Charles Murray Shifts Nukes the Goalposts on Charter Schools

Oy. Anyone who thinks Jews are smarter than other people, well, that's because we gave all of the stupid to Charles Murray (author of The Bell Curve). Last week, in The New York Times, Murray had an op-ed about charter schools wherein he scribbled about the failure to find differences in performance between charter and public schools:

So let's not try to explain them away. Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school is better than another? This is true whether the reform in question is vouchers, charter schools, increased school accountability, smaller class sizes, better pay for all teachers, bonuses for good teachers, firing of bad teachers -- measured by changes in test scores, each has failed to live up to its hype.

Actually, what Murray said isn't accurate: class size has been shown to affect learning. But Murray has a long history of being unencumbered by data, and we wouldn't want to weight the poor dear down. But the main point is the call for the abandonment of test scores. Instead, Murray argues that school choice will allow parents to choose a school with a curriculum and educational philosophy they like:

Schools differ in what they teach and how they teach it, and parents care deeply about both, regardless of whether test scores rise.

Here's an illustration. The day after the Milwaukee results were released, I learned that parents in the Maryland county where I live are trying to start a charter school that will offer a highly traditional curriculum long on history, science, foreign languages, classic literature, mathematics and English composition, taught with structure and discipline. This would give parents a choice radically different from the progressive curriculum used in the county's other public schools.

For twenty years, charter school advocates have been bashing public schools, and the single most potent force for evil in human history, The Teachers Unions, with the arguments that if the schools were run like a business using THE METRICS!, and if teachers were 'incentivized' to perform better (rather than being civil service dullards, of course), all our children would be wicked smaht! Or something.

The main idea was that our educational problems were managerial. With the right managerial structure, reporting scheme, and so on, we could right most, or even all, of the wrongs our educational system inflicts on our children. The Broad and Gates Foundation spent millions of dollars following this philosophy, only to conclude that, erm, that wasn't really the problem. For those of us who worried that schools were being judged on factors they can't control, like poverty, or that the other issues were curricula, or that precision was being substituted for accuracy, we were derided as non-numerical lightweights. Test scores would lead us to freedom!

And now, forget shifting the goalposts, Murray wants to completely nuke them. Now curriculum, childhood development, and parental involvement matter? While I don't like what he derides as 'progressive' teaching (because, in my case, the old school style worked), the far more pernicious radicalism has been the testing über alles approach. It has completely deformed curricula, demoralized teachers, in some cases, led to outright cheating, and been used as an excuse to decrease teacher compensation.

I think this will be the rallying cry for charter schools: parent choice, which in Murray's formulation is just selfish separatism. Why? Becuase there's nothing stopping parents from getting involved and requiring that multiple options be available within the public school system. This doesn't require 'charters' with all their attendant baggage, just a political willingness to embrace options. After all, many districts have science- or art-focused schools. So go push for a 'classic' curriculum school in the district--I would support that strongly. If it does well, maybe other public schools will even adopt the curriculum--which helps those parents who don't know what a good education looks like.

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Charters and vouchers are just ways to dodge exposing your children to those other people. You know who theyâre talking about; the ones that don't look just like us or go to our church. It has always been just a subtle way to sneak discrimination and religion past government institutions. Every teacher I know hates them, standardized testing, and No Child Left Behind. All junk programs foisted on us during the Rethuglican era of Congressional Control.

By DGKnipfer (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

It's possible testing has some of the bad consequences mentioned, however I am used to needing measurements to judge the efficacy of different programs. Also, I do not think testing necessarily must lead to deformed curricula or demoralized teachers - it depends on what you do with the data, and how the test is formulated. When it comes to math, where I am most familiar, I think tests can yield useful data that would help us judge which programs are better, and which types of teachers are better (e.g. is math masters degree more predictive of success than education masters). In the absence of testing data, how can we have evidence-based math education research, or evidence-based teacher assessment? That it is possible to misinterpret data doesn't justify not collecting it, otherwise we'd never do any science.

I admit 1) we only need that data from some, not all, students to do research comparing programs, and for those we need socio-economic data too (unless we randomize that), and 2) who has control of the style of the test is important (i.e. is half of it really just a vocabulary test).

I do think that with good models, we could judge the effectiveness of individual math teachers as well, though not that perfectly, unless we have socio-economic data on the kids in order to account for biases there. At least I think it could provide important information on which teachers really suck, and which are outstanding, even in the absence of socio-economic data, when students are nearly comparable. I certainly would not want to principal a large high-school without some measurements.

Disclaimer: Am I a math wonk who thinks math education in the U.S. is not rigorous enough, and too often taught by people with insufficient knowledge of math? Yes. Science too.

the single most potent force for evil in human history

I don't expect anyone to believe this, but I wrote the comment you linked to, under the "The Teachers Union" sockpuppet, back in the halcyon days of 2006. I had totally forgotten about that. Pretty good one, eh? Man, I was so much funnier four years ago than I am now. I'm going to sign this comment using my real name and email addy, just for shits and giggles.

I will say that it totally baffles me as to why conservatives have an issue with the NEA and the AFT, which are two completely different unions, with different agendas, and without much political power at all for the last 40 years, as near as I can tell. Was there some lawsuit in 1965 or so that pissed off Barry Goldwater? It's a frickin' mystery to me.

By Howard Peirce (not verified) on 10 May 2010 #permalink

Why not instead finally acknowledge that standardized test scores are a terrible way to decide whether one school race is better than another?

Fixed that for ya, Charlie.

By Pierce R. Butler (not verified) on 13 May 2010 #permalink