Everyone is wrong AKA Everyone is right

Experiment: Explain the rightness/wrongness that we all live with.

Something weird that results from moving overseas is the realization that one’s home country is right about a lot of things. But also, how much is right about the new country. And, how they’re both totally wrong about some things too.

For example, something curious happened between the British pound and the US dollar. Both call the smallest coin a “penny,” but the British are so much more correct in using the word “pence” for more than one penny (e.g. “I have one penny at home and two pence here. I am broke”). The American usage of  “pennies” is so incredibly wrong. But, here’s where it gets weird. Why penny?! The coin is one one-hundredth of a dollar/pound; They are cents! The British are totally wrong to divide it up into anything but “cents”. Somehow, we are both totally right on one account and totally wrong on another. How does that happen?!

As part of being a good PhD student, I am reading books that promote the opposite point of view of my own. The fathers of the US charter school movement are John Chubb and Terry Moe. Besides being the citation that always makes me giggle, Chubb & Moe,  the book Politics, Markets and America’s Schools (1990) is the most often cited justification of for-profit schools. Personally, I think they are absolutely wrong and the system that has grown out of their research is horrendous. But, amazingly, there are significant parts of the book that I completely agree with.

For example:

“Generally speaking, effective schools have the kinds of organizational characteristics that the mainstream literature would lead one to expect: strong leadership, clear and ambitious goals, strong academic programs, teacher professionalism, shared influence, and staff harmony, among other things. These are best understood as integral parts of a coherent syndrome of organization. They go together. When this syndrome is viewed as a functioning whole, moreover, what is most striking about it is that it seems to capture the essential features of what people normally mean by a team — principals and teachers working together, cooperatively and informally, in pursuit of a common mission” (Chubb & Moe, 1990, p. 187). Wow! Yes!

I also completely agree with this quote:

“Bureaucracy vitiates the most basic requirements of effective organization. It imposes goals, structure, and requirements that tell principals and teachers what to do and how to do it — denying them the discretion they need to exercise their expertise and professional judgement, and denying them the flexibility they need to develop and operate as teams. The key to effective education rests with unleashing the productive potential that is already present in the schools and their personnel. it rests with granting them the autonomy to do what they do best” (Chubb & Moe, 1990, p. 187). Wow! I also agree with that!

Chubb and Moe (1990) conduct an analysis that finds that race is not really an issue in the American public schools when socio-economic status is taken into account. They also identify the reasons that comparative analyses of private and public schools in the United States are unlikely to produce useful information. On many of these issues, I agree and I am persuaded by their arguments. But strangely, I disagree with nearly the entire premise of their book. Their singular focus on organizational design of schools is not justified. I find the statistical reasoning that they give to be lacking and low in terms of rigor. Their demonization of “direct democracy” is strange and I am enraged that they ignore one of the most important findings in their book; that one of the most significant ways to predict student achievement and overall school effectiveness is the family’s socio-economic status.

Although I agree with some parts of their book, our common ground is overshadowed by the oversimplifications and generally slimy writing of the rest of the book. While Chubb and Moe discuss some problems of endogeneity (an inability to figure out whether something is the cause or the effect), they still continue their analysis as if it were acceptable to simply assume that schools are the cause and everything else is the effect.

But I’ll admit, Chubb and Moe have gotten me to think about the ways that school boards and school districts may be generally detrimental to school organizational effectiveness. I’m not a convert to the delusion that choice and competition will save schools, but I can see why they explored the issues. Similarly, if I accidentally say “pence” when I come back to visit the US, you’ll just have to forgive me!

Chubb, J. E., & Moe, T. M. (1990). Politics, markets, and America’s schools. Brookings Institution Press.


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