Yesterday, former Florida governor Jeb Bush made news zinging actor/director Matt Damon with a tweet: “Matt Damon Refuses to Enroll Kids in Los Angeles Public Schools. Choice ok for Damon, why not everyone else?”
The cafeteria food fight that is the U.S. education debate is on again. After two decades it has come down to one core point of contention: accountability. It may be accountability through hierarchy and standards (No Child Left Behind) or accountability through the market (school choice, either through publicly chartered or private schools or both). To one degree or another the teachers unions oppose both approaches.
But are choice and standards our only options?
We all know why this fight continues. It began in the 1980s, when the Reagan Education Department published a study of American schools, concluding that performance was so bad that if a foreign power were to impose such schools on us, we would consider it an “act of war” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Nation_at_Risk).
While there is occasional dissent, usually from teachers union quarters, that judgment has been confirmed again and again over the years. For example, in 2007, the Pacific Research Institute published a study of California schools titled Not as Good as You Think (http://tinyurl.com/kv7jwed) and a follow up in 2009, Still Note as Good as You Think (http://tinyurl.com/koh9ak4). PRI produced a movie based on the first study. The film has run more than one-hundred times on public television in Southern California. The New York Times posted a segment on its website as a video op ed (http://tinyurl.com/mff6kz8).
Both studies found that performance shortfalls in California public schools were not confined to low-income school districts, as was the popular myth. PRI’s Lance Izumi, a star in national education policy, examined student scores in reading and math around the state. Schools in middle income and even very wealthy communities fell unacceptably short. Forty percent of students failed to perform at proficiency in at least on grade level.
Yet as I discovered when I assembled a group of education experts from around the country several years ago (the purpose was to advise a political party in another highly developed country on the effectiveness of education reform in the United States), there is a great deal of doubt among American reformers about the effectiveness of all reforms to date.
As one expert noted, for market solutions to work, schools must be able to lose market share and go out of business. Institutional punishment is as critical to market dynamics as institutional reward. For obvious political reasons, charter schools are rarely allowed to close. Subsidies just keep coming in.
Meanwhile, based on test scores, No Child Left Behind was succeeding at closing the gap among ethnic groups, with the scores of African-American and Hispanic students moving up significantly faster than those of already high-scoring white and Asian students. But the Obama administration made critical modifications to the program when it came into office and progress stopped.
In other words, political opponents have, to one degree or another, frustrated both strategies.
All this brings me to a story about a Korean super teacher. Last Saturday the Wall Street Journal reported on a teacher who earns $ 4 million a year (http://tinyurl.com/pbhsdvb). Though not an American, Kim Ki-hoon surely represents the next stage of the education debate in the United States.
He teaches English. His classes are on video. When not producing more videos and writing more textbooks to go with them, he is online, answering student questions and giving tutorials. Today 75 percent of Korean students participate in the private market. By one means or another and often online, they receive private instruction in parallel to their public school education.
The results? According to the Journal article, 47 percent of 8th graders score as advanced in basic skills. In the United States only 7 percent do.
Last week, I wrote about a morning I spent with a serial entrepreneur in the California tech sector. I reported on what he told me about the death of “liquidity event” IPOs. But we also talked about education policy. Like those experts I assembled several years ago, he doubted that school choice as currently conceived was a sufficiently robust answer to our national education problems.
“School choice is a demand-side strategy,” he said. “But if everyone received vouchers and rushed to pull their children out of public schools, the private schools couldn’t handle them. We need a supply-side strategy. How do we lower the barriers to starting a school?”
Again, the Korean example may point to an answer: Go online; go entirely private; do not wait for government-funded schools to catch up. In this country we have seen the emergence of the Khan Academy (https://www.khanacademy.org/), which follows this model but is free. At the university level, we have the University of Phoenix, Strayer University and other for profit and highly innovative institutions. There are also increasingly sophisticated efforts from traditional schools, whether for degree programs or not. On a number of levels (in production values and formats as well as content), the most impressive examples I have found are from Hillsdale College. To see what I mean, listen to the Hillsdale Dialogues between Hugh Hewitt and college president Larry Arnn (http://tinyurl.com/mnmjyd4). (Yes, this article appears on the Hewitt website and yes, I have known Dr. Arnn for year, but what I say here is nevertheless true).
But on the K-12 level, the teachers unions and government rules remain obstacles to the emerging model. As another study by PRI’s Izumi found (http://tinyurl.com/lqssygg), California in particular has thrown obstacle after obstacle in the way of wider use of online education. For example, if you enroll in an online virtual school, the school must be physically located in your county or an adjoining one and the teacher-student ratio must not exceed 25:1. By contrast, Kim Ki-hoon’s students number 150,000.
The American education reform movement was launched in the 1980s – but looked at the way I have been here, it is just getting started.