Commentary Magazine


Topic: education reform

When Conservative School Reforms Work

Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

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Conservative education reformers are at several distinct disadvantages: union control of public education, the government’s broad power to protect its market dominance, restrictions on leveling the playing field between public and parochial schools, etc. Yet sometimes favored conservative policies succeed despite the institutional road blocks, and other times those road blocks inspire creative alternatives. Readers of today’s New York Times will find important examples of both.

The first is a very long, but quite worthwhile feature on Eva Moskowitz’s New York charter-school phenomenon, the Success Academy schools. But conservatives should pay special attention to it because it’s not just about the concept of choice; it actually addresses a great weakness of conservative education reform as well.

Reformers on the right correctly note the unfairness and immoral nature of the current government-mandated segregation in the public-school system. They are also correct when they say that while school choice does tend to improve test scores in many cases, the case for school choice rests on more than just grades. Conservatives are dedicated proponents of equality of opportunity, and school choice, thanks to liberal policies, is one area where such equality is close to nonexistent.

But a crucial component of reform, and arguably the most challenging, is to change the actual classroom educational experience. The Times gives us a glimpse at one way Success tackles this issue:

In a rare look inside the network, including visits to several schools and interviews with dozens of current and former employees, The New York Times chronicled a system driven by the relentless pursuit of better results, one that can be exhilarating for teachers and students who keep up with its demands and agonizing for those who do not.

Rules are explicit and expectations precise. Students must sit with hands clasped and eyes following the speaker; reading passages must be neatly annotated with a main idea.

Incentives are offered, such as candy for good behavior, and Nerf guns and basketballs for high scores on practice tests. For those deemed not trying hard enough, there is “effort academy,” which is part detention, part study hall.

For teachers, who are not unionized and usually just out of college, 11-hour days are the norm, and each one is under constant monitoring, by principals who make frequent visits, and by databases that record quiz scores. Teachers who do well can expect quick promotions, with some becoming principals while still in their 20s. Teachers who struggle can expect coaching or, if that does not help, possible demotion.

Accountability for students and teachers–what a novel idea! And it gets results:

Though it serves primarily poor, mostly black and Hispanic students, Success is a testing dynamo, outscoring schools in many wealthy suburbs, let alone their urban counterparts. In New York City last year, 29 percent of public school students passed the state reading tests, and 35 percent passed the math tests. At Success schools, the corresponding percentages were 64 and 94 percent.

For disadvantaged students, throwing money at them isn’t what helps them succeed. Moskowitz may be a “self-proclaimed liberal,” but at this rate she may one day have a seat next to Milton Friedman in the conservative pantheon.

The Success Academy schools combine school choice with real classroom reform. And the schools live up to their name.

The other story in today’s Times about education is easier to miss because it’s less controversial. But it could have a meaningful impact if it catches on.

Some of the right’s frustration with race-based admissions is not only that they think college admissions should be colorblind but also that the left’s definition of “diversity” is entirely skin-deep. If you want to help struggling inner-city students, conservatives argue, wouldn’t you do better to base affirmative action policies around socioeconomic factors instead of skin color?

The political obstacles to such reform are obvious. So instead of waiting for government to take the lead, the market is moving in. Here’s the Times:

Top colleges have many reasons to avoid enrolling a lot of low-income students.

The students need financial aid, which can strain a university’s budget. Although many of the students have stellar grades, they often have somewhat lower SAT scores than affluent students, which can hurt a university’s ranking. Low-income students also tend to lack the campus sway of other groups, like athletes or children of alumni, in lobbying for admission slots.

In an effort to push back against these incentives — even just a little — a foundation in Northern Virginia on Tuesday is announcing a new no-strings-attached $1 million prize. It will be awarded each year to a college that excels in enrolling and graduating low-income high achievers. The inaugural winner of the money — from the Jack Kent Cooke Foundation, which also runs a large scholarship program — is Vassar College.

This strikes me as a very good idea, even if its effects will be marginal for now. And its focus not just on enrolling but on “graduating low-income high achievers” is important as well. One weakness of affirmative action, as proponents of the “mismatch” theory argue, is that enrolling students should not be treated as a stand-in for educating them, and in many cases bringing in students through affirmative action does them more harm than good.

Yet even if you don’t believe the mismatch theory, the genius of the Jack Kent Cooke program is that it doesn’t reallocate public resources. No one would object to incentivizing low-income students’ college graduation.

“Rather than spend the money to enroll lower-income students,” the Times’s David Leonhardt writes, “many colleges have instead built student bodies that are diverse in many other ways — geography, religion, ethnicity — but still overwhelmingly affluent.”

Indeed. The best of the American education system is too often off-limits to those who can’t afford it, and the government-inflated loan bubble, liberal opposition to school choice, and an admissions process that judges students on the color of their skin won’t change that. Conservatives are not the only ones advancing conservative education reforms, in yet another sign that the tide might be turning in favor of the disadvantaged students so ill-served by the existing educational order.

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The Real Significance of Cuomo’s Attack on Teachers Unions

It is tempting to play one of those “Pop quiz: who said this?” games with Andrew Cuomo’s comments on teachers unions. The Democratic governor of New York sat down with the New York Daily News editorial board, and he fielded some questions on education. Here are some highlights, in which Cuomo puts his typical tough-guy flourish on what are usually considered right-wing declarations:

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It is tempting to play one of those “Pop quiz: who said this?” games with Andrew Cuomo’s comments on teachers unions. The Democratic governor of New York sat down with the New York Daily News editorial board, and he fielded some questions on education. Here are some highlights, in which Cuomo puts his typical tough-guy flourish on what are usually considered right-wing declarations:

On the lost purpose of strong public educational institutions: “This was never a teacher employment program and this was never an industry to hire superintendents and teachers. This was a program to educate kids.”

On his response to a teachers union member declaring that the union represents the students: “You represent the teachers. Teacher salaries, teacher pensions, teacher tenure, teacher vacation rights. I respect that. But don’t say you represent the students.”

On whether they deserve more respect from him: “I want to treat them with more respect than they have now, but it has to be on the performance and the merits.”

There is much more, and the whole Daily News writeup of the conversation is worth reading. In some ways, though, the less aggressive comments of Cuomo’s could be the more important ones, at least as far as determining the extent of the ripple effects of his open challenge to the unions.

That’s because his criticism of the unions went beyond policy. Here he is on transparency:

During an appearance before the Daily News Editorial Board, Cuomo said the only way change will come to a broken education system is if the public is better informed.

“If (the public) understood what was happening with education to their children, there would be an outrage in this city,” Cuomo said. “I’m telling you, they would take City Hall down brick by brick.

“It’s only because it’s complicated that people don’t get it.”

This line of argument, if the parents only knew, is at the center of limited-government conservatives’ arguments about the state and bureaucracy. Cuomo’s specific charges may be limited in scope, but he’s invoking a philosophically conservative outlook to make his case.

It’s easy, for example, to substitute virtually anything controlled and heavily regulated by the state for “education” in his above quote. “If (the public) understood what was happening with …” is a kind of Tea Party Mad Libs–and rightfully so. One of the main problems with the administrative state is that the government makes it practically impossible for non-experts to navigate the laws that affect them. Legislation is written the way it is precisely for this reason: because if the people only knew, they’d be outraged.

When it comes to education, there are two major problems with the public system with regard to Cuomo’s complaint about secrecy and complexity. The first is that the government and its cronies are enriched by the process, and have more to gain by shielding their actions from sunlight. The other is that the government doesn’t trust parents to raise their own children. And that, in turn, encourages parents to impart that same message to their kids: that they can’t be trusted with independence and cannot exercise personal responsibility.

What Cuomo is suggesting–or, rather, implying would be more accurate–is that parents should flip the script. That would be the result of taking his complaints to their logical conclusion. Why should parents blindly trust the government with their children but have to prove themselves worthy of the government’s trust as parents? It’s ludicrous, authoritarian, and corrosive to civil society.

Instead, the government should have to earn the public’s trust. If the state wants to control much of your children’s lives until adulthood–and that is precisely what the public education monopoly is designed to do–then the state ought to prove its own worthiness. And this means not just transparency but a true market (or something closer to it) in education.

The government should have competition. “Trust us” is not good enough. Parents should know exactly what the public education system is doing and why, and they should have a greater say in it. But even more importantly, they should have other options, so that the government schools can prove themselves worthy of having the amount of control they have over the nation’s youth.

As for Cuomo, his fellow Democrats will certainly be watching closely to see how this plays out. And so will, for that matter, Republican governors. It has been the latter, after all, pressing much-needed reforms to public unions, albeit often in blue states. But a Democrat taking up the reform fight in a deep-blue state is evidence of the strength of the arguments on the side of reform.

Cuomo doesn’t need this trouble. But unions have made such a wreck of the public school system and wasted so much money in doing so that it’s become impossible for any but the most zealous defenders of the status quo to deny. Cuomo will certainly be feeling the wrath of the unions. But their quest to stop him in his tracks will be complicated by the fact that everything he said about them is true.

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Free Bobby Jindal!

In the last couple of days, two quotes from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made the rounds. Neither quote was particularly noteworthy in itself, but the juxtaposition shows why Jindal, who is testing the waters for a presidential campaign, seems to be plagued by false starts. There are two Bobby Jindals, and they are getting in each other’s way.

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In the last couple of days, two quotes from Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal made the rounds. Neither quote was particularly noteworthy in itself, but the juxtaposition shows why Jindal, who is testing the waters for a presidential campaign, seems to be plagued by false starts. There are two Bobby Jindals, and they are getting in each other’s way.

On Monday, Reason’s Nick Gillespie called attention to a curious statement from Jindal as the governor was courting religious leaders in Iowa: “The reality is I’m here today because I genuinely, sincerely, passionately believe that America’s in desperate need of a spiritual revival.” Jindal added: “We have tried everything and now it is time to turn back to God.”

Gillespie countered that “What ails the government is not a deficit of religiosity but a nearly complete failure to deal with practical issues of spending versus revenue, creating a simple and fair tax system, reforming entitlements, and getting real about the limits of America’s ability to control every corner of the globe.”

I’d add that when we think about the character of the citizenry, it isn’t just about what government policies force people to do (or not to do), nor do we need the president to be the country’s spiritual leader. Politicians who instinctively lean on government action as a way to regulate behavior often forget the ennobling role of freedom in America. Religious freedom has strengthened spiritual practice here in comparison to most other Western nations, and the American ethic of personal responsibility does more to cultivate moral seriousness than presidential speeches about spiritual malaise.

But of course Jindal doesn’t need to be told this. He knows it, and even nods to it in other speeches. Over at the Weekly Standard, Daniel Halper posts a preview of a forthcoming speech on foreign policy that Jindal will deliver in London. Jindal will criticize Hillary Clinton’s “mindless naiveté” in her call for American leaders to “empathize” with our enemies. And the speech challenges Muslim leaders to defend their faith (and their reputations) from the extremists among them. But he will also say this:

In my country, Christianity is the largest religion. And we require exactly no one to conform to it. And we do not discriminate against anyone who does not conform to it. It’s called freedom.

Now, to be fair, Jindal’s two comments are not mutually exclusive. He can believe we need to turn back to God and also that we’re all free to decline to do so. But the spirit of his remarks really calls attention to his great weakness as a candidate: inauthenticity.

Jindal is a wonk–not in the American leftist mold, but actually smart. And he’s a good governor. I suspect this is part of Gillespie’s frustration with Jindal, though I wouldn’t put words in his mouth. Gillespie opens his post with a rundown of Jindal’s accomplishments and conservative bona fides. Here is how Gillespie’s post begins:

Gov. Bobby Jindal (R-La.) has proven to be one of the most effective and incorruptible legislators that the Bayou State has had. Unlike a long line of pols from Louisiana, he is neither a demagogue, a racist, nor simply a criminal willing to take bribes and cut shady deals for his pals. A few years back, he pissed off Republicans by rightly insisting that the GOP stop being “the stupid party” when it came to policy debates.

He’s worked hard to help reform school finance in a way that accelerates not just choice for students and parents but better results too; he’s privatized and contracted-out many states services at great savings; and he’s pushed for common-sense policies such as making birth control available without a prescription.

Jindal has also presided over a period of strong economic growth. Last year, when challenged by an MSNBC commentator over his economic record, Jindal said: “In Louisiana, we now have more people working, highest incomes in our state’s history. Larger population than ever before. And the president can’t say all those things about the country. Our economy has grown 50 percent faster than the national GDP, even since the national recession.”

Salivating at the prospect of catching Jindal in a lie, the “fack-checker” site PolitiFact looked into Jindal’s claim and found that “Jindal actually understated the comparison.” Jindal was more right than even he knew. Jindal’s position on domestic energy production is admirable as well.

So Jindal has a fluent grasp of the issues and is fully comfortable discussing them at length. He also has a record to run on. But when Jindal takes his campaign national, he lapses into a particularly striking habit of pandering, perhaps because pandering on identity politics doesn’t come so naturally to him.

Conservatives and libertarians who appreciate what Jindal brings to the table on policy want the campaign to let Jindal be Jindal. Not Mike Huckabee at home and John Bolton abroad. Other prospective candidates fill those roles (such as, well, Huckabee and Bolton).

Jindal isn’t wrong in his critique of Hillary Clinton’s foreign policy. And he obviously shouldn’t leave any issue completely to his rivals; if he wants to be president, he needs to display a well-rounded political philosophy. But he also needs to be himself. He’s a terrible panderer, and that is one of his finest virtues: he doesn’t know how to pretend to be something he’s not. And so he should stop trying.

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A Response on the Common Core

On Thursday, I wrote about the problematic rollout of the Common Core and its parallels to the process by which ObamaCare ran into similar trouble, noting the difficulty of significant reform at the national level. I received the following response from Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

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On Thursday, I wrote about the problematic rollout of the Common Core and its parallels to the process by which ObamaCare ran into similar trouble, noting the difficulty of significant reform at the national level. I received the following response from Michael J. Petrilli, who served in the George W. Bush administration and is the executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute and a research fellow at the Hoover Institution.

The COMMENTARY blog is my absolute favorite, so I was more than a little crestfallen when I read Seth Mandel’s recent entry. “Wherever you stand on the Common Core,” he declared, “it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.”

Mandel is right that the debates have unmistakable parallels. But, as he acknowledges, “none of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is.”

Lest that point get lost, let me reiterate the vast differences between ObamaCare and the Common Core when it comes to federal involvement.

ObamaCare is a federal program through and through. Created by an act of Congress, it puts federal bureaucrats in charge of one-sixth of the economy, overrules state regulatory bodies (regarding insurance and much else), involves a massive redistribution of public and private dollars, and excludes any sort of “opt out” provision for states. (Thanks to the Supreme Court, states can refuse the Medicaid expansion, but they are stuck with everything else.)

The contrast with the Common Core could not be starker. This was an initiative launched by the governors and state school leaders well before Barack Obama was even a serious contender for the presidency, much less seated in the White House. It had momentum prior to the 2008 election as state policymakers came to understand that their own academic standards for public schooling were far too low—and sadly uneven—and that a joint effort to create common standards might provide the political cover to aim higher. Smartly, the federal government was kept out of the standards-drafting process, which was funded by the states and by private entities like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

But then, yes, the Obama administration fatefully decided to award extra points to states adopting the Common Core when deciding which would get big grants under its stimulus-funded Race to the Top program. So 45 states plus D.C. quickly did so—surely more than otherwise would. And Secretary of Education Arne Duncan put $300 million into the development of common assessments to go along with the standards.

But that’s it. That’s the extent of federal involvement. I understand that, for many conservatives, these incentives and investments tainted the entire Common Core project. But they don’t come close to turning Common Core into “Fed Ed,” as pundits like Michelle Malkin like to say.

Let me be clear: I do not defend the administration’s actions on Common Core, the rest of its education agenda, or anything else. The charge of Obama’s being an “imperial presidency” has legs, in my view. Arne Duncan’s aggressive use of “conditional waivers” from the NCLB mandates is both unconstitutional and unwise, and his ham-handed push for test-based teacher evaluations and school discipline quotas is apt to cause serious harm to America’s schools. (That the Tea Party isn’t up in arms about the latter is completely baffling to me.)

But get beyond the surface debates and any fair-minded observer can plainly see that the Common Core doesn’t fit into this narrative. It started in the states. Many Republican governors still support it. Many prominent conservatives do, too. The federal government played a role, but a limited one.

My own theory is that many conservatives, including those at the state level, are rightly frustrated at ObamaCare, and doubly frustrated that they can’t pull their states out of it. But they can pull out of Common Core—precisely because it’s not a federal mandate!—and might do so to blow off some steam at the president.

But if you believe that these rigorous new academic standards for English and math are importantly stronger than what states had before, and are likely to improve teaching and learning in U.S. schools, then pulling out of the Common Core to spite the president starts to look like a pretty silly idea. It’s certainly not a conservative idea—and it’s definitely not good for kids. Conservatives should find another target.

Michael J. Petrilli

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ObamaCore? Education Reform Hits a Snag

Wherever you stand on the Common Core, an attempt to provide a set of nationwide education standards, it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.

As the Heartland Institute noted in 2011, “The Obama administration made adoption of the Common Core a criterion for winning part of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, and states receiving Title I appropriations in the future may be required to adopt the standards,” after which “Forty-two states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in 2009 and 2010 in hopes of winning Race to the Top money.” This led to the first major complaint about the Common Core: conservatives worried the federal government was taking control of state-by-state education policy.

Liberals responded exactly as they did during the ObamaCare debate. Writing for the New York Times, for example, Bill Keller resorted to name-calling and equated conservative concerns about the Common Core standards to birtherism. Keller’s complete and utter disregard for even elementary intellectual engagement with conservatives was indicative of a defensive posture: it seemed the self-conscious ranting of an advocate of a weak policy for which he didn’t have a serious defense.

It portended darker days ahead for the Common Core. After all, there were real concerns about the Common Core from an educational perspective. They wouldn’t go away just because the left wanted them to. And then, true to form, the complaints piled up. The administration responded in typical fashion: Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed white resentment. Obnoxious racial politics and bureaucratic conceit aside, Democrats were also turning on the Common Core.

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Wherever you stand on the Common Core, an attempt to provide a set of nationwide education standards, it can’t be good news for the program that it has begun to so resemble the disastrous process and rollout of this administration’s last federal reform, ObamaCare. Yet the opposition to the Common Core has followed a familiar pattern.

As the Heartland Institute noted in 2011, “The Obama administration made adoption of the Common Core a criterion for winning part of $4.35 billion in federal Race to the Top grants in 2010, and states receiving Title I appropriations in the future may be required to adopt the standards,” after which “Forty-two states and the District of Columbia adopted the standards in 2009 and 2010 in hopes of winning Race to the Top money.” This led to the first major complaint about the Common Core: conservatives worried the federal government was taking control of state-by-state education policy.

Liberals responded exactly as they did during the ObamaCare debate. Writing for the New York Times, for example, Bill Keller resorted to name-calling and equated conservative concerns about the Common Core standards to birtherism. Keller’s complete and utter disregard for even elementary intellectual engagement with conservatives was indicative of a defensive posture: it seemed the self-conscious ranting of an advocate of a weak policy for which he didn’t have a serious defense.

It portended darker days ahead for the Common Core. After all, there were real concerns about the Common Core from an educational perspective. They wouldn’t go away just because the left wanted them to. And then, true to form, the complaints piled up. The administration responded in typical fashion: Education Secretary Arne Duncan blamed white resentment. Obnoxious racial politics and bureaucratic conceit aside, Democrats were also turning on the Common Core.

And then came the warning that the rollout of the Common Core standards risked looking a lot like the botched rollout of the ObamaCare exchanges, with potentially disastrous results for American education:

The education world is scrambling to avoid its own version of a full-scale HealthCare.gov meltdown when millions of students pilot new digital Common Core tests this spring.

Technological hiccups, much less large-scale meltdowns, won’t do: The results of the Common Core tests will influence teachers’ and principals’ evaluations and other decisions about their jobs. Schools will be rated on the results. Students’ promotion to the next grade or graduation from high school may hinge on their scores. And the already-controversial Common Core standards, designed to be tested using a new generation of sophisticated exams that go beyond multiple-choice testing, may be further dragged through the mud if there are crises.

Indeed, Democrats in Republican-leaning states began criticizing the Common Core rollout as a “train wreck.” Then liberal states–and early supporters of the program–turned against it:

But the newest chorus of complaints is coming from one of the most liberal states, and one of the earliest champions of the standards: New York. And that is causing supporters of the Common Core to shudder.

Carol Burris, an acclaimed high school principal on Long Island, calls the Common Core a “disaster.”

“We see kids,” she said, “they don’t want to go to school anymore.”

If it followed the ObamaCare playbook, it was only a matter of time before the unions joined the chorus of opposition. Sure enough, Politico reports:

The nation’s largest teachers union is pulling back on its once-enthusiastic support of the Common Core academic standards, labeling their rollout “completely botched.”

National Education Association President Dennis Van Roekel said he still believes the standards can improve education. But he said they will not succeed without a major “course correction” — including possibly rewriting some of the standards and revising the related tests with teacher input.

And to complete the cycle, the Common Core’s supporters are now taking the posture that opponents shouldn’t just be against the Common Core but must propose their own ideas: “If someone offers a better option, we will support it.”

None of this is to suggest that the Common Core is nearly the disaster–or constitutionally suspect power grab–that ObamaCare is. And the Common Core’s supporters have a point when they note that some of the arguments against it are based on misconceptions, fears, or unsubstantiated rumors.

But there is an overarching lesson here about the difficulty of national reform, the problematic hints of federal coercion, the humility that desperately needs to be applied to the way our government–or any sprawling bureaucracy–operates. Common Core may in fact have much to offer in the effort to restructure standard education curricula. But it isn’t conspiratorial thinking to be suspicious of grand, one-size-fits-all schemes in a federal republic–a lesson we apparently need to keep learning.

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Bloomberg’s Exit and the Future of Education Reform

There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

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There are a number of obstacles to being able to draw generalizations about New York City voters from the results of the mayoral primary elections. Such obstacles include the factional nature of city elections, the prominent role of identity politics in a multicultural city, and the challenges of polling such elections.

There is also the low voter turnout for primaries, as summed up succinctly by Daily News Opinion Editor Josh Greenman, responding to assumptions that the Democratic primary was a referendum on Mayor Michael Bloomberg: “Last night was huge rebuke of Bloomberg? No. Just 20% of Democrats voted, and 48% of them told exit pollsters they approve of job he’s done,” Greenman tweeted.

So Bill de Blasio’s victory last night may not have meant much about New York voters overall, but that’s not how opponents of choice in education see it. Politico reports:

De Blasio’s education platform boiled down, in effect, to a pledge to dismantle the policies that Mayor Michael Bloomberg enacted over the past decade in the nation’s largest school district.

Those policies, emphasizing the need to inject more free-market competition into public education and weaken the power of teachers unions, are not unique to New York City; they’re the backbone of a national education reform movement that has won broad bipartisan support. Yet the reform movement has also triggered a backlash from parents and teachers who see it as a threat to their schools, their jobs and the traditional concept of public education as a public trust.

For those activists, de Blasio’s victory – coming on top of a handful of other recent wins for their side – is a sign the tide might slowly be turning.

The article cites the successful anti-reform movement galvanized to oust Adrian Fenty in Washington D.C., though there have been victories for the school choice movement since then, and certainly victories in reining in union power. Those victories owe something to the financial crisis and increasing government debt, a fiscal backdrop that turned the hoary liberal clichés of “fair share” and inequality against Democratic interest groups like public unions, whose job security and generous health and retirement benefits are financed by increasingly struggling taxpayers.

Put simply, the public unions’ math never added up, and they could not win the argument that they had a right to bankrupt their states because of benefits they won from favored politicians. That’s why reform-minded governors had an easier time getting union members to contribute more to their own benefits than in measures designed to curtail unions’ political organization and clout. The unions are betting that without a fiscal sword of Damocles hanging over their heads the public will lose interest in this fight, and they can turn the momentum away from dismantling a major source of their funding: the failing government monopoly on childhood education.

If the unions are able to decouple financial concerns from those related to political organization, proponents of education reform will need to be able to win an argument over the latter to stop the tide from turning. How to openly attempt to disempower public unions without appearing to be motivated solely by the lure of partisan advantage? True independents on the issue are likely to be swayed to whichever side they believe is representing the best interests of the students.

It’s easy to argue that teachers’ protected salaries and high benefits can hurt the students by forcing cuts in other areas, such as books, computers, tutoring, or sports programs, that fall on the backs of the students. But there hasn’t been much of an attempt to argue the political power of the unions per se harms the education of the students. Some, however, are beginning to do just that. The Heartland Institute draws attention to a new study from the University of Chicago’s Johnathan Lott and the University of Florida’s Lawrence W. Kenny that finds that “students in states with strong teachers unions have lower proficiency rates than students in states with weak state-wide teacher unions.”

From the conclusion:

Strong unions should have a greater impact on student proficiency rates in math and reading than weak unions. The small literature on union strength has used district-level variables – the size of the district and the restrictiveness of the district contract – as measures of union strength. But state-wide teachers’ unions are often successful in influencing state regulations on education by being the major contributors to candidates for the state legislature. The state-wide teachers’ unions that contribute more are expected to exercise more influence and thus be stronger unions. We may be the first to use the state-wide teachers’ union financial resources as a measure of union strength and find that students in states in which the teachers’ union has high dues and high spending have lower test scores than students in states with low dues and spending. Union strength matters and indeed matters more than any other variable in our regressions.

Beyond the moral and financial cases for school choice and broader education reform lies the most important issue: the effect of public policy on the actual education received by the students. If liberal politicians like de Blasio are going to try to push the momentum back in favor of their union allies, reformers should be able to argue persuasively that it will come at the expense of the students.

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Laptop U?

Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

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Nathan Heller’s new piece, “Laptop U: Has the Future of Higher Education Moved Online?” is a superb introduction to the debate concerning Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs).

For those of you who have been off the grid, here is some background. In fall 2011, Sebastian Thrun and Peter Norvig of Stanford University offered a free online course on artificial intelligence. Much to their surprise, the course attracted more than 160,000 students, logging in from 190 different countries. If enthusiasts for MOOCs are right, that course will be remembered as the shot heard ’round the world, the beginning of the MOOC revolution. Indeed, Thrun gave up tenure at Stanford and founded Udacity, a company devoted to producing and disseminating MOOCs, famously declaring that in 50 years’ time, there would be no more than 10 higher education institutions in the world. While even Thrun—perhaps for fear of provoking resistance to his enterprise—has backed off from that prediction, enthusiasm for MOOCS has only grown. Udacity, Coursera, and the Harvard-M.I.T. led Edx have already enrolled millions of students. I have written about MOOCs here.

The most important reason people are excited about MOOCs is that they promise dramatically to decrease the cost of education. It is simply cheaper to offer an online course to 100,000 students than it is to offer a face-to-face course to 30 students. And while something may be lost in this scaling up, something is gained, too. Students can hear from rock star lecturers, learn at their own pace, listen to lectures in short chunks, rather than for an hour and a half at a time, receive almost instant feedback on assignments, and participate in online forums with an enormously diverse group of students. Alex Tabarrok, an economist at George Mason University and a co-founder of MRUniversity, ably explains some of the advantages here.

Yet Heller’s article, though it records the promises of MOOCs, also offers some reason for skepticism.

First, some MOOC enthusiasts do not seem to understand how education works. Heller observes that “comedians record their best performances for broadcast and posterity,” and asks “why shouldn’t college teachers do the same?” After all, “the basis of a reliable education, it would seem, is quality control, not circumstance.” But that isn’t true. Any teacher knows that circumstances matter: the characteristics of a particular generation of students, the qualities of the kinds of students one’s own college or university attracts, what is going on at the moment on campus or off, the chemistry of a particular group, and the strengths and weaknesses of individuals in it.

Good teaching calls not only for a grasp of general principles but attentiveness to the particulars. It requires prudence. A professor teaching 100,000 students, much less a recording of a professor teaching 100,000 students, is not in a position to exercise that virtue. Heller, who seems to be playing devil’s advocate early in the article, gestures at the importance of circumstance in teaching later in his piece, describing a face-to-face lecture he sits in on and the “strange transaction of watching someone who watches back, the eagerness to emanate support. Something magical and fragile was happening here, in the room.”

Magic is the wrong word, leaving the user vulnerable to Kevin Carey’s snark: “If the traditional college value-add boils down to intuiting the light in students’ eyes they’re in deep trouble.” But Carey, director of the Education Policy Program at the New America Foundation, is himself naïve if he scoffs at the idea that having a teacher or mentor who knows you is a “value-add.”

Second, MOOC enthusiasts sometimes exaggerate how innovative MOOCs are. For example, Heller reports on Harvard classicist Gregory Nagy’s reasons for thinking that “multiple-choice questions,” which are forced on him by the constraints of having to grade so many students, “are almost as good as essays.” One reason is that “The online testing mechanism explains the right response when students miss an answer. And it lets them see the reasoning behind the correct choice when they’re right.” That is what we in the education biz used to call “an answer key.”

One would not expect conservatives to be enthusiastic about MOOCs, which tend to involve more screen time and less reading, more multiple choice tests and fewer, if any essays, and more, not fewer, concessions to a student’s inability to pay attention for long periods of time. But some are excited about MOOCs because they promise, as Roger Kimball says, “to rip through the educational status quo, performing for that fetid redoubt a service similar to that performed by Hercules for Augeas, he of the largest and untidy stables.”

Colleges and universities, Kimball suggests, have largely been taken over by the left, and so there is no reason to mourn and some reason to celebrate the possibility that online learning will put many of them out of business. Thus a relative traditionalist like William Bennett is on Udacity’s advisory board, embracing Udacity in part because “traditional American higher education prides itself on a false promotion of diversity, opportunity and excellence.”

I am not a proponent of what Kevin Carey calls “MOOC denialism.” But it is a mistake to embrace MOOCs as readily as conservatives have thus far. For one thing, MOOC proponents have absolutely nothing to say about the purpose of education. MOOC companies simply offer menus from which students choose. Conservatives who have in the past allied themselves with proponents of liberal education should be skeptical that MOOCs will advance rather than further weaken liberal education. For another thing, if Thrun is even half right, we can expect the institutions that dominate the future of higher education to be the high-prestige places like Harvard, Berkeley, Wesleyan and others that have a national or international brand. It hardly seems likely that such institutions are going to help turn a false promise of diversity into a true one.

The hope that technological innovation will somehow enable conservatives to win a war they have been losing in the field of higher education is really a symptom of despair. If even a bit of a story like this one about Swarthmore is true, this despair is understandable (though Swarthmore is among the institutions least likely to suffer any damage from online competition). But without neglecting the possibility that MOOCs or some other version of online education may really make a decent education more widely and cheaply available, conservatives like Kimball should not act like spurned lovers, crying out that if they can’t have higher education, then nobody will. In cheering for a flood that will sweep away their enemies, they risk sweeping away what remains of liberal education and of intellectual diversity in the academy.

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The Extravagant Hypocrisy of Charlie Crist

Let me pose a hypothetical. A young, charismatic Hispanic advocating for more humane immigration policies and against draconian enforcement defeats an aging, white politician in an election. The older politician then leaves his party to join the party led by the politician who took unprecedented action to squash immigration reform. What would you call the older politician?

You would call him Charlie Crist, right? After all, that is exactly what happened in Florida, and over the weekend Crist bolted the party advocating for more immigration with a growing cadre of Latino political stars for the party of the status quo. Crist endorsed President Obama, perhaps unsurprisingly but not without a dose of irony and a mammoth lack of self-awareness. There is a lot to love in his Sunday op-ed announcing his endorsement of the president, but this is my favorite part:

But an element of [the Republican] party has pitched so far to the extreme right on issues important to women, immigrants, seniors and students that they’ve proven incapable of governing for the people.

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Let me pose a hypothetical. A young, charismatic Hispanic advocating for more humane immigration policies and against draconian enforcement defeats an aging, white politician in an election. The older politician then leaves his party to join the party led by the politician who took unprecedented action to squash immigration reform. What would you call the older politician?

You would call him Charlie Crist, right? After all, that is exactly what happened in Florida, and over the weekend Crist bolted the party advocating for more immigration with a growing cadre of Latino political stars for the party of the status quo. Crist endorsed President Obama, perhaps unsurprisingly but not without a dose of irony and a mammoth lack of self-awareness. There is a lot to love in his Sunday op-ed announcing his endorsement of the president, but this is my favorite part:

But an element of [the Republican] party has pitched so far to the extreme right on issues important to women, immigrants, seniors and students that they’ve proven incapable of governing for the people.

The senator who defeated Crist, you’ll remember, was Marco Rubio. Rubio, no doubt, can’t help but laugh at the thought of Crist lecturing him–the son of Cuban immigrants–on what is good for Latino immigrants. But it’s even more risible as Rubio’s defeat of Crist enabled the Republican Party to raise the issue of liberalizing immigration policies. Rubio put together his own version of the Dream Act, which was expected to gain such bipartisan popularity that the Democratic Party moved to destroy any chance of it coming up for a vote. So President Obama released an executive order directing authorities not to enforce immigration law against certain immigrants rather than pass legislation to fix the problem.

Additionally, Crist mentions education, but Crist’s predecessor, Jeb Bush, enjoys a legacy that includes a reformed state education policy with impressive results. In other words, Crist hails from the state at the center of an immigrant-friendly, pro-education reform movement led by the party he is walking away from.

Both Bush and Rubio have earned extraordinary respect from the national party and the conservative movement. If Crist wants to take a stand on behalf of a status quo that is failing students in order to enrich union bosses and preventing bipartisan immigration reform, he is free to do so. But it should be acknowledged that this is exactly what he is doing.

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