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School Choice & Charters Opinion

What’s the NCEE’s Problem with Agassi et al.?

By Rick Hess — June 28, 2011 4 min read
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Andre Agassi, the former tennis champ and high school dropout, and Canyon Capital Realty Advisors, recently announced the creation of a real estate fund that will spend $500 million to capitalize on and promote the movement for U.S. charter schools. The Canyon-Agassi Charter School Facilities Fund plans to develop more than 75 urban campuses with space for about 40,000 students over three to four years, according to a statement from Canyon Capital and Agassi Ventures LLC. The partners already have drawn investments from Citigroup, Intel, and the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation.

I had the opportunity to meet Agassi a few months back in Vegas and was terrifically impressed. I found him smart, thoughtful, humble, and interested in listening; in truth, I found him a whole lot more impressive than any number of education officials, experts, consultants, and professors that I’ve encountered. Having a smart, wildly successful, internationally regarded tennis champ pouring his passion into launching great schools would seem a terrific thing--and a uniquely American way to tap our strengths and resources.

Yet, in a revealing bit of irony, the Agassi-Canyon announcement came on the heels of another self-satisfied, big-ideas report from the National Center on Education and the Economy. Telling us what American education should look like, NCEE’s grandiloquently titled “Standing on the Shoulders of Giants: An American Agenda for Education Reform” went out of its way to dismiss entrepreneurs and charter schools.

The NCEE report was another of these increasingly tedious “international best practice” reports that NCEE and McKinsey have made into a thriving little industry. You know the drill. NCEE’s authors identify a couple countries the size of Minnesota that seem to have good test scores, do a few school visits and talk to a couple government officials, cherry-pick some of the practices that the authors like, and then spin those into broad prescriptions for the U.S. The NCEE wish-list includes expanding the Common Core, improving teacher quality, and moving from local to state control of school financing.

(Quick aside: If the exercise were more cognizant of the scholarly and policy limitations, or was more interested in lessons and possible unanticipated consequences, I’d be more amenable. But it’s the arrogance of these exercises--the certainty with which they promulgate grand recommendations, brush past the shaky analytic underpinnings, and try to use “expertise” to stifle dissenting voices--that I find so problematic.)

The NCEE report asserts, “Neither the researchers whose work is reported on in this paper nor the analysts of the OECD PISA data have found any evidence that any country that leads the world’s education performance league tables has gotten there” by embracing charter schools and vouchers, the role of education entrepreneurs, or the use of student performance data to reward teachers. Today, let’s set aside the empirical foundation for the analysis and just go meta.

The whole McKinsey-NCEE “let’s-find-someone-to-mimic” industry is undoubtedly great at generating support from foundations eager for someone to tell ‘em “what works.” But, to me, it looks like a triumph of the bureaucratic mindset and disdain for American dynamism and heterogeneity.

I can’t help thinking how much I would’ve loved to see NCEE’s recommendations to the Founders back in 1787 if they’d been tasked with generating some recommendations for a Constitutional design. They would’ve identified a few countries that seemed to have high GDPs (‘cause that’s all they could measure), and sent a few consultants or scholars to poke around and interview a couple folks. I can see the report now, “Honored sirs, none of the successful nations in question are republics--and it has been more than a millennia since the last successful republic. Rather than pursue an impossible dream, the Constitutional Convention would do well to emulate the British monarchy. We spent a week speaking with several members of the royal family and scholars at Oxford, and here’s what they recommend.”

Or, I can see the report to FDR in1940. “Mr. President, the data suggests that capitalist democracies are just not equal to the challenges. Based on measures of military and economic performance, the best-practice success stories are clearly Japan and Germany. We recommend an effort to emulate their practices.” Or, three decades ago, when every NCEE-style expert wanted the U.S. to do its best to mimic the Japanese industrial model, “We’ve seen what works, and it’s clearly Japanese-style central planning. There’s no evidence that entrepreneurial efforts can help the U.S. tech sector catch up.” (Of course, as Japan got mired in its “lost decade,” such calls tended to dry up.)

The WaPo‘s Charles Lane had a terrific piece on a related topic yesterday, in which he derided the current fascination with Germany’s economic “miracle” as another case of latching onto a “foreign flavor of the month.” He recalled the awed enthusiasm that the economies of “Japan, Inc.” and Soviet Union once inspired among the smart set, and noted that today’s German success is related to liberalization “that made the country a little bit more like...the United States.” Lane closes with some wise words: "[While] there’s plenty we can learn from the Germans, Japanese, Chinese, [and everyone else]...Americans need to identify our comparative advantages--social, cultural, political and economic-- and exploit them, instead of worrying about copying the competition.”

Ah, well. Folks like things that seem certain. And NCEE is hustling, alongside McKinsey, to corner the market on “big” ideas that can still be peddled as safe. That’s their right. I just wish the press and policy community would evince a little more independence or skepticism when reacting to and reporting on this stuff.

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