today I encourage you to read a 2004 study in Science on NSL. The study, by Ann Senghas, Sotaro Kita, and Asli Ozyurek, uses NSL to consider how languages develop over time. In particular, they use signs for types of motion to show how a language develops the ability to talk in greater abstraction and thus becomes more sophisticated and flexible. Why motion? Think about the nature of signing. If I want to get the concept of a wave across to you, I would naturally tend to make a wave with my hand, as remains the sign for wave in American Sign Language. But note that communicating iconically – that is, by matching something about the thing being referred to with something in the sign you’re using to refer to it – is in the broader sense unsophisticated or insufficient. What functioning languages must do is present the opportunity for abstraction and segmentation. Pictographic languages, where words are images of the things they stand for, are primitive because they prevent us from moving from those specifics to more general ideas. Instead, mature languages combine several key properties that make them flexible and useful:

We focus here on two particular properties of language: discreteness and combinatorial patterning. Every language consists of a finite set of recombinable parts. These basic elements are perceived categorically, not continuously, and are organized in a principled, hierarchical fashion. For example, we have discrete sounds that are combined to form words, that are combined to form phrases, and then sentences, and so on. Even those aspects of the world that are experienced as continuous and holistic are represented with language that is discrete and combinatorial. Together, these properties make it possible to generate an infinite number of expressions with a finite system.

The researchers therefore were interested in seeing how these properties were developing in NSL. So they divided their participants into different cohorts of aptitude and fluency in NSL, to see how much more abstracted the motion signs of the advanced NSL users might be. They found that in fact the more advanced cohort was significantly more likely to use the type of discrete patterning described above. That is, the more sophisticated speakers were, the more abstracted their description of motion was even though motion signs can be easily understood outside of a sign language context – and despite the fact that there are trade offs here:

Note that this change to the language, in the short term, entails a loss of information. When representations express manner and path separately, it is no longer iconically clear that the two aspects of movement occurred simultaneously, within a single event. For example, roll followed by downward might have instead referred to two separate events, meaning “rolling, then descending.” However, the communicative power gained by combining elements more than offsets this potential for ambiguity

This is essentially the deal that we make – that our brains make – as we develop more sophisticated languages. We trade simplicity (a picture of a sun for a system of sounds/letters that can be broken apart and assembled into a combination that conveys the abstracted idea “the sun”) for the capacity for complexity and abstraction. Given that many have argued that the development of sophisticated languages marks the beginning of humanity’s great intellectual leap forward out of the pre-modern phase and into civilization, this seems like a good trade indeed.

The question of how deeply embedded the language capacity may be in the human genome, and what precisely that capacity determines in terms of rules for how languages work, remain unanswered. Going on 60 years into the Chomsky project, we still don’t have a comprehensive set of “rules” that the genetic language capacity enforces on human expression. But the idea that language is a kind of information that is learned like any other, through conscious absorption and rote practice, seems unsupportable. To explain what these children did, and what humans have done for millennia, it seems inarguable to me that there is some special capacity in the genome for language learning, as surely as there is something in our genome that compels us to walk on two feet.

Wherever the study of human language development goes next, I will always come back to the story of Nicaraguan Sign Language, which has fascinated me for years and which never fails to amaze me even after all that I’ve read about it. This is that story: a group of young deaf children, all of whom suffered from severely reduced exposure to language compared to most children, many or most of whom grew up in poverty, some of whom had various other cognitive and developmental disabilities, spontaneously generated a functioning human grammar despite the immense complexity of such grammar and in the face of adult authorities actively trying to stop them from doing so. That’s the potential of the human language instinct, which functions, as a distributed network, as the most powerful information system in the history of the world. Nothing else, not even the entirety of the internet, comes close.

Published Elsewhere: the Rise of the Collegiate Liability Avoidance Class

Friends and followers of this blog, I have a piece up today at Current Affairs about how campus protesters must now navigate a new set of hurdles: the rise of college administrators whose explicit job it is to prevent controversy, and whose positions require them to act like student advocates when their employment inevitably means they will serve the best interests of their institutions.

Conservatives have, in recent years, made much of the various missteps involved in Title IX enforcement on campus, claiming that the tendency of universities to trample on due process in adjudicating Title IX complaints tells us something about modern feminism. They’re wrong. Rather, Title IX enforcement tells us something about the nature of bureaucracy. In particular, it tells us that people employed by an institution will always serve the needs of that institution first. Title IX ostensibly empowers administrators to pursue sexual inequality claims on campus with the backing of the federal government. But what it actually produces in practice is a small army of college employees whose real job is preventing colleges from absorbing the worst consequences for failing to achieve sexual equality. That is, by virtue of being employed within these institutions, even the most ethical and passionate Title IX enforcement officer ends up playing a defensive role on behalf of the institution. This is not an indictment of anyone’s integrity; it’s a statement about the nature of institutions….

Check it out!

why would school choice improve outcomes?

If you are a follower of this blog, you will likely have seen that DC’s federally funded voucher program has been an unmitigated disaster, with students within that program performing worse than those in traditional public schools. (Write up; study.) I’m gonna go ahead and say that these results are… not ideal.

People read about these things and ask me – why haven’t these programs succeeded? Why is the median charter school – and when it comes to public policy, it’s the average that matters – performing no better than the median public school? Why isn’t choice working? But perhaps it’s time to turn that question around: why would choice lead to better academic outcomes?

That the ability to choose between different schools will lead necessarily to better education – and by better education we of course mean “quantitative metrics such as test scores and graduation rates,” in today’s world – is so universally believed in policy circles that people rarely feel that the idea needs defending at all. Which is convenient, because the affirmative case for that idea is so incredibly weak.

The culprit, as it is in so many political realms, is Economics 101 thinking, the Yglesiazing of the policy mind. You see, by enabling choice, you create a market for schools, where once there was just the vile hand of government placing students into geographically-appropriate schools. And markets make things better! So in the conventional story, if I’m Johnny Capitalist and I open a widget factory, I have an existential need to offer a value proposition to my customers. I can make a good-enough widget for cheap and offer customers a value proposition. I can make a great widget for more and offer customers a luxury. Or I can offer some combination of the two. One way or the other, though, if I don’t make a widget that consumers want to buy, my customers will switch to one of my competitors, I will soon run out of money, and my widget factory will close. That pressure forces me to do a better job, and the consumer wins.

Now, this tidy narrative is in fact bogus even in the world of widget factories – real markets are an unholy mess of monopoly, crony capitalism, fraud, deceit, and marketing – but what’s relevant here is that a child’s brain is not a widget. The whole simplistic market analogy implies that schools have about the same control over a child’s educational outcomes as a business has over the product they create, and this is a plainly ludicrous idea. A school is like a widget factory if, rather than creating and controlling their widgets from the beginning and without exception, factories took widgets into their care four or five years after they were created, if the conditions of that creation and of those four or five years were profoundly unequal, and if the factory handed the widget off to the care of others for 18 out of every 24 hours. A widget factory has ownership over its widgets in a way that schools simply don’t have over students. Market forces can only possibly compel people to create a better “product” when those people enjoy substantial control over that product, and the number of variables that dictate academic performance which are not under the the control of schools is massive.

The school choice story persists despite being self-evidently incorrect because to acknowledge the obvious – that schools control a limited portion of the variance in a given student’s academic outcomes, and that there are profound limits on the plasticity of those outcomes – would be to violate the Official Dogma.

There are no specific pedagogical mechanisms that are tied to the doctrine of choice. There’s no secret book titled “Actually Good Pedagogy” that only charter schools get to buy. There is no experimental approach to learning long division that is only employed in private schools. Your average child moving from one type of school to another might find that their social world has changed, that their commute is easier, or that they like the cafeteria food better. But there is no consistent differences in how charter school teachers teach, no fundamental difference in approach between public and private. When people ask me why the results from some atypical charter success story fail to scale up in places like Detroit or Chicago or Nashville, I often say “because ‘charter school’ is not a meaningful experimental condition.” What, exactly, are we really replicating? Schools in the Mississippi Delta can’t replicate Success Academy’s endless churn of young striving Ivy Leaguer types who are willing to come and teach for two or three years at low pay and with shitty job security, out of the desire to live in New York no matter what their employment conditions. (And you shouldn’t try to replicate their abusive pedagogical practices.) What the designation “charter school” shares broadly is only the ability to fire teachers with impunity, that’s all. And that could only possibly work to improve outcomes, again, in a world where teachers control student outcomes in a straightforward and uncomplicated way. They don’t.

But the school reform movement cannot fail, it can only be failed, and true to the character of that movement, the DC vouchers fiasco is already being spun.

It should go without saying: this is the kind of excuse making and blame shifting that reform proponents have always inveighed against when it comes from defenders of traditional public education. In a classic case of moving the goalposts, proponents are saying, hey, it was federal money! Hey, it’s still early! Hey, the funding just wasn’t there! What a remarkable difference from decades of insisting that educational miracles were possible if only we adopted a “no excuses” mentality. I find it all truly cynical. For years, reform advocates have insisted that the magic of markets will improve test scores, and that test scores and test scores alone are the way to judge schools. When their pet programs fail to produce in terms of those very test scores, suddenly, choice proponents discover the value of concerns other than test scores.

Most cynical of all is when, after decades of selling choice as a means, they suddenly celebrate it as an end itself. School choice didn’t give us any of the promised gains, but hey – parents can choose! Choice itself is good! This is how bad policy gets justified after the fact. Choice, of course, is the golden calf of neoliberalism, a shibboleth that has been used to justify gutting public programs and destroying public accountability. And choice proponents conveniently forget that these programs result in devastating loss of funding to traditional schools. But once the program is built, and the right people are getting the dollars, and you’ve already locked people in to the system – well, who cares if the thing actually works? And thus the school reform movement, a decades-long series of massive failures even under its own terms, lumbers on through the halls of power.