Jay Greene, who heads the University of Arkansas Department of Education Reform, is a leading education scholar who has been a vocal advocate for school choice measures like vouchers and charter schools. He’s also the proprietor of JayPGreene.com, a blog where he and a few select colleagues discuss education policy in a lively and accessible manner.
Jay’s new mini-book, Why America Needs School Choice, will be released July 12. Here, let’s talk about it with him:
What’s the basic argument Why America Needs School Choice, without giving away too much, so people will still have to buy it?
Jay: The book reviews the evidence on school choice, showing that expanding choice and competition improves educational outcomes for students who get to choose, improves the quality of the public school system that faces increased competition, and promotes civic goals, such as integration in schools and political tolerance.
But the book also makes a more basic argument than showing the strength of the evidence supporting choice. It questions the idea that expanding choice and competition in education would produce results any different from robust markets in other sectors. Yes, all markets need some system of regulation, but there is no reason to expect that choice and competition would be less beneficial in education than in any other aspect of our lives. So, the burden is really on opponents to show that markets function relatively well everywhere except in the one domain of education. That’s a burden they cannot meet.
What is the outlook today for school choice as a reform measure? Is it gaining ground, losing ground, holding steady?
Jay: Choice is expanding very rapidly. A little more than two decades ago there were no charter schools in the United States. Now almost two million students attend charter schools. We now have almost three dozen private school choice programs, with more than ten being adopted or significantly expanded during the current state legislative session.
It’s true that the vast majority of students still attend residentially assigned traditional public schools, but the alternative options are growing dramatically. And interestingly, other than through court action, once choice programs are adopted, legislatures never eliminate them. Once people have choices, they like them and fight to keep them.
What are the biggest obstacles to school choice?
Jay: Teacher unions and the entrenched interests they represent are the biggest obstacles. They benefit from a system where lifetime employment is virtually guaranteed, regardless of performance. They benefit from a system where pay and benefits go up for employees every year they continue working – again regardless of performance. It’s an arrangement that exists in almost no other sector of the economy. And it can only be sustained if schools do not have to compete on the basis of price and quality.
Jay: The truth is that neither I nor anyone else can anticipate and plan for what every student needs now or for the next century. That’s the beauty of choice is that it allows people to discover what works for them and encourages schools to innovate and offer a higher quality education to attract students.
Choice is really a meta-reform, facilitating experimentation with what works for students. If students need smaller classes, parents can choose schools that offer that. If students need more technology-based instruction, parents can choose schools that focus on that. Choice enables a process by which people can learn what works for different kinds of students.
You emphasize that empirical research, rather than anecdotal evidence, should guide education policy-making. Are there education policies that you’ve advocated for and later changed your mind about, based on the research?
Jay: Yes, a number of times. Just to give an example, I used to think that merit pay for teachers was a promising strategy for improving student outcomes. This was based in part on the work that I did with Gary Ritter and others on the Little Rock pilot merit pay program. But subsequent evaluations of merit pay plans, including the high quality random assignment experiment in Nashville led by my colleague, Matt Springer, have shown disappointing results.
I now think the kinds of centrally-designed performance pay programs we have been trying are a dead-end for reform. It’s not that I think financial incentives are not important for teachers. If they were completely unimportant we wouldn’t have to pay teachers at all. So, clearly money matters for how people do their jobs and who is attracted to different professions. The problem is that in politically controlled school systems it is nearly impossible to properly design and implement a merit system that will really encourage significantly better teaching. These merit systems are too easily blocked, diluted, or coopted by the unions and their political allies. I’ve written about this problem in a recent article.
Why don’t you read something smart for a change, instead of all these retarded websites? Just look at yourself! Pre-order your copy of Why America Needs School Choice!