Schools: What Kind of Reform?


Now that Governor Scott Walker has won the recall election, Wisconsin is pushing through the education reforms that were part of his 2010 legislative agenda. Like most education reform initiatives, Wisconsin’s contains some form of merit-based teacher pay and a voucher system. Indiana has proposed similar reforms, and Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal and New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have made national headlines with education reform plans that in some ways resemble Wisconsin’s.

The proposals are pushed by Republicans who tout them as free-market solutions to the education problem in their respective states. But what they don’t say, or perhaps don’t see, about their proposals may make the system worse than the one we have.

Teachers object to having their pay tied to student performance. But this is what happens all across the private sector. If a manager’s employees are not doing what the company demands, the manager will be replaced. Likewise, if a high school coach’s team doesn’t win enough games, the coach will be replaced. Teachers must be held accountable if their students are not learning, and be rewarded if they are. It is time they were held to the same standard as everyone else.

The practical problem isn’t whether teachers should be assessed, but how they should be assessed. Yet that means there’s still a problem.

Standardized tests are the primary measure by which we judge a student’s level of achievement, and changing our measure of achievement must be among the first reforms enacted. Standardized testing prohibits experiential learning and diminishes the value of differentiated instruction. As an educator, I have found that certain topics are more attractive to students than other subjects, and those topics change from year to year and class to class. For instance, in 2001 my ninth-grade world history class we dedicated significantly more time to world religions, particularly Islam, than had originally been planned — because of what happened on 9/11. Had there been a standardized history exam I would never have been able to capitalize on the students’ interest, and we all would have missed out on a teachable moment.

So whatever measure states use to evaluate teachers must not limit their flexibility or autonomy. This goal is doubly difficult to achieve, however, when government enters the picture, even in the form of a school voucher system.

Supporters of school choice ground their argument in free-market principles. Opponents object that tax dollars will be siphoned away from already cash-strapped schools. The reply is: “If you want the money, you must earn it.” Where there is a monopoly, providers become inefficient and weak. Where there is competition, we see innovation and greater progress. A school voucher program works to break the monopoly to allow free market mechanisms to enter the education system. Ironically, however, it is the government that is seeking to instill this aspect of the free market.

We should be wary of that. If the government begins, indirectly, to fund private schools through vouchers, the schools will not have to be as competitive when trying to secure funding either from student tuition or from donors.

Any time government takes action there are unintended consequences, and there are at least two educational consequences that we can see looming on the horizon already. The first is an undermining of free market principles. The second is the opportunity for government to regulate private schools, with vouchers being construed as funded mandates. If private schools begin to depend on indirect government funding, then the government can gain leverage over what these schools teach and how they teach it.

There is no easy solution to our education problems. Problems with education have been documented for more than two millennia. No reform or policy will be the final solution, for education is a process, and improving it should be seen in the same way. Which is why, in the end, we should advocate reforms that promote the greatest amount of flexibility and accountability.

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Although there is much to be commended in your brief article on education reform, I must take exception to the comparison you made between teacher evaluation and manager evaluation. Even though a manager's job evaluation and retention are often dependent upon his underlings' performance, it must be remembered those employees are paid to follow the manager's instruction and can be fired or demoted if they fail to do so. On the other hand, a teacher's students are coerced to attend class and the teacher cannot expel them for poor academic performance. Yes, in a sense, they can be demoted with a failing grade, or even held back from advancing to the next grade, if they fail to master a teacher's instruction. This, however, does not have the same detrimental effect on a child as job loss or demotion has on an adult worker. In other words, a manager has a great deal more leverage over his employees' job performance than a teacher has over his students' academic performance. Yes, there needs to be a relatively objective evaluation method for teachers, but standardized testing lacks validity as such a measure. It may assess a student's mastery of skills and content, but that is NOT a direct reflection of the quality of a teacher's instruction in the classroom.


Unfortunately, most conservatives and even some Libertarians are afraid to speak publicly about ending State run education. Yes, the poor will pay less for education, just as they pay less for clothing, transportation, housing, travel, and just about every other aspect of life. That's what poor is all about: affording less with fewer resources.

It's the same problem we face with healthcare. We need to allow the poor to buy second or even third world healthcare. But the politicians and the medical establishment will have none of it. They want to give everyone a Cadillac, not a Chevy or an old beat up Ford for Gawd's sake.

With education we should immediately begin charging tuition at all public schools, increasing the amount yearly and reducing taxes as we go. Soon, all schools would be privatized. The good teachers would command the highest tuitions and new competition would develop for each socioeconomic group. It's freedom; it's messy! Get on with it and don't come up with plans that evade the real issues.

Jon Harrison

I wouldn't worry too much about violating free market principles in the public schools if in return we could get better educated students. But I think the decline is US public education is probably irreversible.

Voucher programs and charter schools are helpful; they put pressure on the public system to produce results. I couldn't agree with you more about the downside of standardized testing, but how do we measure basic skills without it? Standardized testing was instituted nationwide because public schools were graduating kids who couldn't read or write and were sorely lacking math and science skills. Something had to be done to establish standards and measure performance, and in a mass public system that meant some form of standardized testing.

When I was growing up the US public school system was among the best in the world. Recently I've had a child go through five years of public school (I've home-schooled her the last two years). In addition I spent a couple of years in a sixth-grade classroom as a volunteer writing coach. In my view the system simply does not perform as well as it once did. Why is that?

I place considerable blame on the home. The widespread breakdown of family structures since the 1960s has taken a toll on the educational process, which to be successful must have a home as well as a school component. Add to that the explosion of electronic media, which has unquestionably played a part in dumbing-down our children. Kids today spend far too much time passively watching something on TV or online or else interacting at a relatively low mental level with video games and social websites. In the old days much of the time now wasted on this stuff was used for reading or real conversation.

Teaching is no longer a vocation but a job. And not a very well-paying a job, either. In general the best and brightest do not go into teaching (there are exceptions, of course). Perhaps they never did, but it seems to me that teachers were brighter in my day. Combine this with the terrible effects of 1) unionizing teachers and 2) federalizing education and you have, I think, the recipe for the disaster American public education has become. I believe it's no coincidence that test scores went into decline just as unionization and federal intervention entered American public education.

On a brighter note, I would venture to say that the smartest kids are just as intelligent if not more so than in the past. These kids are the products of strong families that value education for its own sake, and most of them attend decent public or private schools. It's the second and third tiers of students that have fallen off dramatically in knowledge and achievement, and I don't think there's a heckuva lot that public policy of any ideological stripe can do to change that. We are in a period of decline and education is no exception.


May I suggest that all taxes/Government funding to support education be eliminated. Keep the funding between the parents and the school; the consumer and the service provider. This is the only way that true market forces can work however, this opens another debate on affordability.


If you had corresponding cuts in all the taxes the poor and middle class already pay for this education, it would be easily affordable.

Of course you'll never have a politician give up that much power, however.

Jon Harrison

I agree in theory JMGj, but in fact you would find that a high percentage of families outside middle-class areas would be unable or, in some cases, unwilling to pay. "Eliminating public education as we know it" is an incredibly tempting line, but in practice it would result in a further drop in education levels, with a concomitant rise in unemployment, welfare costs, and crime.

Mark Uzick

Mr. Harrison,

I will paraphrase your comment so: "Oh heavens, what would we ever do without the state to tell us how to think and what to do?"

The elitist, authoritarian mentality that you display is precisely why Americans find themselves in this dilemma of their own making. Your response is further evidence that failure, like war, is the health of the state.

I'd rather see even the most misguided and uneducated parents have responsibility for their children's education than the intellectually and spiritually stultifying indoctrination camps masquerading as "public schools".

Jon Harrison

Don't accept your paraphrase, but that's okay. I wish I could simply agree that even the most misguided and uneducated parents ought to have complete responsibility for their children's education. Unfortunately, that would lead to more welfare, more crime -- i.e., more state intervention and probably even more money spent by taxpayers.

I know it feels good to speak out as you have here. But unfortunately life is more complicated than you'd like it to be.

Mark Uzick

I'll correct that for you:

"I wish I could simply agree that[ ]the[ ]misguided and uneducated [pubic school indoctrinators should have control over children's education.] Unfortunately, that would lead to more welfare, more crime -- i.e., more state intervention and probably even more money spent by taxpayers."

But I guess that's the real goal - isn't it? For the state, failure is its own reward.

Don Crawford

State mandated standardized tests control the curriculum, which you feel is bad because it won't allow you the freedom to choose what topics you as the teacher think might be best to cover in any given year. I feel those tests are bad because they omit important topics that are important to teach such as decoding skills, math facts and spelling while overemphasizing topics that aren't teachable such as the ability to solve unusual math problems, make inferences in literature, and write interesting stories.

Holding teachers accountable for the amount their students learn is not fair until you take into account the intellectual capacity of the students they have. Otherwise the teachers of bright students get all the kudos, while teachers of students with below average academic abilities are condemned, both of them unfairly.

Parents are well able to evaluate the quality of schools and would evaluate on many more measures of quality than just the scores on state mandated standardized tests. Giving vouchers to parents for the median cost of education and letting all schools become private institutions is the best way to allow freedom to prevail in education. Ideally parents would pay for education themselves (and tuition tax credits should be available) but the public would not accept the fact that some people wouldn't pay for their children to get an education. So tax credits and vouchers are as far we can go toward freedom--but that would be enough to revolutionize education.

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