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Many of the initial reactions to Donald Trump’s choice for Education Secretary — Betsy DeVos, an education-reform advocate — were predictable. Many conservatives praised her, and many liberals blasted her. For anyone who still has an open mind about the politics of education, though, I’d urge a nuanced, wait-and-see reaction.
Education reform — an inchoate mix of standards, accountability and choice — has succeeded in some big ways. These successes don’t get as much attention as they deserve, which is in part the fault of us in the media; we tend to focus on bad news, and to be sympathetic to traditional schools.
For a very quick sense of the reform movement’s successes, you can look at the results in Washington or New Orleans, two laboratories of change (or read my recent column from Boston, which reviews the academic research).
Yet those of us who believe these successes are real also need to acknowledge that education reform isn’t a magical formula for success. Some reform-oriented schools have failed miserably. In particular, some in Detroit — where DeVos has been active — have evidently failed.
What separates success and failure? Success depends on a balance of autonomy and accountability, as Susan Dynarski of the University of Michigan says. “Too little autonomy: stifles innovation,” Dynarski tweeted this week. “Too little accountability: bad schools proliferate & harm students.”
Traditional schools often lack both autonomy and accountability. They can’t make their own decisions about curriculum or personnel, and they can deliver poor results, or great results, year after year with little consequence for principals and teachers.
DeVos wants to blow up that system and turn education into more of a free market. I agree that more competition and choice would help many parents and students. But I worry that DeVos is drawn to a version of school reform that has its own troubles with accountability.
She has pushed for vouchers that allow parents to pay for private schools even more than she’s pushed for greater autonomy and accountability in the public-schools system. And there is clear evidence that competitive market forces, by themselves, don’t prevent bad schools. The market is too complicated: parents and students can’t always judge what makes a good school and can’t easily leave one they have chosen.
Just look at the many poor-performing for-profit colleges — or the fact that Michigan’s version of education reform, which is heavy for-profit schools, seems to be performing worse than other states’ versions. Choice works best when mixed with oversight.
The politics of education have turned nasty in recent years, featuring various ideologues who can’t be persuaded by evidence. DeVos will obviously bring some strong views to the Education Department, but here’s hoping that she is open to evidence as well. No matter how good an idea may seem in theory, it needs to hel