In the eye of the beholder

Education analysts adopt different standards of proof depending on whether they support or oppose a particular innovation, writes Mike Petrilli on Education Gadfly. Charter supporters say charters should continue to grow if most are no worse than traditional schools and some are much better or if they improve the whole system by introducing competition. Charter opponents demand rigorous studies showing charters are superior “at scale.”

But flip the issue and watch what happens. Take universal preschool — which the AFT and most of the education establishment adore. Do they base their support on rigorous studies showing preschool succeeding at scale? Heavens no. Those studies (mostly of Head Start) show that typical pre-K programs confer scant benefit on poor children over the long term.

A few programs have proven to make a difference over the long run, yet conservatives argue “these exceptions are not enough to justify an expansion of publicly-funded preschool — though high-flying charters are enough to justify the expansion of the charter movement.”

There are plenty of other examples. Ed schools pick on Teach for America because no one has ever proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that alternative certification is more effective; conservatives decry “small schools” for much the same reason, though they are popular with parents.

Petrilli suggests advocates admit they’re picking the data that supports their preferences.

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  1. John Thacker says:

    I know that conservatives tend to attack small classes, which are also popular with parents, because of a lack of evidence. I’m less familiar with unified conservative opposition to small schools or small school districts; indeed, most of the supports of big unified districts do seem to be liberals. (Mostly trying to prevent suburbs from having their own school districts and not paying for inner city schools.)

  2. There is a big factor missing in the analysis by Petrilli (as presented above)–Cost. If a course of action is equal to, or less than, the current course in cost, it makes sense to advocate flexibility and an experimental approach. If a course of action is more expensive additional cost-benefit analysis is required to justify the added expense.

    My understanding is that charter schools and Teach for America are generally less expensive than the current system. Universal preschool and small classes are more expensive. Having different standards for them is logical from a cost-benefit approach, not just because of ideology.

  3. Walter E. Wallis says:

    “they’re picking the data that supports their preferences. ”

    Ah, yes. Polystat.

  4. In both cases (charter schools and pre-schools), there are a range of results, with the best schools producing superior results. Only one proposal includes a mechanism for preserving the best schools and reforming or shutting down the under-performers. Because of that, with charter schools, there is reason to expect that in the future, the average will come to approach the best schools in the present. With universal pre-school, there is every reason to expect that, just like public schools, mediocrity and even outright incompetence will be preserved equally with excellence.