Radical Scholarship: Pulling a Greene: Why Advocacy and Market Forces Fail Education Reform [Redux]
Jay P. Greene, Ph.D., is Endowed Chair and Head of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas.
The Department of Education Reform is heavily funded by Walton money, and it is important to understand that the Walton family (of Walmart) are strong school choice advocates.
In 2011, not long after I published a book challenging school choice through a critical perspective, I warned about the dangers of advocacy for choice in many forms, about the distorting impact of that advocacy on education reform, concluding:
Once again, the caution of evidence - advocacy is the enemy of transparency and truth.
Like medicine, then, education and education reform will continue to fail if placed inside the corrosive dynamics of market forces. Instead, the reform of education must include the expertise of educators who are not bound to advocating for customers, but encouraged, rewarded and praised for offering the public the transparent truth about what faces us and what outcomes are the result of any and every endeavor to provide children the opportunity to learn as a member of a free and empowered people.
Education “miracles” do not exist and market forces are neither perfect nor universal silver bullets for any problem – these are conclusions made when we are free of the limitations of advocacy and dedicated to the truth, even when it challenges our beliefs.
Think tanks have agendas, and when the advocacy commitments of those think tanks supersede the pursuit of knowledge, those think tanks lose credibility. Increasingly, market forces have impinged upon the wall between advocacy and the pursuit of knowledge in university-based research, once the domain of high education. The Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, now, functions more like a think tank (pro school choice) than a graduate department dedicated to dispassionate research.
And thus, as chair and head of the department we have Greene, lamenting the negative consequences of high-stakes testing on the prospects of expanding the school choice agenda:
First, testing requirements hurt choice because test results fail to capture most of the benefits produced by choice schools.
What is stunning (not) is that Greene is now raising the exact same caution public school advocates have been acknowledging since the early 1980s when the high-stakes accountability movement built on standards and testing began: In fact, yes, high-stakes testing data are incredibly limited in what they reveal and that data also mask many outstanding effects of all types of schooling while perpetuating some of the worst aspects of education practices reflecting social inequities (since high-stakes standardized tests remain biased by race, class, and gender).
What we have in this blog from Greene, then, is “pulling a Greene”: Raising a red flag only when a policy or practice impacts negatively the agenda for which you advocate, but not when the policy or practice impacts negatively the agenda of others.
It is no conspiracy theory to recognize that the entire accountability era begun under Ronald Reagan was in part designed to discredit public education so that the U.S. public would (finally) be more open to school choice. Gerald Holton (2003) and Gerald Bracey (2003) have exposed the advocacy aspect of “A Nation at Risk,” documenting the direct connection between accountability of public schools and seeking to expand school choice. As Holton revealed:
We met with President Reagan at the White House, who at first was jovial, charming, and full of funny stories, but then turned serious when he gave us our marching orders. He told us that our report should focus on five fundamental points that would bring excellence to education: Bring God back into the classroom. Encourage tuition tax credits for families using private schools. Support vouchers. Leave the primary responsibility for education to parents. And please abolish that abomination, the Department of Education.
Now that bit of political manipulation has come home to roost, and thus we have Greene lamenting the negative consequences of high-stakes testing.
Let me add, here, then, that this is just more of the same. School choice advocacy has been a moving target since the 1980s. School choice, now focused mostly on charter schools, has offered a disorienting array of claimed outcomes and spoken to a scattering of nearly every potential stakeholder imaginable—as I detailed, also in 2011, and now include below.
Few metaphors could be more appropriate than the “invisible hand” for free market forces, and the constantly shifting school choice movement over the past thirty years (paralleling the accountability era spurred by “A Nation at Risk”) reflects how choice advocates are driven by ideology and faith in market forces regardless of evidence.
Lubienski and Weitzel (2008) examine school choice advocacy and offer this key point:
This is a notable possibility in view of the claim that voucher programs have not been shown to harm academic achievement. In fact, the “do no harm” promise is far removed from earlier claims about the potential for vouchers to improve student performance. Over a decade into this reform, some advocates are moving away from optimistic claims about school choice achievement outcomes, and many are instead highlighting parent satisfaction as evidence of success. (p. 484)
In the 1980s and 1990s, before a substantial body of research had emerged, vouchers were heralded as the panacea for a failing public school system [a claim made more recognizable by the growing accountability movement based on high-stakes testing]. Once the shine wore off those lofty claims—since research shows little to no academic gains driven by any choice initiatives—school choice advocates began to change claims and approaches, attempting to stay at least one step ahead of the evidence throughout the process.
The evolution of the school choice advocacy talking points has included the following, in roughly the order in which they surfaced in the advocacy reports by think tanks and the media from the 1980s until 2011:
• Public education is a failure because it is a monopoly, and market forces can and will eradicate the problems posed by a monopoly. Vouchers are the solution to public education failures because they will force public schools to compete with superior private schools.
(Subsequently, vouchers proved to be unpopular with the public, and private schools were revealed to be little different in effectiveness than public schools when student populations were taken into account.) 
• No vouchers, then let’s use tuition tax credits. . .
• How about public school choice then. . .?
(See evidence from Milwaukee, Minnesota, and Florida—where widespread choice and choice tied to accountability have neither raised achievement nor actually spurred any real competition.) 
• Then, how about charter schools. . .and let’s be sure to address children and families in poverty. . .and parents really are happy when given choice. . .and choice might raise graduation rates. . .
• But vouchers/choice “do no harm”! 
• Why would anyone want to deny choice to people in poverty, the same choice that middle- and upper-class people have?
And that is where we stand today in the school choice advocacy discourse. The newest talking points are “do no harm” and that people apposing vouchers want to deny choice to people living in poverty.
And throughout the school choice debate, ironically, the choice advocates shift back and forth about the rigor of research—think tank reports that are pro-choice and the leading school choice researchers tend to avoid peer-review and rail against peer-reviews (usually charging that the reviews are ideological and driven by their funding) while simultaneously using terms such as “objective,” “empirical,” and “econometrics” to give their reports and arguments the appearance of rigor.
But, if anyone makes any effort to scratch beneath the surface of school choice advocacy reports, she/he will find some telling details:
In education, readers should beware of research emanating from the Hoover Institution at Stanford University, the Heritage Foundation, the Manhattan Institute, the Heartland Institute, the Mackinac Center, the Center for Education Reform, the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, the Paul Peterson group at Harvard, and, soon, the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas. Arkansas is home to the Walton family, and much Wal-Mart money has already made its way to the University of Arkansas, $300 million in 2002 alone. The new department, to be headed by Jay P. Greene, currently at the Manhattan Institute, will no doubt benefit from the Walton presence. The family’s largesse was estimated to approach $1 billion per year (Hopkins 2004), and before his death in an airplane crash, John Walton was perhaps the nation’s most energetic advocate of school vouchers. (Bracey, 2006, p. xvi) 
School choice may, in fact, hold some promises for reforming education since “choice” is central to human agency and empowerment. But the school choice movement and its advocates are the least likely avenues for us ever realizing what school choice has to offer because the advocates are primarily driven by ideology and funding coming from sources that have intentions that have little to do with universal public education for free and empowered people.
And the growing evidence that corporate charter schools as the latest choice mechanism are causing harm—in terms of segregation and stratification of student populations—is cause for alarm for all people along the spectrum of school reform and school choice. 
If a school choice advocate sticks to the talking-points script and will not acknowledge the overwhelming evidence that out-of-school factors determine student outcomes, that evidence is mounting that choice stratifies schools, and that evidence onhow school is delivered (public, private, charter) is mixed and similar among all types of schooling, then that advocate isn’t worth our time and isn’t contributing to a vibrant and open debate that could help move us toward school reform that benefits each student and our larger society.
As a follow up to the points above made in 2011, the entire charter school movement as a mask for the school choice agenda also fails when it begins to seek different conditions for those charter schools than those under which public schools must function. Greene’s point about standardized tests applies to all types of schooling, but to suggest standardized tests are a problem only if they impede the spread of choice is as tone deaf as calling for charter schools because schools need less bureaucracy.
So two concluding points:
- If standardized test data are harmful for determining educational quality, student achievement, and teacher impact, let’s end the inordinate weight of standardized testing, period. And let’s acknowledge that the past thirty years of high-stakes accountability has misrepresented the quality of public schools and likely inaccurately increased public support for school choice.
- If charter schools are a compelling option because they allow schools relief from burdensome bureaucracy, just relieve all public schools from that bureaucracy and then no need for the charter school shuffle.
Neither of the above will be embraced, however, by school choice advocates because they are not seeking education reform; they are seeking a privatized education system.
So expect many more shifting claims from school choice advocates, and at least a few more of those advocates pulling a Greene here and there.
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Bracey, G. W. (2003). April foolishness: The 20th anniversary of A Nation at Risk. Phi Delta Kappan, 84 (8), 616-621.
Holton, G. (2003, April 25). An insider’s view of “A Nation at Risk” and why it still matters. The Chronicle Review, 49(33), B13.
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