A Stern Talking To

by Robert Pondiscio
January 24th, 2008

City JournalE.D. Hirsch, Jr. previewed his response to Sol Stern’s “School Choice Isn’t Enough” piece here earlier this week. City Journal is savvy enough to keep the chattering classes chirping, asking Dr. Hirsch, Diane Ravitch, Jay P. Greene, Andrew J. Coulson, Robert Enlow, Neal McCluskey, Thomas W. Carroll, and Matthew Ladner to respond to the piece. Coulson’s response provides a laugh out loud moment:

“Everyone knows the story. It’s Act 5, Scene 3. Romeo returns to Verona to find Juliet’s apparently lifeless body. In despair, he kills himself. Then Juliet wakes up . . . oops.

“I recalled the play’s tragic finale as I read Sol Stern’s City Journal essay. He’s leaning over what he believes is the corpse of market education. . . . He’s taking out his vial of poison. . . . “Sol, don’t do it!” I yell helplessly at the screen. “Market education isn’t dead!” And then it’s over.”

Stern has another go at his critics afterward. Good reads all around so take a look. Make sure the printer has lots of paper.

On Sol Stern’s City Journal Piece: Substance Trumps Structure

by E. D. Hirsch, Jr.
January 22nd, 2008

City JournalI’m so glad that Sol Stern has written this piece.

The comeback to it that I am already hearing from die-hard choice advocates is: well, the non-choice schools haven’t done so well either! This is an argument?

Stern’s point goes far deeper than that — to doubt whether any of the primarily structural approaches to school improvement are promising, after all. His view: we need to talk about substance not structure.

The choice movement is a structural approach. It relies on market-theory to improve outcomes, not venturing to offer guidance on precisely what the schools need to be teaching. That would go against the genius of the market approach, which is to refrain from top-down interference into what needs to be taught and learned in the schools. Stern rightly shows that this is a fundamental failing in the choice movement.

But market-based “choice” is not the only structural reform of the recent past that has refrained from actually concerning itself with the substance of what is taught and learned in school. There was the government-funded whole-school-reform project. It too was a meta-structure that said “Let a thousand flowers bloom,” thus rendering itself superior to any particular substantive notion of what needed to be taught and learned in the school.

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