Political activists Ben Spielberg and Dmitri Mehlhorn agree that America’s education system reinforces inequities, but disagree about which policies and practices would remedy the persistent achievement gaps. The conversation below reflects their public disagreements and private friendship.
In order to keep the posting of this exchange clear of too many distractions, the references that Ben and Dmitri cite are embedded in hyperlinks in the text. We strongly encourage interested readers to open these links, which are important sources through which to evaluate the claims advanced here. Often those links take you to still further sources: in fact, readers with enough patience to pursue the links to the links will benefit from a very rich set of thought-provoking materials – for example, on the outcomes of urban charter schools reported in the now famous CREDO study and how we should interpret them. In short, this discussion might best be considered the visible segment of a largely submerged iceberg.
In 1966, Johns Hopkins sociologist James Coleman published the Equality of Educational Opportunity Report, a study funded by the federal government to investigate the varying quality of K-12 education in the wake of the Civil Rights Act. The Coleman Report sparked a national debate about which factor is more influential in student outcomes: schools or family circumstances. On October 5 and 6, 2016, Johns Hopkins University commemorated Coleman’s groundbreaking report with scholars and policymakers who have studied and addressed America’s persistent achievement gaps. Videos of the conference are available here. Ben and Dmitri’s comments are offered in light of the relevance today of Coleman’s findings.
IEP: Research suggests that children’s social context (income, neighborhood, family, region, etc.) influences academic outcomes, for better or worse. Research also suggests that what happens inside of schools plays a role, too. You two agree that this calls for a both/and solution, but where should we focus our attention and why?
Mehlhorn: Schools alone cannot create equal opportunity. Children have less opportunity if they are born into poverty, malnourishment, housing insecurity, violence, toxins or bigotry. We must promote prosperity, innovation, physical security, and liberty.
Crucial to that, however, is making our schools much better.
Why? For starters, consider the time and resources we spend. School-aged children in America spend the majority of their waking hours, and taxpayers spend $621 billion per year, in primary and secondary schools. This investment should be enough to deliver great schools for all students. On a per-pupil basis, we spend more than all but three very small rich countries, and two-and-a-half-times more in inflation-adjusted dollars than we spent in 1970.
Spielberg: This question reminds me of something Chris Hayes asked Michelle Rhee a few years ago: “If you could wave a magic wand…and you could take poor kids and make them upper middle class and give them lousy teachers, or you could change off their lousy teachers and give them great teachers, but keep them poor, what would you do?” While I completely endorse the “both/and” strategy outlined above, there’s a very clear answer to this question for those of us who care about equal opportunity: make the poor kid a member of the upper middle class. The evidence that income matters more than schools is overwhelming; in fact, it is much stronger than the evidence on any education issue that Dmitri and I will discuss.
Our primary focus must thus be on policies that directly improve the living standards of low-income students’ families: expanding the safety net (including health care), raising the minimum wage, and strengthening unions, to name a few.
IEP: Does that mean that you would reduce education spending to pay for some of the agenda you set out, Ben?
Spielberg: Absolutely not! Education is also very important, and I strongly support education-specific advocacy. It’s just important to acknowledge that it is a limited tool relative to others in its ability to impact opportunity.
I also want to note that we should expect high absolute spending on education and demand real spending increases over time. Spending as a share of GDP, which is a much more appropriate metric for cross-country and historical comparisons, has remained relatively flat over time and is lower than the OECD average. If we value education as a society, we should be willing to raise the revenues necessary to fund our other obligations and pay for schooling.
Mehlhorn: Ben, I would happily wave a wand to make all Americans rich. Lacking such a magic wand, you and I differ on the best way to expand prosperity. Compared with you, I am less sanguine about the public sector and less hostile to the private sector. That drives our policy disagreements, especially regarding schools. I believe it is wrong to give more resources to a bureaucracy that squanders so much of the lives and dollars it currently controls.
For kids, discrepancies between teachers matter much more than discrepancies between spending levels. The 1979 study Fifteen Thousand Hours, named after the amount of time children spend in school, concluded that teachers vary in their use of instructional time, with direct consequences for student learning. This idea has been repeatedly confirmed, such as by the Measures of Effective Teaching (2013) by Harvard University’s Tom Kane. If we could elevate, celebrate, and expect good teaching, and stop protecting ineffective teaching, we would see profound results. Economist Eric Hanushek notes that if the bottom 5% of teachers were able to perform at an average level, America would become the top-performing school system in the world. If we could innovate to achieve more radical improvements, we would add billions to our economy and wipe out much of the achievement gaps between advantaged and disadvantaged children. Other industries have seen such radical productivity gains, but K-12 education has sadly not.
Spielberg: I of course agree that how money is spent matters and that we must “elevate, celebrate, and expect good teaching” (though the numbers from the simulations cited above don’t have real-world significance, as Matt Di Carlo has explained). At the same time, and as I noted during our long debate on this topic, the evidence that low-income students would benefit from increased funding for their schools is actually stronger than that for any of the reforms you recommend, in part, I believe, because it’s helpful in recruiting and retaining a quality teaching force.
Schools serving affluent students often receive far more funding than schools serving poor students, and I personally support bringing funding for all schools up to the levels at schools serving the wealthiest students today. Dmitri, I know you don’t support that, but I am curious about whether you’d at least support policies that more equitably distribute the current pot of money spent on schools in the United States – i.e., policies that redistribute money from schools serving affluent students to those serving poor students. It seems that doing so should be the starting point of education reform discussions.
Mehlhorn: Ben, to be clear, I would support a proposal that put money to work on behalf of students. I support the funding equity provided to students in pro-reform Washington, D.C., which spends significantly more per student than wealthy districts such as Palo Alto, California, but which uses choice and accountability to ensure that spending improves results for students. I would also support a voucher program that was set at Palo Alto’s level of per-pupil spending, provided it was structured intelligently (for example, by following the model of the federal government’s D.C. Opportunity Scholarship Program for students in Washington, D.C., or the model legislation developed by the American Federation for Children).
Spielberg: I have a problem with an approach that predicates remedying current funding injustices on the adoption of your favored reforms – reforms for which the evidence doesn’t even come close to rivaling the evidence that increased school funding makes a difference.
You and I both know there isn’t an opportunity-based rationale for the funding status quo. As I noted in a prior segment of our debate, we have a system right now in which some students enjoy top-notch facilities and extracurricular opportunities while other students attend understaffed schools in appalling conditions. Even if the research connecting school funding to student outcomes wasn’t as strong as it is, the current state of school funding should be unacceptable to anyone who believes in equity. (As an aside, Washington, D.C., has seen improvements, but is still struggling to allocate its education funds equitably).
A conversation about how to spend funds and which education reforms to pursue is something we must have. But that conversation can and should happen in parallel with the funding discussion, not be a condition upon which equitable funding is based.
Mehlhorn: How could we raise spending within the current system in good conscience? From the perspective of low-income students of color, the traditional K-12 public school system is a centuries-old experiment that has repeatedly failed in the aggregate. Since 1965, America has distributed $400 billion per year to traditional public schools, a three-fold national increase. To what end?
Spielberg: The claim that the traditional K-12 public school system is a centuries-old experiment that has repeatedly failed in the aggregate is, quite simply, wrong. It ignores a) that educational outcomes are predominantly the result of non-education factors, b) that problems in education often reflect the problems of society more broadly, and c) that our K-12 education system has gotten better over time. The money we spend on schools in the United States – which, as mentioned above, is less relative to what we can afford than our peer countries spend – has been deployed more effectively over the years. As education historian Jack Schneider notes, “American education has some obvious shortcomings,” but the failure narrative, rather than helping us fix those shortcomings, has only served to “[increase] tolerance for half-baked plans,” “[denigrate] schools and communities,” and “[draw] attention away from real problems that the nation has never fully addressed.”
IEP: Is each of you claiming an inherent educational advantage, either to alternative models such as charters, vouchers, and tax credits (Dmitri), or to district schools (Ben)?
Mehlhorn: In the short term, governance doesn’t matter much. Parents and taxpayers don’t care whether a kid learns at a traditional school, a charter school, or a private school, so long as the kid learns. Charismatic leaders can create and sustain excellence in a school of any type. In the long term, however, governance matters greatly. James Q. Wilson’s powerful masterpiece Bureaucracy (1989) explains how and why the incentive systems of public bureaucracies stifle innovation and drag performance down over time. My colleague at the Progressive Policy Institute, David Osborne, explained in his Reinventing Government (1993) that infusing public institutions with concepts, such as choice, helps governments become performance-oriented. Already, the Stanford Center for Research on Education Outcomes has shown that charter schools on average deliver better results for students of color in urban areas than traditional public schools, while spending less money. Even more important, charter schools have been improving at a much faster pace than traditional public schools. Over the long term, alternative models are thus more likely to deliver results in both excellence and equity.
Spielberg: The idea that “alternative models are…more likely to deliver results” is unfounded. The CREDO study actually found very small differences between average test score results in charter and traditional public schools. Since charter schools typically serve an unrepresentative subset of low-income students, it’s also hard to attribute these consistently tiny sector-wide differences, which sometimes favor traditional public schools, to characteristics of the schools themselves.
Many charter schools do great work. They are a perfectly good option for some students, and they can be used to test new approaches to education before filtering them out to other schools on a widespread basis. Yet charter schools may bring negative side effects, such as governance, public resource, and students’ rights issues and/or an intense focus on tested subjects, that may shortchange students of learning experiences to which their higher-income peers have access (like history or foreign language classes, for example). And the best practices employed at successful charters can be adopted successfully at adequately funded traditional public schools.
IEP: So far, it seems clear that both of you agree as to the end, but disagree as to the means: Ben would prioritize adequate funding and the best practices it can support; Dmitri would prioritize diversity of delivery. Are there particular districts or states that exemplify your favored approach? If so, what have been the outcomes for student learning?
Mehlhorn: The obvious example is the school system in Washington, D.C. (DCPS), which made it a priority to provide choices to parents via charters and vouchers, and to create performance incentives for public school teachers through its IMPACT program. A full 44% of students attend charter schools now. Admittedly, DCPS started from a low base, but the results over the past 10 years have been striking. Top teachers have been retained and teacher recruitment is strong, so the system now has a surfeit of great teachers. Students in both traditional and charter schools have shown consistent academic gains – among the fastest in the country over the past 10 years. And the system continues to innovate. For example, the new Monument Academy Charter School is a boarding school for children in foster care, a group that has been ill served by the status quo.
Spielberg: Dmitri is right that DCPS started from a very low base and has gotten better, although it’s important to note that test-score improvements in the District pre-dated many of the reforms he supports, that increased teacher pay and better support systems have also been a feature of the more recent reforms in D.C., and that D.C. schools still have plenty of room for improvement.
Education professor Pedro Noguera speaks highly of the system in Tulsa, Oklahoma “because every child is in quality early childhood education, every school is a full-service school and their best high school is fully integrated — 50 percent African-American, 50 percent white.” I’ve seen some promising initiatives in San Jose Unified School District in California, especially the innovative teacher evaluation system. And, as mentioned previously, numerous districts around the country have seen improvements in test scores after school-finance reforms increased their funding. But I’ve yet to see a district couple funding infusions with the full suite of reforms we need, and I’m hoping we’re able to make that happen in the coming years.
IEP: What are the enabling conditions (political, financial, cultural) that make either approach viable?
Mehlhorn: There has to be sufficient political will, backed by grassroots support, to overwhelm the status quo. All cultures and organizations resist change. This is particularly true when it comes to public sector monopolies, whose risk-aversion compounds the challenge. I wrote about this in Educational Entrepreneurship Today (2016), citing works from Clayton Christensen and others. The only way to change such a system is to build a constituency of people who are willing to fight for, and pay for, structural changes. In Washington, D.C., the system’s failure had become so obvious that voters and their representative, Mayor Adrian Fenty, were willing to take the plunge. In other districts, such as New Orleans, a natural disaster enabled reformers to actually use a new infrastructure that the legislature had recently put in place. To help ensure that districts can change without such dire circumstances, we have to hope that philanthropists and civil rights leaders can help organize low-income parents to demand better schools.
Spielberg: Increased funding is essential. As noted above, needed reforms – from facilities improvements to increases in teacher pay to reduced class sizes to teacher training and support systems to high dosage tutoring – cannot be implemented and sustained without it. Besides that, we need to build trust among those engaging in good faith; the structural incentives in education philanthropy and the private sector are actually more of a challenge than the public sector monopolies Dmitri worries about, but both anti-union narratives about “adult interests” and dismissals of “corporate reformers” should be replaced by a more productive and accurate and less accusatory dialogue.
IEP: What points of commonality do you two share about the way forward?
Mehlhorn: I have enjoyed many aspects of my engagement with Ben. My favorite has been his insistence that public sector unions push for excellence and innovation. Ben and his colleagues in the San Jose Teachers Association were totally committed to strong performance within the structure of collective bargaining. Such approaches work well overseas, in Finland, for example. If Ben and his friends become the dominant force within the internal politics of public sector unions, American schools will begin to embrace reform. Indeed, given the power of the unions, real reform is only possible with the work of pro-excellence unionists like Ben.
Spielberg: I appreciate Dmitri’s support for a stronger safety net, inclusive social policies, and many of the social justice activities my union undertook in San Jose. I think we agree that the more often people with disparate viewpoints on education can sit down in person and have real conversations with each other, the faster we’ll move towards the improved education system that all students deserve.
Ben Spielberg, a former Teach For America corps member, math instructional coach, and member of the Executive Board of the San Jose Teachers Association, co-founded and blogs on 34justice.com. His education writing has appeared in The Huffington Post, the Washington Post, and Education Week, among other outlets.
Dmitri Mehlhorn is a businessman who co-founded Hope Street Group in 2003 and StudentsFirst in 2010. He is a Senior Fellow with the Progressive Policy Institute and with the Johns Hopkins Institute for Education Policy. He has written for The Huffington Post, The Atlantic, The Daily Beast, and other outlets.