February 3, 2008

Matt Miller's fallacy

I must have had a busy month to wait several weeks before correcting the record on Matt Miller's Atlantic article, First, Kill All the School Boards. The real problem, he says, is all of those selfish, parochial school board members and the unions who manipulate them. He paints a romantic picture of Horace Mann, repeats both the truthful and the hoary cliches of the past quarter-century of school reform, and calls for nationalizing education.

To put it briefly, Miller falls into the standard "let's fix the governance structure" fallacy of a certain chunk of education reform wannabes. I just don't buy it. If school-board parochialism were the main problem, then we'd find Hawa'i's schools outdoing the rest of the country because of its unitary system. Or we'd find Southern states outdoing the north because many of them have mostly county systems, in contrast to Northern and Western states with tiny, fragmentary districts. Or New York City's system would be perfect today because of the elimination of the elected school boards through mayoral control. I'm sure that there are governance changes that would matter, but this one? It's bold, provocative, simple, and not very helpful.

Miller refers to a comparative study of education policymaking by economist Ludger Woessmann, and I need to track that down, but I suspect it will support Miller's argument less than he thinks, at least from other writings of Woessmann that I've come across. We'll see.  In the meantime, here's a bit of cold water on the everyone-has-national-standards argument, taken from Accountability Frankenstein:

[N]ot all industrialized countries have a national curriculum framework: Spain and Hungary have a common core, but regions have the authority to adjust the core curriculum or add to it. Italy's and Argentina's curriculum planning has become less centralized in the past decade. Australia, Canada, Germany, and Switzerland have federal systems, like that in the U.S., where there is no central curriculum authority (Chisolm, 2005; Gvirtz & Beech, 2004; Jansen, 1999; O'Donnell, 2001). Even among countries with a centralized curriculum, the focus varies widely (Holmes & McLean, 1992). The United States is not out of step with the world, because there is no international consensus on the appropriate control of curriculum and expectations (or standards), let alone the content.

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Posted in Accountability Frankenstein on February 3, 2008 12:14 PM |