The Panacea Fallacy
October 30, 2009 5 Comments
Andy Smarick has emerged as the leading wet blanket for fixing failing schools, and folks are sure to be talking about his newest piece in EdNext, “The Turnaround Fallacy” (NB: he’s also a friend and a very smart guy, although we disagree vigorously on this issue). I could forgive a little devil’s advocacy, because what’s right in his new piece is that nobody knows what will work at scale for actually fixing failing schools. Folks have tried for years to do something about persistently failing schools, and most of the strategies utilized were of the middling sort, a shortcoming we covered in depth in The Turnaround Challenge. The old world of school fixer-uppers is filled with half-measures and happy schools … places where folks congratulate themselves for trying while kids suffer. This is why I always encourage folks to treat anyone who has “The Solution” for failing schools as a snake-oil salesman.
So, it’s not Smarick’s skepticism that bugs me, because everyone should be healthily skeptical of any strategy sold as the panacea for chronic failure. Yet, in the same piece where he dismisses anything that could possibly fix failing schools, Smarick introduces a grand idea to – you guessed it – fix failing schools. His answer is closure and replacement, and he explains it thusly:
The churn caused by closures isn’t something to be feared; on the contrary, it’s a familiar prerequisite for industry health … Churn generates new ideas, ensures responsiveness, facilitates needed change, and empowers the best to do more … These principles can be translated easily into urban public education via tools already at our fingertips thanks to chartering: start-ups, replications, and expansions. Chartering has enabled new school starts for nearly 20 years and school replications and expansions for a decade. Chartering has demonstrated clearly that the ingredients of healthy, orderly churn can be brought to bear on public education.
Now, I’m no shrinking violet when it comes to closing failing schools; I was a part of a team that did some of that. But it’s AT BEST part of a solution for remedying failure, and at worst it just moves the proverbial deck chairs by putting kids in equally bad schools. Nowhere in Smarick’s argument is there evidence that novelty and competition drive equity or quality. Creative destruction and competition are great for allocating scarce resources, but they’re not enough to ensure quality and equity for poor kids.
So I ask Smarick: Why should I be excited about “industry churn” for its own sake? Quality and equity for disadvantaged children is what we care about, right?