Testing, testing

For this observer, the most puzzling aspect of the school choice debate has been the constant focus of my old friends, the “voucher right,” on comparative test score as the principal criterion of education policy. These descendants of Milton Friedman are, of course, quite correct (contra The New York Times) that those schools freely chosen by parents have, in nearly all serious studies, produced scores a bit superior to those recorded in the assigned schools that these children left behind. The differences are fairly small, but relatively constant in statistical terms – even after adding some recent findings into the mix.

The teachers unions and their allies sometimes respond that the emigres from the public sector are generally the more gifted children, hence better test-takers. The empirical evidence on this issue does not settle the matter one way or the other. My own experience and judgment suggest that the worried parents of low performers who are stuck in their “public” schools are common seekers of change. In any case, if there is a difference here in mobility twixt the bright and the dull, it is relatively small either way. The kids who transfer appear pretty much a duke’s mixture of testing talent; this empirical question will and should remain an issue, but, even if the unions prove correct, this might suggest only that parents of struggling children need a bit more information and inspiration toward free choice.

The free-market folks have, from the beginning, made test scores their spear point – their best case for choice. Paradoxically, the unions have done the same in their opposition. If the political debate were to be reduced to relative performance on tests, the union position might prove the more politically prudent. The magnitude of differences in scores might be insufficient to make basic reform appear truly exigent. In that event, we would, of course, remain grateful to the market-centered folk for having established this one advantage peculiar to parental choice, however small. At very least, it makes clear that, given a legal structure ensuring free access for the poor, no harm to learning itself is likely, and at least some gains seem probable.

Choice thus owes a debt to the numbers people, and they will make other important contributions on numerical issues, such as the relative cost of choice compared to involuntary systems. But it is high time to give more explicit emphasis to other, and I think preeminent, values at stake. The profound civic consequences of choice can be made much more evident and convincing even though, as so often in political argument, these sorts of values will be very much more difficult to quantify. In any case, it would seem elementary to identify, then to employ, them in our discourse rather than simply hope they will emerge as unintended, if happy, consequences of reforms that might raise test scores.

The empowerment of parents to choose their child’s school has three primary beneficiaries – the child, the parent and the civil order. The child’s good fortune is the hardest to specify; parents, after all, can make as many or more mistakes by selection than the government stranger (or, more accurately, than the luck-of-the-draw system that is now in place). However, the child has a signal advantage in his parent’s hegemony. Most obvious, perhaps, is the parent’s opportunity to learn from mistakes; choice is always an experiment, and Susie is never stuck for good in an academic dungeon assigned by the bad luck of her address. Moreover, she gains all the psychological advantages of living with an intimate and empowered person who can hear and engage with her – and who not only cares for her but has a huge and permanent stake in Susie’s personal future.

As for the parents’ own interest in choice, I assume that most of my readers are adults and recognize both the practical and personal interest a parent has in a child’s well-being – including schooling that respects the adult’s values. It is these, too, that give the parents skin in the game of schooling and introduce them to the reality of civic responsibility. The varied elements of this parental experience both of personal power and duty have from the beginning seemed to me to enrich the political case for choice far beyond test scores. I won’t elaborate here, but merely express my conviction that voting citizens are far more likely to prick up their ears to basic humanistic arguments about the family and the civil order than about more technical issues such as a test score important though these be.

These considerations thus overlap the third neighborhood of beneficiaries from parental choice, the civic order. I will be brief. Having choice is a strong awakening to the reality of one’s personal responsibility for the well-being of other humans. It is an awakening not only for the parent, but for the child who observes the adult behavior, and this not only in his own family but in age-mates and their parents – in the entire system of respect for the citizen regardless of status.

Choice is, indeed, a civic education in itself, and will have a payoff for all of us.

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