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Sol Stern on Reform: Incentivists vs. Instructionists

Ever the independent thinker, Sol Stern is turning heads in some circles with a recent essay in City Journal. Stern has been a prominent voice for vouchers and other forms of school choice, and so blogosphere attention has focused on the conclusion he announces in his title (School Choice is Not Enough), a conclusion viewed as traitorous by conservatives and libertarians who see choice as the solution to our education woes.

But Stern’s essay is worth reading for what it says beyond vouchers. With a healthy skepticism toward New York City’s failing market-style policies (paying kids for scores; offering minimal support while forcing schools, like jackals, to compete), Stern wonders

… why so many in the school reform movement and in the business community celebrate New York City’s recent record on education. Is it merely because they hear the words “choice,” “markets,” and “competition” and think that all is well? If so, they’re mistaken.

… on the recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) tests—widely regarded as a gold standard for educational assessment—Gotham students showed no improvement in fourth- and eighth-grade reading from 2003 to 2007 ….

Compare that to Massachusetts:

In the past several years, Massachusetts has improved more than almost every other state on the NAEP tests. In 2007, it scored first in the nation in fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. The state’s average scale scores on all four tests have also improved at far higher rates than most other states have seen over the past 15 years.

In Massachusetts, leaders focus on curriculum (something virtually unheard of under Klein):

The improvement had nothing to do with market incentives. Massachusetts has no vouchers, no tuition tax credits, very few charter schools, and no market incentives for principals and teachers. The state owes its amazing improvement in student performance to a few key former education leaders …Starting a decade ago, these instructionists pushed the state’s board of education to mandate a rigorous curriculum for all grades, created demanding tests linked to the curriculum standards, and insisted that all high school graduates pass a comprehensive exit exam.

A close look at classrooms may be less glamorous than fiddling around with the esoteric theories coming out of Harvard’s school of economics, but it is probably a whole lot more important for children. What is more, Stern makes the case that by ignoring classroom matters, the DoE has allowed a single form of pedagogy (the Lucy Calkins/skills based/constructivist approach) to dominate our schools, even though it is essentially unsupported by either a core curriculum, or even by convincing evidence that it works.[1] Pedagogy (how we teach) is very different than curriculum (what we teach), and by focusing on the first and ignoring the second, New York’s leaders have done a disservice to us all.

If you want to get a glimpse of what Stern means about Massachusetts, a good place to start might be to look at state tests. If you’d like to compare the state tests of Massachusetts and New York, these links will take you to the Grade 4 ELA exam: Massachusetts exams             New York exams

[1] According to Stern, Teacher’s College, led by Lucy Calkins, has received more than 10 million in DoE contracts.



  • 1 RPondiscio
    · Jan 25, 2008 at 3:02 pm

    I hope I’ll be forgiven for this partial cross-post of my piece on the Core Knowledge blog, but Jackie’s pointing out the pedagogy vs. curriculum angle of Stern’s piece compels me. It’s a vital part of this discussion. As a teacher, I would not have wished to be evaluated based on my how effectively I delivered the TC Writer’s Workshop “philosophy” or Everyday Math, neither of which were, I believe, effective or appropriate for my students. Here’s what I posted:

    “If it were in my power, I would gladly make the following bargain: tell me what to teach, but let me decide how to teach it. If I don’t deliver the expected results, fire me. But if you insist on telling me what to teach and how to teach it, then the results are beyond my control.

    “Core Knowledge board member Diane Ravitch recently wondered how American education fell under the control of “Know Nothings from the world of business, law, and politics.” Here’s what I wonder: why they didn’t bring with them one of the business world’s most effective and powerful management practices: hire good people, give them the goal and get out of the way.

    “There were only two times in my 25-year professional life when I was explicitly told both what to do and how to do it. The first was when I was a 16-year old Taco Bell employee. The second was when I became a New York City school teacher.”

  • 2 Peter Goodman
    · Jan 26, 2008 at 8:43 am

    Stern’s article is answered by a range of pro charter/voucher advocates and supported by Diane Ravitch and E D Hirsch, and Stern responds to all the comments … fascinating … and this is clearly the beginning of a new longer term dialogue … perhaps moving the debate from marketplace to instructivist interventions … and the nature of the instructivist interventions.

  • 3 Peter Goodman
    · Jan 26, 2008 at 8:45 am

    the link to the Stern dialogue