How to Succeed without Really Trying

Monday, October 30, 2006

America needs to improve its public schools. A few dissenters want us to believe that the schools are doing just fine and that calls for reform are part of a right-wing conspiracy. But the conspiracy, it turns out, includes virtually everyone in a position of knowledge or public responsibility. The broad consensus among our policymakers—Democrat and Republican, liberal and conservative, from all corners of the country—is that the public schools are not delivering the goods.

Reform Frenzy

This consensus is not new. It emerged in the wake of the most influential report ever issued on the quality of American education, A Nation at Risk, which argued in 1983 that the United States was facing “a rising tide of mediocrity” in its schools. The response at the time was remarkable: a frenzied push for reform that left no state untouched. Even more remarkably, this frenzy continues unabated, to the point that education reform is now the status quo. Every president aspires to be the education president; every governor, the education governor.

All this dedication and effort is admirable but at the same time pathetic. The reform process has never ended because said reforms have typically led to disappointment—and to constant demands for still more reforms. This movement thrives on its own failures. So two decades of perpetual reform later, the state of public education remains troubling:

• Many urban school districts are in crisis, often failing to graduate even half their students. In Detroit the graduation rate is just 42 percent. In Cleveland it is 45 percent. In Sacramento it is 48 percent.

• Minority children consistently score much lower on tests of student achievement than do white children, and the differences are huge. On the 2004 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), for example, black 17-year-olds scored at about the same level as white 13-year-olds in both math and reading.

• For the nation’s students generally, NAEP scores indicate that achievement growth during the past 30 years has been modest and that most of our children do not know what they need to know.

• Compared to students in other developed countries, U.S. students score well above average in the early grades but lose ground in the middle-school years; by high school they are near the bottom of the rankings.

Teachers unions do not want anyone to lose a job merely because they are no good at teaching.

Why are our public schools so difficult to improve? The answer is that two fundamental problems stand in the way of progress. The first is a problem of incentives. The second is a problem of power.

Lack of Motivation

The incentive problem arises out of the traditional organization of U.S. schooling. With lifetime job security, teachers’ pay is based on a salary schedule that has nothing to do with how much their students learn. Good teachers are not rewarded for their talent, effort, or success in the classroom; their productivity will be rewarded only if they leave teaching for another career, which many of them do. Mediocre teachers, who have the same lifetime security and pay as good teachers, have every reason to stick around; nowhere else (outside government) would their poor performance be tolerated. The same incentive problems apply to most administrators, who, like teachers, are traditionally compensated and secure regardless of whether students learn.

For any organization, public or private, the key to effective performance lies in getting the incentives right and, thus, motivating employees to pursue the organization’s objectives. This is Management 101. Yet, traditionally, public education has failed to follow this simple principle, for which it has paid a heavy price, not just in lackluster performance but in reforms that disappoint.

Huge amounts of money have been pumped into the schools, with spending up more than 75 percent per student in inflation-adjusted dollars since 1980. Yet the recipients, having had little incentive to spend it efficiently, haven’t put it to productive use. Similar problems apply to virtually all other mainstream reforms. The push for smaller classes, for example, is extraordinarily expensive, has only modest effects on student learning, and does nothing to change incentives. A mediocre teacher in a small class is still a mediocre teacher.

Education reform is now the status quo: Every president aspires to be the education president; every governor, the education governor.

If we want significant improvements, we need to target the incentives at the heart of the system. Fortunately, potent reforms—school accountability and school choice—are capable of doing just that. Accountability shapes incentives through effective management from above. Under a well-designed system, states are able to develop rigorous academic standards, measure whether those standards are being met, and attach rewards and sanctions to the outcomes—thus putting a laserlike focus on achievement and giving educators and students strong incentives to promote it.

School choice, by contrast, shapes incentives from below through grassroots action. When parents can vote with their feet and are given alternatives—charter schools or private schools—to the public schools, public schools are put on notice that they stand to lose kids and money if they don’t perform. And their incentives are enhanced accordingly.

Those rare, especially promising innovations that bring children and their academic achievement to the center of the system are regarded by teachers unions as mortal threats.

Neither accountability nor choice can be an immediate fix because institutional reform is a complex and imperfect process. Both reforms can be designed and implemented in countless ways, some of which may prove much better than others. Success turns on well-intentioned efforts to move—over time, with experience—toward frameworks that adjust for the inevitable early problems and promote school improvement effectively over the long run. This is neither ideological nor conspiratorial but simply a call for a practical, much-needed search for an appropriate mix of accountability, choice, and traditional schooling—a mix that gets the incentives right and boosts student learning.

Thriving on Failure

From a technical standpoint, such institutional innovation is well within the capabilities of our policymakers. But now the problem of power comes into play. Reform is unavoidably a political process, not just a technical one, and the people who run the public schools—and thus have a vested interest in keeping the incentive system as it is—are extremely powerful in politics. The teachers unions are the de facto political leaders of these insiders and, indeed, of the entire public school system. The unions have more than three million members; tons of money for campaign contributions and lobbying; activists in virtually every electoral district in the country; and are far and away the most powerful force in the politics of U.S. education.

The teachers unions oppose school choice, even for disadvantaged children trapped in the nation’s worst schools, because they don’t want one child or one dollar to leave the schools in which their members work. Using their political power with a vengeance, they have drastically limited the spread of choice programs. Today a handful of small voucher programs exist in the districts of Milwaukee, Cleveland, and Washington, D.C., and in the states of Florida and Utah. Roughly 3,600 charter schools are attended by some one million students nationwide. Although choice options are slowly increasing, they are currently a mere drop in a 50-million-student bucket, providing little competition—and few new incentives—to the public schools.

The unions are also opposed to accountability. (They say they support it because they can hardly say otherwise, given its broad popularity.) What they support are standards, without any true consequences for failing to meet them. They do not want teacher pay to depend on how much students learn; indeed, they do not even want teacher performance to be mea-sured. And, above all else, they do not want anyone to lose a job merely because they are no good at teaching.

The unions could not stop the enactment of No Child Left Behind, the landmark federal accountability law, but they did succeed in weakening some of its key provisions. And since its passage they have done everything possible to impede its implementation, undermine its popularity, and pressure for key changes that would render it impotent.

When parents can vote with their feet and are given real alternatives, public schools are put on notice that they stand to lose kids and money if they don’t perform.

It cannot be surprising, then, that success is elusive in U.S. educational reform. Although the education system is not organized effectively, it can only be reformed through politics, and political power is stacked in favor of employee groups that staunchly defend traditional arrangements. As they see it, reform is fine as long as it doesn’t really change anything; it is especially fine if it promises more money and more jobs.

So this is the kind of reform we get. That the reforms have little or no impact on student learning is beside the point. Those rare, especially promising innovations that bring children and their academic achievement to the center of the system are regarded by employee groups as mortal threats. Those groups do everything they can to defeat these efforts and (failing that) to put roadblocks in the way of progress.

The problem of incentives, then, cannot be dealt with until the problem of political power is resolved. Until that happens, real reform will be a constant uphill battle and the public schools will continue to disappoint.