Guest column: Choice proposal bets on market forces

By Brendan Walsh

The Oxford Foundation’s proposal on school choice made landfall last week full of sound and fury – and igniting a bit more. But what does it truly signify?

It delivers “student choice” in spades and that has the education reform movement rejoicing. Reaction from the incumbent establishment was predictable. “The deeply flawed plan would end public education as we know it,” warned Senate Minority Leader Gretchen Whitmer.

The philosophical debate is ever alluring, but let’s get grounded on the issue. What’s broken and how should that get fixed? Gov. Rick Snyder has some strong opinions.

To him the state’s return on its “P-20” education investment is measurable by college attainment, the percentage of citizens earning a degree. The U.S. Department of Education reports Michigan’s 37.2 percent among citizens aged 25 to 34 is below the national average (39.3 percent) and ranks 30th among the states.

The story is worse when we consider that Michigan ranks eighth highest nationally in total state and local education expenditure per $1,000 of personal income, according to National Education Association reports. We’re spending proportionally more than most and getting worse results. Not good.

To meet nationally stated goals, Michigan would need to double the number of college graduates – a dramatic goal that would require some dramatic changes.

The debate about whether this proposal is a voucher system or if it spells doom for public education as we know it misses the point. Would this policy realistically contribute to doubling Michigan’s volume of college graduates?

Michigan is already “choice friendly.” Charter schools have been uncapped, and still less than 10 percent of Michigan’s K-12 market (students) participate in choice. The Oxford proposal could drive more students to charters, but cyberschools appear to be the most likely beneficiaries. After all, it’s not very practical for students to travel around the state from class to class.

Even if it is effective in generating demand for online courses, will they be twice as effective in producing college graduates?

The Brown University Annenberg Institute for School Reform would say no. Their research suggests “combining GPA with the number of course failures in ninth grade gives a highly accurate predictor of high school graduation. The key indicators for GPA and course failures, in turn, are attendance and effort … strong attendance and effort depended on high levels of teacher monitoring and teacher support for challenging course content.”

If the researchers at Brown are wrong and online courses do a better job than traditional classroom instruction, then public education as we know it deserves to be driven out of existence.

Local schools have tremendous assets, but they had better hone their value propositions. The proposal is disruptive -- which is the point -- but local school districts are likely to continue to dominate market share.

But the Oxford proposal will present other challenges. Let’s recall there’s two ways for Michigan to improve its educational ROI: keep costs flat and increase college attainment, or reduce investment even with no gains in college attainment.

The Oxford plan calls for a change in how enrollment is calculated and odds are good a new model will result in lower costs for the state. It also requires that providers of all types demonstrate student “growth” [on standardized tests] or their funding will be deducted for the “proportional foundation allowance … for pupils who did not achieve the required performance.”

If you don’t deliver, you won’t get paid. Even if cyberschools experience massive market share gains, if they don’t deliver, they, too, will suffer financial consequences and this proposal will have failed.

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John Gregg
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 8:44am
Brendan, insightful comments but you neglect to mention the key factor in student success, parent expectations and support. Opening up the funding streams to for profit entities won't address this foundational element. The cyber school option moves away from the teacher/student relationships that can overcome the lack of home support and is a part of the "value added" by our dedicated public school educators. Beware the business models and profit incentive as we look to improve human development achieved by schools.
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 8:58am
I hate to burst the Governor's bubble and his new plan's promise, but money and choice are not the answer to this problem! The answer must be grounded in the child's family and and basic home life. With the dramatic increase in children living in poverty in America and the family structure all but destroyed, we need to look at how children at the lower socioeconomic levels are living in stress and how it effects them permanently. I refer you to Paul Tough's book "How Children Succeed" to understand how neuroscience explains the debilitating effects of stress and poverty on a child's life and mind. All the school choice and online courses will not help children escape the basic need for nurturing and parental support. This is a national disgrace that needs to be addressed. Until that time our great nation will suffer further loss and failure.
Charles Richards
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 1:35pm
There is no doubt that stress and poverty severely adversely affects some children, but even they will benefit from an improved educational system. Will it compensate them for their environment? No, but a better education will still be a plus.
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 7:21am
I tend to agree, Dr. Fleezanis. The question is, from a policy perspective, how do we deal with those issues? Or should we? One of the major planks in Gov. Snyder's education platform is expansion of early childhood investments. I think the troubling thing for many, despite the cry of lack of funding for education in the state, is that Michigan proportionally invests more than most (again citing the 8th ranking in funding per $1,000 of personal income). But as I state here, I am highly skeptical that massive adoption of online learning is the answer. Maybe it helps augment here and there, but in itself won't move the needle. Thanks for the feedback. Brendan
n marti
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 9:51am
Have they studied which schools are pulling down that average within the state & which ones are way above it. Then look at what they can do to help those schools. I would expect we would find it was schools & districts that have a huge number of disadvantaged kids or areas where parents also were not college grads. Then, we need to either make schools that train students to get a good job that will pay living expenses without a college education (some students have issues that make college impossible). The other solution is to find out why they are not producing college grads & work on a solution to that. Perhaps because of the students' backgrounds, family situations, interests', health', or any number of other reasons, those students & classrooms need to have the ability to & the help from the state to make a difference their lives. I find a lot more interest in threatening schools & teachers than on helping them improve in spite of some very difficult obstacles. Smaller classrooms make a huge difference. In schools where many parents poor or not there, the school has to be able to take the place of the parent in some ways. If they are always being threatened with less financial help & money cut from their programs, it makes nearly impossible. The true test of the worth of a school would be in testing somehow, the progress each student has made since entering. I think basing a school's worth on the number of college grads is an unfair & unrealistic conclusion.
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 8:05am
Lots to chew on there, but as for your last point about "the progress each student has made since entering" - that is a big part of this plan that hasn't gotten much attention. Even if the Oxford plan, whole cloth, is not enacted, I am convinced this kind of "growth" metric will happen and it will tie to school funding. Frankly I think that's more controversial than the "unbundling" aspect of the plan, which is getting all the attention. Thanks for the feedback. Brendan
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:09am
For poor and special needs children, we need to view public education as a wholistic and maybe a 24/7 proposition. How are we supporting those children to succeed in school when they are hungry, have a tooth ache, their asthma is out of control, they are moving around from shelter to couch and back again, or their parents are depressed because they cannot find a job? The list goes on... Our solutions need to be about supporting the whole child in the context of their family, not just about test scores and graduation rates. Dismantling public education as we know it and providing choice are appealing, but without tackling the social issues, it is just shuffling the problems around. Will the online educators and charter schools have the support services these children need to succeed and graduate? Investments in school-based health, mental health, and oral health have demonstrated outcomes to keep students in school learning and support the child and family. Are they part of this package of bills?
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 10:13am
I'm frustrated with the new "blind focus" on statistics and emphasis on college degree attainment. I, myself, am a multiple-degree holder and certainly think that college degree attainment should be a focus of the education system. But I also think a focus of the education system should be on advanced training and certification, i.e. the trades, after completion of the P20 system. People can and have made very successful careers in the trades, and many have become small business owners in the trades employing both themselves as well as many others. I think we are selling ourselves short if the only indicator of P20 success is college degree attainment. There are many students out there who will not go to college and are not successful in the more traditional education/classroom environment. But that is not to say that these students who do not go to college and earn a degree are not "successes". I am all for continued education and training beyond the P20 system, but I do not feel that the only continued education and training that "counts" is a college degree.
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 7:29am
Tim, I absolutely agree. With limited space for these pieces, I could not ask the central question - which is implied - as to whether college attainment IS indeed the appropriate measure of P-20 effectiveness. And before we put too much on Gov. Snyder, we should recall that President Obama (and Ed. Sec'y Duncan) have been the loudest advocates for the 60% attainment goal. Again, ed reform has made strange bedfellows. The logical flow is educated citizens require less government support and contribute more economic value via better jobs. This is the utilitarian view of education (a whole DIFFERENT debate). But take a look at the Bureau of Labor Statistics projection of the fastest growing jobs and see how many require a bachelor's degree: college attainment argument is one that bears more scrutiny. So much spiders off it, such as the looming student debt bubble and funding for K-12 based on college readiness. Thanks for the feedback. Brendan
Chuck Fellows
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 1:57pm
First the statistics. Compared to what? The numbers stated in this article are meaningless without context. The authors would really help themselves and their readers if they would take the time to become "educated" about variation and the significance of context from which data is derived. Second, these so called reforms are nothing more then window dressing for idiots or should I say the insane since doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results is insanity. Third, stop blaming the parents and the family. The MDE, (and similar agencies in other states) academic professionals, bureaucrats and opportunists are unwilling to face a fundamental truth. Their adherence to a century old education model, time bound curriculum silos, Carnegie based units for earning credit and a Prussian military spawned hierarchy of ages and grades is well past its prime and now represents an almost impenetrable barrier to learning. Think about it for a second, what 21st century digitized, multi tasking, electronically connected child is going to be engaged by a system of education older than their grandparents? Especially in a system of education that is based upon linear design, thinking and delivery. And to get a hint of what really works, take a little time and watch early elementary students arrive at and leave school each day. Then watch middle school and finally high school students. Based on your observations determine which "system" is working and find out why. Then ask yourself why aren't all schools like that. What is preventing children from becoming engaged in their school? If you are really brave go to and take a lesson or two. Seven million attendees and growing. 222 million lessons provided. And growing. Why? Must be because it is free . . . When are the adults going to fund the students taking responsibility for their learning?
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 7:53am
All interesting points, Chuck. The college attainment rate report was embedded in the article. I did run a standard deviation for all the states and to your point, the state of Michigan was within one standard deviation of the national average (albeit below obviously). Other midwestern states were a full point above the standard deviation - but of course many factors influence this. I think the more troubling aspect is the relationship between attainment and funding. Despite what many want to believe, education funding in Michigan is proportionally high. As for the value proposition and potential for Khan and other online courses, no doubt there's a role for that. My point is, soon enough if this deal happens, we'll know if the market wants it and then how effective it is. In that respect, the proposal is elegant. Students/families get to make that choice. If it works, more will follow. If it doesn't, they won't. Thanks for the feedback. Brendan
Charles Richards
Tue, 11/27/2012 - 2:03pm
I find it difficult to believe the last part of this statement. “combining GPA with the number of course failures in ninth grade gives a highly accurate predictor of high school graduation. The key indicators for GPA and course failures, in turn, are attendance and effort … strong attendance and effort depended on high levels of teacher monitoring and teacher support for challenging course content.” It seems to me that teachers can only have a limited effect on attendance and effort. These are qualities that flow from the individual, and while they can be encouraged by parents, are, to a large degree, innate. I suspect that they are, by the nineth grade, pretty resistant to change.
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 8:08am
I had the same conclusion, Charles, that it would be nearly impossible to distinguish whether the "effort" a=would be attributable to the teacher or to the parents or other influencers who have instilled a value for effort. But the piece about 9th grade is also very important. How early do we think students can legitimately take advantage of these unbundled options? This is why I am so skeptical that unbundling will really impact the core issue, again as framed by Gov. Snyder, about college attainment. So much needs to happen before 9th grade before a student can be on that trajectory. Thanks for the feedback. Brendan
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 2:18pm
This article is an excellent start to the needed in-depth discussion regarding education and the forces that influence success. I believe Tim raised some really good points. The metric should be some postsecondary credential as advocated by Michigan College Access Network (MCAN) (No I don't work for them :-)). Also, I believe the "intervention" should be at the 5-8th grade level and focus on creating a culture of educational attainment. Once you establish the culture, whatever tools you decide to utilize will be much more productive in generating the needed outcomes. On a personal note, I would like to commend Mr. Walsh on reading and responding to the comments posted. It gives this site the feel of a Q & A session from a professional conference. Good Job. Jim
Brendan Walsh
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 10:21pm
Well, I had better reply to this then! ;-) thanks for the compliment. The issue of how to assess our progress (investment as referenced here) is a topic I treated in a previous article posted here on Bridge. I call it my Moneyball theory for education, applying some of the principles introduced by the sabremetricians and chronicled in the Michael Lewis book of the same name. It's linked here: is a topic that needs so much more attention. And this is why I mentioned the problem with the performance based funding aspect of this proposal, which doubles down on the use of standardized test scores. My Moneyball theory is based on my concern about the use of standardized tests exclusively to guage educational progress, but to acknowledge we must have something. Brendan
John Q. Public
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 8:53pm
We would do well to note Snyder's prescription for just about everything, from education to transportation to financially distressed cities to reimbursement to local units for the PPT exemptions. It is this: Form commissions and authorities, run by appointees and not elected officials. Give them the tax dollars to spend. If you don't like how they spend them, tough; there's nothing you can do to hold them accountable. When he wants to be re-elected, his philosophy of governance is information you should remember.
Wed, 11/28/2012 - 10:27pm
Which is another thing that makes Snyder such an interesting character. He's branded himself as the non-political politician - the outsider. There were many in the political Sanhedrin who, before he came on the scene, doubted he could navigate the rough water of politics. How do they feel now? (although let's face it. It helps when one party dominates the executive office, House, and Senate.) As far as his electability next time, love him or hate him, I think Snyder's sort of done (doggedly) what he's wanted to do and has little regard for the political consequences. Like the free market approach to education envisioned here, I guess we'll see in two years if the people still love Snyder. If the economy in Michigan continues to improve, I suspect they will. Brendan