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Education Fri May 07 2010

The Unhelpful Voucher Conversation

Megan Cottrell at True/Slant has decided that the defeated measure to create a pilot voucher program in Chicago has "doom[ed] thousands of poor children to an inferior education." This type of hyperbole, besides being indefensible, has helped make real reform of our schools impossible. No, defeating a voucher program proposed in a vacuum is not what is "dooming" anybody. One reason is that inside of an education regime with high-stakes testing that results in ham-fisted school closures and displacement and punishes rather than fixes problems in our schools, a voucher program only takes students more likely to succeed already out of the system, and--well, should we say "dooms hundreds of thousands of poor children to an inferior education"? No, I think that's too loaded.

Ms. Cottrell considers her support of school vouchers as being contrarian, but it isn't really; it is liberals that are the critical champions of the school privatization movement of which voucher programs are only a part. There is no liberal consensus about vouchers being bad--it is only that the Democratic Party, hewing to teachers unions, has been institutionally hesitant about supporting them.

That hesitance is not merely kowtowing to special interests, as Ms. Cottrell argues. It is because there is no definitive data that with high-stakes testing as the metric, vouchers work, as even supporters of charters and vouchers acknowledge. So long as high-stakes testing is the primary measure of "outcomes", programs such as vouchers will merely bleed money from public schools and redirect the funds to much less accountable, much less democratic privately-run schools. With the data coming back that long-term voucher programs have no appreciable results, their advocates are admitting vouchers are only a partial, structural reform that needs to be part of a wider program. In an op-ed, charter and voucher advocate Charles Murray makes the point that cherry-picking programs like vouchers without more comprehensive curricular and pedagogical reform will not be helpful exactly because the metrics used to evaluate schools is inadequate:

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.

Advocates of vouchers try to paint their opponents as union shills or uncaring cynics who would rather allow all children to fail than "free" some kids to succeed. This is unhelpful. By that reasoning, partial voucher and "school choice" expects most students to fail. In the choice-and-competition model, there is a presumption of winners and losers--that's what competition is. But I would never accuse voucher advocates like Ms. Cottrell of shrugging towards the hundreds of thousands of children who would be left to fail if privatization initiatives like this one are implemented piecemeal. Those on the front lines of privatization efforts likely sincerely believe these programs are helpful; however, there are plenty of reasons to be skeptical that they are in fact helpful, and even some reasons to believe they could be harmful.

Teachers unions have culpability in this debate, there is no question. Unions are accountable to their membership first and foremost, but the profession of teaching is not like working on an assembly line. There is a public trust component that is at its core, and teachers unions cannot afford, as a matter of right and strategically, to ignore the concerns of the community when defining their policy posture. Teachers unions cannot continue to fight privatization efforts by countering with the status quo. Unfortunately that is exactly what many teachers locals do, to their own detriment. Yet it is not at all in question how dedicated most teachers are to their students and to their jobs. Despite demagoguing about lazy, comfortable teachers, for much of their careers teachers are overworked and paid fairly reasonably, with an extremely emotionally and psychologically taxing job--according to Health Magazine [PDF], inner city school teacher was the most stressful job in the US. Teachers live middle class existences while performing an extremely difficult job that comes with constant criticism and attacks by the public. They have a vested interest in seeing their schools and students succeed.

There is a common false choice argument that privatization advocates make: if you oppose these measures that would give "hope" to some kids, it is because you think the status quo is defensible. But of course that isn't the case. We could just as easily say that those willing to institute any change at all out of hatred of the status quo--even programs that simply do not have the data to justify them--are reckless and unconcerned with the future of public education. But that is unhelpful. Let's avoid pretending we know what is in each other's hearts, let's assume one another's best intentions.

It may very well be that vouchers and charters can be an effective part of school reform--indeed, Sweden has an effective voucher program. But Sweden also has a wide and deep social safety net that precludes the type of poverty that correlates so perfectly to failing schools. It also has rigorous oversight of the private schools that hold them to the same standards as public schools, and, a big thing, they lack the at-will employment that puts teachers at the mercy of politicians and principals and sees immense burn-out rates at charter schools, what's been called the "charter churn". If we are to believe the privatizers' claim that unions exist merely to defend bad teachers, how does that square with the fact that charters have trouble keeping teachers--and thus lose critical experience and institutional memory that any teacher will tell you are critical to learning proper pedagogy and classroom management.

If there are special interests behind the opposition to vouchers, there are special interests on the other side, too. Surely the Walton Family and the millionaire industrialists who bankroll privatization think tanks are not disinterested in privatizing a system that would mean hundreds of billions of dollars of revenue from a captive market. Surely the testing industry that lobbies for high-stakes standardized testing is not disinterested. Shall we accuse Ms. Cottrell of being a dupe of these private interests? Or is it more reasonable to say that the presence of special interests in the debate doesn't imply a necessary lack of concern for "the kids".

Vouchers encourage those students already most likely to succeed--those students with parents actively involved in their education, to the point they would research choice options, and regularly evaluate results that would direct their decision making--to leave the system. But public schools must educate everybody. It isn't a traditional market--it's a captive market with practical geographic limitations. So you would be left with schools with harder-to-educate kids, and the test results would get worse and worse, and with the current high-stakes testing regime in place, we'd find more public schools getting closed, charter caps being lifted, and private operators dominating a public system, without ever really trying to fix public schools.

So should those likely-to-succeed kids be trapped in failing schools? No, that is hardly the solution. But a bifurcated public-private school system would ensure those kids "somewhat likely" and less likely to succeed would be trapped. What about them?

Education reform needs to be comprehensive. The property-tax funding system needs to be abrogated for something more equitable. Private operators need to be brought into line with oversight regulations. Teachers at all schools need to be granted some degree of job security and work rules that forestall the charter churn. Parents need to be guaranteed democratic input into how their schools are run, and, perhaps more importantly, those neighborhoods where parental involvement are at its lowest need to be targeted for integrated community involvement in student safety and mentoring programs. Fluidity of public money between public and private schools would be less of a threat to those hundreds of thousands of students not on the path to success if a more holistic view of the problem were taken. The mereological fallacy that assumes one part of a reform program can stand in for the program as a whole is exactly what opponents of vouchers and privatization fear. Piecemeal reform will only accelerate an extant problem: it will continue to sap resources from under-resourced schools with no solution for students that remain behind, and ensure that the current unfair metrics used to evaluate schools undermine community schools further.

One thing is certain: by name-calling opponents and accusing them of ignoring a tragedy to cozy up to a special interest group, you signal an unwillingness to work with critical stakeholders to actually address the problem: and, in fact, from a purely strategic standpoint, you make progress more difficult and exacerbate the problem. I won't claim to be innocent of this attitude--it's an emotional issue and emotions can run high, and it's often easy to assume the worst of your intellectual opponents. Likely that's what makes me sensitive to it.

If the problem is a lack of resources--as many experts believe it is [PDF]--then we should figure out how to provide those resources, not "destroy" those institutions because politicians lack the courage to provide them. Gambling on an unproven program with potentially disastrous results is hardly the more sensible option, and those who eschew it shouldn't be characterized as "sacrific[ing kids] on the altar of somebody's job".

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Megan Cottrell / May 7, 2010 6:39 PM

Hi Ramsin -

First of all, although I'm sure you meant this kindly, I really hate being called "Ms. Cottrell." I'm sure you meant it as polite, but whenever I read it, I can't help but hear it as condescending. Please feel free to call me by my first name in the future. I hope you don't mind me using yours.

Second, although I pride myself on being an excellent reader, having graduated from a very nice public school in Michigan, I find a lot of what you wrote to be pretty difficult to understand. I have a deep love for plain language, and forgive me for the criticism, but there are so many commas and passive sentences that it's hard for me to comprehend what exactly it is you're saying. I'm really not trying to be a jerk here - I simply think your arguments were unclear.

And now to your arguments.

I don't think I said anywhere in my article that I thought teachers were lazy and ineffectual in general. I don't. I think teachers are heroes. I was almost in Teach for America myself, and have considered getting my Masters in Teaching. However, as someone who works in the Chicago Public Schools, let me tell you: there are some crappy teachers. And the good ones will be the first to admit it. There are people who are not qualified to do their job and people who just plain shouldn't be teachers. They are in every CPS school - good and bad - but most of them are in the worst schools, where no one demands better. In general, I think teachers should be paid more, get more support, better training and more appreciation. But people who can't do their job should be fired, and that's that.

I agree that overall reform is what's needed. But do you see that happening? I don't. Especially not here. And meanwhile, kids are sinking. I can picture a child in my mind right now who will graduate the 8th grade without being able to write a paragraph. Is a good school going to save his life? Maybe not, but we can sure as hell try. Perhaps you're content to wait for reform, but I'm not. Not when I know this kid will likely get involved in gangs, crime and drug dealing because his education didn't offer him a way out, and his community doesn't offer him any alternatives.

Your worried about a bifurcated system? My friend, we already have one. CPS's magnet program is a bifurcated system. Smart kids with smart parents apply for magnet schools, while the rest of them sit and wait for something to happen. This voucher program would have targeted kids in the worst schools, getting more of them to a classroom where there's enough resources for them to grow.

Also, I linked to an article that showed positive change in several different voucher programs around the country. It generally takes a couple of years, but kids in voucher programs do better in the long run.

I agree that voucher programs will hurt some schools by taking the good kids out and leaving the hardest to teach. Like I said, in general, I'd like there to be mass reform. I don't know what needs to happen for that reform to take hold, but until it does, I'm not content to wait for it and watch kids fail.

And as far as me being unwilling to work with "critical stakeholders" (two of my least favorite words on the planet) to improve public education, I think that's a pretty unfair assumption. I spend several days a week, working with kids to give them opportunities, help, support and guidance. They're the only critical stakeholders I'm worried about.

Thanks for reading and for your response.

Ramsin / May 8, 2010 10:33 AM

Generally not my style to refer to people I don't know by their first names, and "Cottrell" seemed more condescending. But it's noted.

As for the prose, I'll try to keep my poop in a group next time. Aside from that, there's not much substantive to respond to here.

You haven't engaged a single point of the arguments of voucher opponents. You're appealing to your personal experience and reiterating that you're so impatient you're unconcerned with the wide body of (more recent) data that has even serious long-time voucher supporters reevaluating them. Your one link to a study notwithstanding, there is no definitive data that supports vouchers, particularly considering the fact that they could do long-term damage to public education. Doing anything just to feel better is exactly what we shouldn't do in such high stakes situations. That is gambling the future of millions kids away.

Your claim that voucher opponents are "sticks in the mud" who are "sacrificing kids on the altar of somebody's job", is unserious, unhelpful, and mean-spirited. You can't just walk it back or gloss over it. It's nice that you work with kids. If only you could fire the power of your caring out into the world like a Care Bear. But I think the thousands of teachers who were brutally "turned around" based on reckless high-stakes testing cared just as much, if not more.

If you want anecdotes, you can talk to the teachers at Peabody on the city's northwest side, where a neighboring private school has poached all the high-achieving kids, and systematically kicked out the trouble kids who get hit with behavioral fines and ticky-tacky fees that amount to a de facto tuition. That is what people mean by "bifurcated", not the system of magnet schools that are subject to the same regulatory and democratic oversight as other public schools. I don't think those teachers care less about kids than you, despite the fact that they didn't "almost do" teach for America.

Yes, comprehensive reform is hard, and we don't seem to be getting it. As Phil Kadner argued as well, vouchers are a stop-gap that merely kicks the problem further down the road. So should we throw our hands up and risk watching public education crumble, and allow the vast majority of students to fail?

I'm not sure how we get comprehensive reform either, but I know it doesn't start with hurling unfounded, unclever accusations at people you disagree with.

xian from CORE / May 8, 2010 10:54 PM

There was one group of students that I know of lobbying on the voucher bill and they were opposed to it.

I find it extremely disingenuous of voucher proponents to push the "I'm in it for the kids" arguments.

I don't know if you are ignorant of the realities of vouchers, or simply don't care, or some other explanation that is escaping me, but the voucher "solution" has failed everywhere it has been tried, is an added cost at a time where fake deficits are pushing massive cuts, and promote blatantly discriminatory practices.

The latter was what the students chose to focus on--why should we be supporting schools that have no obligation to take on students of high need or special education requirements?

I'm sorry if I come across as abrasive--I'm sure we can all get along, but I found particularly offensive that you chose to speak on behalf of teachers because "you were almost in teach for awhile one time" (not a direct quote).

I work in a test scorewise low-performing school. And I don't agree with you, so I suppose that makes me a bad teacher. I don't feel like I'm "waiting around for my kids to fail". But hey, you might know better.

Just don't say it in front of my students. In between the national awards they've won while composing complete paragraphs, they might have something harsher to say to you.

yall / May 10, 2010 9:23 AM

I think y'all both need to chill out, though Megan it'll be hard to take you seriously as a political writer if you're this passive aggressive and defensive.

CF / May 10, 2010 1:37 PM

Thanks for the interesting exchange. Don't chill out. A little heat makes for more interesting reading. A little more complexity would be good of course, but that can come later too.

On "bad teachers" and teachers unions in general:

How about a little collective responsibility here? Are administrators doing their job in addressing teacher quality? Most union contracts have a pretty long process before granting a teacher its strongest protections. How long does it take to identify a so-called bad teacher? Once they find one, do they try to help them improve?

As for teachers unions as a special interest, come talk to some of its members, leaders and staff. Find out what we're about. You'll find we are sometimes large, sometimes small, sometimes nimble and sometimes not. But we are definitely more democratic than any of the groups promoting vouchers, so let's talk before you call us a special interest, please.

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