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29th January

First Published in The New York Sun, January 29, 2008

By Andrew Wolf

Quite a debate among advocates of school choice has been ignited by Sol Stern’s article on school choice in the current number of City Journal.

Mr. Stern is a longtime advocate of school choice, whose book “Breaking Free: Public School Lessons and the Imperative of School Choice” is a bible to many in the voucher movement.

Now Mr. Stern, in “School Choice Isn’t Enough,” suggests that for choice to work, close attention must be paid to how and what children are taught in the classroom. Without such attention, Mr. Stern argues, the choice movement is doomed and may already be failing, as evidenced by results in Milwaukee, the largest venue where a voucher system exists, and in New York City where a grab-bag of incentivist proposals has been put in place by Mayor Bloomberg.

Mr. Stern contrasts these results with those in Massachusetts, where choice has not taken hold but where a tough curriculum, a testing regimen for both students and teachers, and rigorous academic standards have been put into place.

On the recently released NAEP tests, Massachusetts topped the list on fourth and eighth grade math and fourth and eighth grade reading. This has been peripherally touched on in the presidential campaign, as Mitt Romney raises these impressive results on the campaign trail. Pitted against Mr. Stern and his fellow “instructionists” is another Manhattan Institute heavyweight, Senior Fellow Jay Greene of the University of Arkansas. Mr. Greene, the pure incentivist, has lashed out at Mr. Stern in a reply just posted on the City Journal Web site.

Mr. Greene accuses his colleague of “breaking” the “uneasy truce [that] has existed between education reformers who believe that the most important reform is expanding choice and competition and those who point instead to the adoption of a particular curriculum and pedagogy.”

Mr. Greene asserts, “Stern’s best chance of getting and, what’s more important, keeping the instructional reforms that he desires is through incentive reforms. I would urge Stern and his fellow dissidents to restore the truce, because together, I think, we have the best chance of reforming public education.”

Mr. Greene also belittles Mr. Stern’s arguments about Massachusetts. While conceding that “The state’s overall results after it adopted instructional reforms are certainly very encouraging,” he suggests that “a peculiar alignment of the stars” brought a uniquely talented team to the Bay State. “But how often, and for how long, will we have such a team to implement and preserve instructional reforms?”

In raising this issue in this way Mr. Greene discloses a weakness in his argument. If, in the competition between states, Massachusetts has come up with a formula for successful schools, which it clearly has, if market forces truly rule, why wouldn’t other states emulate that success?

Wouldn’t the success of their own children insure that Bay Staters not allow this public policy triumph to be undermined? If the entire state of Massachusetts cannot be counted on to choose correctly to maintain the high standards they have put in place, how can we count on individual parents to make the “right” choice when it comes to their own child’s education?

Mr. Greene addresses this when he notes that “a system of competition works by allowing people to make choices, including sometimes the wrong ones; by imposing consequences, the competitive system makes it more likely that they will make better choices over time.” But this “business model” he espouses falls flat when it comes to the schools. We are not dealing with quarterly earnings reports or stock value here. We are talking about the education of children, an endeavor that comes down to individuals. Our children only get one opportunity for an education. If that one chance is squandered by a foolish choice, for instance on a reading program unsupported by research, fuzzy math, or a content-free curriculum, we cannot make up the deficit with a strong second quarter, or a change in management. For that child, the game is over.

Mr. Greene is joined in his criticism of the Stern article in postings by Robert Enlow, Neal McCluskey, Thomas Carrol, and Andrew Coulson, while Mr. Stern’s biting rejoinder to his adversaries gets support from postings by Diane Ravitch and E.D. Hirsch, Jr.

Mr. Stern isn’t backing down. “It didn’t occur to me until reading these pieces that school choice had become a secular faith, requiring a cadre of thought police to enforce discipline,” he says. “The strangest of these policing attacks is Jay Greene’s assertion that merely by publishing my article in City Journal I ‘broke’ a longstanding ‘truce’ between the incentivist and instructionist factions of the school reform movement… this was the first time I had ever heard about this truce (was it signed at the 38th parallel?)”

© 2008 The New York Sun, One, SL, LLC. All rights reserved.

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