The Future of Testing

The Future of Testing

Given how much the rest of education has changed since the middle of the 20th century, it’s remarkable that the model of large-scale student assessment we have today still looks pretty much the way it did back in the nineteen-fifties: a group of kids under careful watch, lined up in rows of seats in a rigidly controlled space, all asked the same questions, each silently bubbling in answer sheets under the same strict time limits.

To be sure, new technologies have been incorporated into standardized testing over the decades: machine scoring, computerized authoring and delivery, computer adaptive testing, technology-enhanced items, automated essay scoring, automated item generation. But these innovations—not all of them widespread; it’s still very much a paper-and-pencil world in most US schools—haven’t really changed the underlying testing paradigm. Whether computer- or paper-based, the tests still are comprised mostly of multiple-choice questions. They still require highly contrived and regimented conditions for administration. They still make use of the same measurement principles and techniques. They still are governed by the values of 20th-century industrialization: speed, uniformity, cost efficiency, quantifiability, and mass production.

This model of testing persists precisely because it so effectively delivers on machine-age promises of reliability and efficiency at a large scale. But these benefits come at a cost: the fixed content and rigid testing conditions severely constrain the skills and knowledge that can be assessed. A battery of multiple-choice and short-answer questions on a timed test may do a pretty good job of evaluating basic skills, but it falls short of measuring many of the most essential academic competencies: sustained engagement, invention, planning, collaboration, experimenting and revising, spit-shining a finished project—the kind of skills developed through authentic, substantive educational experiences.

Standardized testing has not kept up with advances in learning science. It ignores, for example, the non-cognitive skills that research today tells us are integral to learning—personal resilience, for example, or a willingness to cooperate. What’s more, we acknowledge today that students develop their academic competencies, cognitive and non-cognitive, in particular educational contexts in which their own varied interests, backgrounds, identities, and languages are brought to bear as valued resources. Conventional standardized tests work to neutralize the impact of these variables, rather than incorporate them.

We do need, and will continue to need, large-scale assessments, despite the many dissatisfactions we may have with them at present. Classroom assessment by itself doesn’t tell us what we need to know about student performance at the state or national level. Without large-scale assessment, we’re blind to differences among subgroups and regions, and thus cannot make fully informed decisions about who needs more help, where best to put resources, which efforts are working and which aren’t.

The central problem to address, then, is how to get an accurate assessment of a fuller range of authentic academic competencies in a way that is educative, timely, affordable, and scalable—a tall order indeed. Recognizing the limitations of the existing testing paradigm, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) of 2015 opened the door for a limited number of states to try out alternative models that might eventually replace existing accountability tests. Thanks in part to this opportunity, plus ever-advancing technologies, new ideas are in the works.

Here are some directions in which the future of testing may be headed:

Classroom-Based Evidence. The assessment of authentic classroom work can provide a fuller and more genuine portrait of student abilities than we get from the snapshot view afforded by timed multiple-choice-based tests. Indeed, portfolio assessments are widely used in a variety of contexts, from individual courses to district-level graduation requirements. Historically, however, they haven’t worked well at scale. Experiments with large-scale portfolio assessment in the 1990s were abandoned as they proved cumbersome and expensive, and as states found it difficult to establish comparability across schools and districts.

Hopes for using collections of authentic student evidence in large-scale assessments are being revived, however, as ESSA creates new opportunities for state-level change. The anti-standardized testing group, FairTest, has developed a model to help guide state system innovations toward local assessment of classroom-based evidence. The model folds teacher-evaluated, student-focused extended projects into a statewide accountability system with built-in checks for quality and comparability. FairTest cites programs already underway in New Hampshire and elsewhere as evidence of where this approach might lead.

The FairTest model doesn’t rely on new technologies, but large-scale portfolio assessment potentially becomes more feasible today, compared with the low-tech version in the nineties, thanks to easier digitization, cheaper storage, and ubiquitous connectivity. More than mere repositories for uploaded student work, platforms today can combine creation and social interaction spaces with advanced data analytics. This creates opportunities for assessing new constructs (research, or collaborative problem-solving, for example), gaining new insights into student competencies (e.g. social skills), and even automating some dimensions of portfolio assessment to make it faster and more affordable. Scholar, a social knowledge platform currently in use in higher education, provides a glimpse into the kind of environment in which large-scale e-portfolio assessment might someday take root.

Real-World Fidelity. Another shortcoming of multiple-choice based standardized tests is that that they do not present students with authentic contexts in which to demonstrate their knowledge and skills. More authentic tasks, critics argue, better elicit the actual skills associated with the constructs measured, and thus lead to more valid test score interpretations.

Computer-based tests create opportunities for item types that more closely resemble real-world activities, compared with traditional multiple-choice questions. Technology-enhanced items (TEIs) can, for example, allow students to manipulate digital objects, highlight text, show their calculations, or respond to multimedia sources. While such items fall short of replicating real-world activities, they do represent a step beyond selecting an answer from a list and filling in a bubble sheet.

Many computer-based versions of standardized tests now add TEIs to the mix of conventional items in hopes of measuring a broader range of skills and improving test validity. In truth, however, TEIs bring their own set of test development challenges. Though eager to use them, test makers at this point do not know very much about what a given TEI might measure beyond a conventional multiple-choice question, if anything. Additionally, in their quest for greater real-world fidelity, TEIs can at the same time introduce a new layer of measurement interference, requiring examinees not only to demonstrate their academic ability, but also to master novel test item formats and response actions.

Despite their current limitations, however, technology-enhanced items will likely continue pushing standardized testing toward greater real-world fidelity, particularly as they grow more adept at simulating authentic problems and interactions, and better at providing test takers with opportunities to devise and exercise their own problem-solving strategies. The latest iteration of the PISA test, a large-scale international assessment, simulates student-to-student interaction to gauge test takers’ collaborative problem-solving skills. Future versions will connect real students with one another in real time.

Continuous Assessment. As tests evolve toward truer representations of real-world tasks, they will likely pick up a trick or two from computer-based games, such as Mars Generation One: Argubot Academy or Physics Playground. These games, like many others, immerse students in complex problem-solving activities. To the extent that conventional test-makers learn likewise to engage students in absorbing tasks, they will better succeed at eliciting the kinds of performances that accurately reflect students’ capabilities. When tasks lack relevance and authenticity they work against students’ ability to demonstrate their best work.

In addition to engaging their interest, computer-based educational games can continuously assess students’ performances without interrupting their learning. The games register a student’s success at accomplishing a task; but more than that, they can capture behind-the-scenes data that reveal, for example, how persistent or creative the student was in finding a solution.

As they develop, platforms delivering academic instruction might also automatically assess some dimensions of authentic student performance as it happens, without interrupting learning activities. The Assessment and Teaching of 21st Century Skills project, from the University of Melbourne, provides an example of how an academic platform can capture log stream and chat stream data to model and evaluate student activity. This kind of “stealth assessment” creates opportunities for including non-cognitive competencies—e.g., level of effort, willingness to contribute—in the overall picture of a student’s abilities.

Inclusion. To achieve statistical reliability, conventional standardized tests demand rigorously uniform test-taker experiences. Accordingly, the tests have always had a hard time accommodating examinees with special needs. Education today, however, persistently leads away from uniformity, towards greater inclusion and accommodation of the whole community of learners, including those with various physical, learning, and language differences.

Computer-based testing presents both opportunities and challenges for accessibility. On one hand, special tools, such as magnifiers and glosses, can be built into standard items. On the other, TEI formats using color, interactivity, response actions requiring fine motor skills, and other features can be difficult or impossible for some test takers. Nevertheless, research suggests that, overall, the digital testing environment can improve access to testing for students with disabilities.

Among the challenges to inclusivity in US testing is the problem of evaluating students who are learning English against standards that assume they already have English language skills. According to Professor Alida Anderson of American University, this problem highlights the need for future assessment systems to be more flexible, not only in the design and delivery of test content, but also in the interpretation and use of standards. Towards that end, programs such as the New York State Bilingual Common Core Initiative are developing bilingual standards and learning progressions that align with English language-based standards frameworks. These efforts promise a fairer and more accurate interpretation of test results for more students.

My own company, BetterRhetor, is combining some of the innovations discussed above in an effort to overcome the limitations of conventional testing (see our long-term vision here). Our web-based platform, for use in classrooms, will deliver five-week instructional modules in Writing and STEM. Assessment of student performance is facilitated by the platform and integrated into instruction. The modules will teach, elicit, capture, and assess not only cognitive skills, but also social and personal competencies. Because students engage over an extended period, we’ll be able to supply actionable feedback, as well as indications of progress. Our overall goal is to provide teachers and schools with a highly effective instructional resource that generates a rich portrait of their students’ authentic abilities.

These kinds of innovation will likely require parallel innovations in measurement science if they are to take hold in large-scale assessment. Test reliability, for instance, might be reframed in terms of negotiated interpretations by panels of local stakeholders, instead of statistical correlations among test scores. Determinations of validity may need to consider how well a test elicits fair and authentic performances from the full complement of learners in an educational community. Comparability across schools and districts may need to take into account the degree to which an assessment supports not just institutional needs but also student learning.

Ideally, future forms of large-scale assessment will function as integral dimensions of learning itself, rather than interruptions or intrusions. They’ll both evaluate and reinforce the full array of knowledge and skills required for the successful completion of real academic work in real educational contexts.

Many thanks to Professor Alida Anderson, School of Education, American University, for her insights into inclusive testing.

© 2018 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)

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A Place for the Humanities in the Digital Age

A Place for the Humanities in the Digital Age

In the 1950s, C. P. Snow famously argued that academia had separated into two cultures—the sciences and the humanities—with no commerce between them. As both a novelist and a scientist himself, Snow shuttled between the two worlds, and lamented that they did not combine forces to solve problems neither was equipped to address on its own.

In our time, a separation between the sciences and the humanities is asserted on practical grounds: economic life is dominated by technology, which requires science, engineering, and math, not literature, history, philosophy and the like. College is expensive and the global marketplace competitive. Any individual looking for a serious career—and any country hoping to compete in the world economy—had best forget about the humanities and focus instead on things more practical.

STEM-promoting programs have proliferated throughout education, while the humanities have, in places, become expendable. States across the country offer incentives for students getting degrees in fields such as electrical engineering, while in Kentucky, for example, the governor has gone so far as to propose withholding state funds from schools that produce too many graduates in French literature.

All of this bias in favor of STEM has begun to generate some pushback from people who feel that there is a valuable, even necessary, place for the humanities in today’s world. Some caution against reducing education to career training alone. We should be unwilling, the novelist Marilynne Robinson writes, to “cede… humane freedom to a very uncertain promise of employability.” Rather, she says, we need the humanities for “preparing capable citizens, imaginative and innovative contributors to a full and generous, and largely unmonetizable, national life.”

Others make the case that training in the humanities actually does pay off in the economic lives of both workers and nation. George Anders, in You Can Do Anything, reports that many well-paying jobs in today’s economy are tailor-made for liberal arts majors—for example, jobs in project management, digital marketing, graphic design and genetic counseling. Randall Stross’s A Practical Education: Why Liberal Arts Majors Make Great Employees makes the case that the humanities provide the most useful training for an unknowable future. Joseph E. Aoun, president of Northeastern University, argues in Robot-Proof: Higher Education in the Age of Artificial Intelligence that the humanities will be key to keeping life humane in an increasingly automated future.

In contrast to the 1950s, any rift between technical and humanistic fields today seems to be closing on its own anyway. As new technologies integrate themselves ever more thoroughly into all corners of human life, they increasingly require for their success a deeper attunement to the nature of human beings. In education, the evolution of STEM to STEAM (with the A standing for arts) reflects this integration, as does the current interest in design thinking—a recognition that technical things and systems must be responsive to aesthetics, personal preferences, cultural differences, and human behaviors of all sorts.

The digital humanities likewise blend the two cultures into one, applying methods of quantification and data analysis to the study of literature, geography, history, and other fields. As such, the digital humanities provide an excellent avenue for teaching students technical skills and humanistic modes of inquiry in complementary fashion, perhaps just the way they’ll be asked to use them in their professional and civic lives down the road.

K-12 teachers and students will find online a host of digital humanities resources in three primary areas: human geography, historical archives, and text analysis. Here are some examples:

Human geography

The visualization of digitized geographical information has created a wealth of opportunities for exploring both historical and contemporary relationships between people and place. ORBIS: The Stanford Geospatial Network Model of the Roman World, for example, provides an interactive map that calculates the time and cost of traveling throughout the Roman Empire by land or sea, even taking into account the seasons.

A Vision of Britain Through Time overlays the geography of Britain with election data, census information, historical maps, and travel writing. Select any district and explore changes through time in its population, social structure, housing, industry, economic conditions, and more.

Google Earth’s Voyager section contains ready-made explorations in travel, culture, and history. Tour famous writers’ homes, explore medieval Europe, or discover tribal government success stories. The Lewis and Clark unit, created with PBS Education, combines videos and text with an interactive Google Earth map of the explorers’ journey to the Pacific and back.

Historical archives

Disciplinary boundaries tend to break down in the digital humanities, so geographically centered resources may also be rich troves of archival information. Civil War Washington, for example, combines historical documents, images, data, and maps, with interpretive essays to provide a thick description of the nation’s capital during the Civil War.

The Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media is a repository for a wide mix of projects for studying history, as well as tools for managing citations and organizing and publishing archives. An abundance of teaching resources provide lesson plans organized around rich collections of historical materials. For example, Making the History of 1989 is a project that explores the fall of the communist states in Europe. It includes hundreds of primary sources, along with multi-media interviews with historians.

The Lincoln Telegrams Project is part of “Decoding the Civil War: Engaging the Public with 19th Century Technology and Cryptology through Crowdsourcing,” an effort to transcribe and decode Civil War military telegrams through crowdsourcing. The site includes online access to Lincoln’s wartime telegrams, along with lesson plans for high school students.

American Memory, from the Library of Congress, contains extensive collections of historical materials centered on American life, literature, history, and more. A section for teachers includes classroom materials, professional development resources, and guides for using primary sources.

Text analysis

Sophisticated approaches to text mining are yielding new scholarly insights in fields from literature to linguistics to cultural criticism. For the pre-college classroom, some handy text analysis tools can give students an idea of how digitization opens up modes of inquiry into language and literature.

Google Books Ngram Viewer finds the number of times user-entered words and phrases occur within the vast number of books Google has digitized up to 2008. The Viewer returns a record of the rise or decline of concepts, names, terms, and events appearing in print over years, decades, or centuries.

Wordle and similar programs generate word clouds from user-entered text. Students can analyze famous speeches, for example, by discovering the words used most or least often. Student essays entered into the program can shed light on word usage perhaps not otherwise obvious to writer or instructor. Here’s a list of classroom lessons using word cloud generators.

Voyant moves beyond word clouds to provide context for the words and phrases found in a text. When a  word such as “future“ appears in a transcribed conversation, for example, does it carry a positive or negative connotation? This kind of sentiment analysis is more technically challenging to accomplish than simple word clouds, but for the right teacher or student, it can be a useful tool for examining a wide variety of texts.

In our time, technical and humanistic domains tend to meld in ways that C. P. Snow could not have anticipated, but likely would have welcomed. For tomorrow’s students, the very idea that the sciences and humanities could be separated might seem perplexing, as they’ll see all around them technical tools in the service of humanistic inquiry, and human insights shaping the form and application of new technologies.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)

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At the Intersection of Creativity and Critical Thinking

At the Intersection of Creativity and Critical Thinking

Creativity and critical thinking sit atop most lists of skills crucial for success in the 21st century. They represent two of the “Four Cs” in  P21’s learning framework (the other two being communication and collaboration), and they rank second and third on the World Economic Forum’s top ten list of skills workers will need most in the year 2020 (complex problem solving ranks first).

The various lists of 21st-century skills grant creativity and critical thinking such prominence in part because they are human abilities robots and AI are unlikely to usurp anytime soon. The picture of the near future that emerges from these compilations of skills is one in which people must compete against their own inventions by exploiting the most human of their human qualities: empathy, a willingness to work together, adaptability, innovation. As the 21st century unfolds, creativity and critical thinking appear as uniquely human attributes essential for staving off our own obsolescence.

Like many things human, however, creativity and critical thinking are not easily or consistently defined. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s list of “Deeper Learning Competencies,” for example, identifies creativity not as its own competency but as a tool for thinking critically. Bloom’s Taxonomy treats the two as separate educational goals, ranking creativity above critical thinking in the progression of intellectual abilities. Efforts to pin down these skills are so quickly muddled, one is tempted to fall back on the old Justice Stewart remark regarding obscenity: “I know it when I see it.” Unfortunately, that yardstick isn’t much help to teachers or students.

Definitions of creativity tend toward the broad and vague. One of the leading researchers in the area, Robert Sternberg, characterizes creativity as “a decision to buy low and sell high in the world of ideas.” While this is itself a creative approach to the problem of defining creativity, it is not a solution easily translated into a rubric.

Definitions of critical thinking don’t fare much better. According to one group of researchers, “Critical thinking is the intellectually disciplined process of actively and skillfully conceptualizing, applying, analyzing, synthesizing and/or evaluating information gathered from, or generated by, observation, experience, reflection, reasoning or communication, as a guide to belief and action.” Again, a curiously self-demonstrating definition, but not one ready-made for the classroom.

Generally speaking, creativity is associated with generating ideas, while critical thinking is associated with judging them. In practice, however, the two are not so easy to separate. As parents and teachers know well, creativity without critical judgment tends toward the fanciful, the impractical, the ridiculous. “Creative thinking” becomes a nice way of saying that someone’s ideas have run amok.

At the same time, critical thinking gets short shrift when reduced to making a judgment, since, at its best, critical thinking is also a way of making a contribution. It is fundamentally creative in the sense that its aim is to produce something new: an insight, an argument, a new synthesis of ideas or information, a new level of understanding.

Our grasp of creativity and critical thinking is improved when we see them in symbiotic relationship with one another. Creativity benefits from our recognizing the role of critical thinking in ensuring the value of novel ideas. In turn, critical thinking comes into clearer focus when we recognize it as a creative act that enriches understanding by giving rise to something that wasn’t there before.

What does this symbiotic relationship look like in the classroom? Here are a few educational contexts in which creativity is disciplined by critical thinking and critical thinking is expanded through recognition of its creative function:

Writing. Creative writing only works when the writer’s critical judgment is brought to bear on the product of their imagination. However richly imagined, a story’s success depends on the skill with which its author corrals and controls their ideas, crafting them into something coherent and cohesive. Storycraft is accomplished by writers who discipline their own creative work by thinking critically about it. Successful academic writing—argumentative, expository—requires not just critical analysis but also creative invention. Academic writers enter into conversation with their readers, their instructors, fellow students, other writers and scholars, anyone affected by or invested in their topic. As in any conversation, a successful participant doesn’t simply repeat back what others have already said, but builds upon it, asking critical questions, fine-tuning points, proposing solutions—in short, creating and contributing something original that extends and enriches the conversation.

History. History classes lend themselves readily to creative exercises like imagining the experiences of people in the past, or envisioning what the present might look like if this or that historical event had played out differently. These exercises succeed only when imagination is disciplined by critical thinking; conjectures must be plausible, connections must be logical, and the use of evidence must be reasonable. At the same time, critical analysis of historical problems often employs invention and is (or should be) rewarded for its creativity. For example, a student analyzing the US mission to the moon in terms of the theme of the frontier in American mythology is engaged in an intellectual activity that is at least as creative as it is evaluative.

Math. Creative projects can generate engagement and enthusiasm in students, prompting them to learn things they might otherwise resist. In this example, a middle school math class learned about circuitry on their way to creating a keyboard made of bananas. Projects like this one demonstrate that creativity and critical thinking are reciprocal. A banana keyboard is unquestionably creative, but of little utility except insofar as it teaches something valuable about electronics. Yet, that lesson was made possible only by virtue of the creative impulse the project inspired in students.

The skills today’s students will need for success are, at a most basic level, the skills that humans have always relied on for success—the very things that make us human, including our creativity and our capacity for thinking critically. The fact that our defining qualities so often defy definition, that our distinctive traits are so frustratingly indistinct, is just another gloriously untidy part of us that robots will never understand.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)

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Integrating Cognitive, Social, and Personal Competencies

Integrating Cognitive, Social, and Personal Competencies

Educators have come increasingly to recognize that student success depends on more than content knowledge and skills alone. After all, learning is unavoidably fraught with setbacks and discouragements, so personal traits, like “grit” and “growth mindset,” are needed if students are to keep at it. Likewise, the pursuit of an education doesn’t take place in isolation but in concert with others — so social skills, such the ability to cooperate in a group setting, are vital for success as well — even moreso when we consider what the future of the job market will look like.

Even as they gain emphasis, however, personal and social skills typically get defined and taught separately from conventional schoolwork. SEL programs, for example, tend to teach and assess non-cognitive skills quite apart from the math or reading lessons they’re intended to support. As actually applied, however, authentic academic skills are a combination of cognitive, social and personal competencies. Indeed, the goal behind inserting non-cognitive skills instruction into the curriculum is to complement and shore up cognitive performance, not to introduce isolated new constructs.

As we move deeper into the 21st century, cognitive, social and personal skills will need to be integrated to ensure students’ success. The decentralized, interconnected, collaborative contexts of 21st-century work and education demand that these skills be taught as complementary, interdependent, even synergistic.

What does an integrated approach look like? My organization, BetterRhetor, has been exploring this idea with a five-week module for high school and college students, organized around the production of a research-supported persuasive essay. In our module, social and personal competencies are part of the overall competencies framework, built into writing, reading, and research instruction and assessment.

Some of the lessons we’ve learned for successfully integrating cognitive, social, and personal competencies, include:

1) Define the classroom as an academic community. Social skills can’t be practiced in the abstract; they need an environment in which students are not merely in physical proximity to one another but in true relationship with one another. In an academic community, students bear responsibility for their peers and for the aims of the group as a whole. In meeting their community responsibilities, students learn and practice social skills necessary for academic success:

  • They understand that academic communities have their own behavioral norms and expectations; success requires learning and conforming to them;
  • They understand that they are in continuous conversation with one another; their work is available for review and response by their classmates, so must be constructive in tone and content;
  • They understand that they are there to learn from one another’s successes and failures; a lack of effort on anyone’s part diminishes everyone’s opportunity to learn.

2) Intentionally designed projects. Design projects (or, better yet, set your students up to design their own projects) that will teach and elicit social and personal competencies alongside cognitive skills and knowledge. That means designing extended projects that require student-to-student interaction and sustained individual effort. Some vital social and personal skills reveal themselves only over time.

As an example of integration, our College-Ready Writing Essentials emphasizes peer review, with students providing feedback on the drafts of 10 to 15 of their fellow students. Peer review is solid writing pedagogy, of course, but it also provides an opportunity to emphasize important social competencies. The ability to give socially and intellectually constructive feedback, and to accept critiques of one’s own work by others, are transferable competencies that can be learned and practiced in the course of learning to write.

3) Assess cognitive, social, and personal competencies together, as integrated dimensions of academic performance. Social and personal competencies can be directly folded into overall performance measures. For example:

  • The quality and extent of comments one student offers another is a measure of their willingness to put forth effort for the benefit of others;
  • The tone of a student’s contributions to the group is a measure of their ability to meet the behavioral expectations of the community;
  • The focus of their exchanges — whether relevant and on-task, or digressive and self-indulgent — is an indication of self-awareness;
  • The number of times a student revises her work or seeks help from his instructor is an indication of personal persistence;
  • Self-evaluation is a measure of students’ ability to see their own strengths and weaknesses.

The behavioral competencies needed for academic success can be improved and reinforced through assessment, but only if they are first baked in as integrated and integral parts of academic performance.

Dispositions and behaviors necessary for academic success are not constructs separate from instructional content, but are integral to it. Extended projects conducted within classrooms that have begun to feel to students like “academic communities” present opportunities to teach, elicit, and assess vital cognitive and non-cognitive competencies together, as integrated components of authentic academic performance.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post was originally written for and published on Getting Smart.)

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The School Choice Paradox: Competition vs. Monopoly

The School Choice Paradox: Competition vs. Monopoly

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently released a list of proposed priorities for her department’s competitive grants program. Number one is “Empowering Families to Choose a High-Quality Education that Meets Their Child’s Unique Needs.” In other words—no surprise—school choice initiatives remain at the top of the Secretary’s agenda.

DeVos’s argument for school choice, like most everyone else’s, hinges on a faith in competition to improve education. In an open marketplace full of choices, according to advocates, schools compete with one another to attract students. This competition drives up the quality of education all around, as parents choose only the best performing options for their kids. As in any competitive environment, if a school wants to survive, it had better stand and deliver.

The hardest of hardcore school choicers want to minimize government involvement to the greatest extent possible, leaving it entirely up to the competitive market’s invisible hand to ensure that every child has access to a good education. School choice advocates, including DeVos, who characterize the public school system as a dead-end monopoly, believe that government regulations, such as open admissions requirements, price controls, accountability mandates, and reporting requirements, only impede a dynamic market’s ability to improve efficiency and quality.

But these school choicers ignore the basic truth that unregulated markets tend not toward greater competition but toward monopoly. If we turn our education system into an unregulated market, where government has no role to play in ensuring the public good, then we risk trading one type of monopoly for another. School-choice models counting on competition to improve education undercut themselves if they eliminate the government’s role in ensuring competition through regulation.

It’s not difficult to make the case that a laissez-faire market breeds monopolies and oligarchies. Just look at the robber barons in the days before antitrust legislation. Better yet, consider the current status of the US economy: after decades of deregulation, only a handful of companies now dominate media, telecommunications, finance, tech industries, oil, transportation, defense contracting, agriculture, retail, and other key sectors.

Companies don’t want competition: they want to eliminate competitors and have the market all to themselves. It takes government policy to keep that from happening. From the New Deal to the 1970s—the decades of the U.S.’s greatest economic growth and income equality—the federal government developed and enforced policies to limit the consolidation of competitors, enforce fair trade practices, protect consumers, and otherwise regulate markets to reduce barriers to entry, ensure competition, and discourage the rise of monopolies. Systematic deregulation, which began under President Carter and has continued largely without pause through every administration since, has resulted quite demonstrably not in more competition but in less.

It therefore doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the same thing happening in education, if school choice policies premised on the benefits of a free market don’t ensure competition through regulation. School choice champions such as DeVos, who rail against the public monopolization of schools, should be just as adamant about guarding education against the private monopolization so evident in other deregulated markets. If education were to go the way of, say, finance or agriculture, it would be dominated by a handful of private, too-big-to-fail companies with proprietary curricula and an incentive to increase returns to shareholders rather than safeguard the public good. Imagine Pearson owning 80 percent of all K-12 schools, free to decide for themselves what to teach, to whom, and toward what end.

What sorts of policies are required to ensure that the market-based education system we are surely headed towards stays competitive? At the minimum, school choice policies must:

Limit bigness. The consolidation of competitors must be constrained, even at the expense of greater efficiency. Unchecked mergers and acquisitions, justified on the basis of increased efficiency, have been the signal route by which a small number of players have eliminated competition and achieved too-big-to-fail status in under-regulated industries.

Keep public schools competitive. As more private players enter education, traditional public schools will serve as a bulwark against the concentration of private power. Currently, however, district schools often are not allowed to compete on equal footing. For example, in many cases charter schools are free to weed out students who lower test scores or cost more to educate. In contrast, traditional public schools must educate everyone who comes through the door, including the students expelled from charter schools. Little wonder then when district schools look worse both financially and academically in comparison to their competitors. School choice policy designed to ensure competition must make sure that traditional public schools aren’t disadvantaged, with their funding siphoned away to help their competitors, and rivals playing by more favorable rules.

Straighten out accountability. As it stands, both the presence and absence of accountability requirements distort incentives, resulting in a market that is neither fair nor efficient. In states such as Michigan, where there is no strong performance-based accountability for charter schools, the incentive is simply to attract as many students as possible. Charters compete fiercely to fill seats, even in poor urban and rural areas, because each enrollee garners around $7,600 in public funds. Schools are not required to show results, however, and so they are not incentivized to actually deliver a high quality education to their students. As a result, the state has lots of charters, but they rank near the bottom of all schools nationwide.

In contrast, in states where all schools are held accountable by student performance measures, charters have a disincentive to serve populations least likely to generate high test scores—namely, the rural and urban poor. Evidence indicates that “for-profit charters are less likely than other types of schools to locate in low-income neighborhoods and educate low-income students.” In other words, there’s no percentage in the market for poor kids.

Public accountability for publicly-funded schools is an obvious tenet of good stewardship. But in a market-based system, policymakers must recognize and remedy the incentive distortions accountability requirements can create.

Require reporting. The competitive market model depends on parents making informed choices. Policy aimed at ensuring competition must define the information essential for fairly comparing competitors and require that schools report it regularly and truthfully. Parents should be able to compare options based on consistent and reliable criteria.

Pitting schools against one another in a competitive marketplace may indeed be a way to improve education. But if we decide that a market-based model is the answer, then we must also be wise about how that market operates. We have no lack of examples of what happens in markets absent government-enforced restrictions on the concentration of power. If we’re committed to reforming our education system through market-based competition, then we must also commit to government regulations that ensure the market works for the public good.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post has also been published in Age of Awareness.)

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