Big front page story in the WaPo today about a debate over getting rid of congressional “earmarks” for for-profit entities. But is the problem that for-profits can get earmarks or that the earmark process is just not very meritorious in its selection regardless of the tax status of the recipient? Plenty of for-profits will continue to get federal money through a variety of avenues. Meanwhile, not every non-profit is a model of efficiency, virtue, or effectiveness.
In K-12, and education more generally, we have a similar problem when it comes to thinking about quality. In the absence of serious signals or cues for quality we, too, rely on secondary cues like tax status. Consider school management organizations. In much of our field for profit is synonymous with bad, non-profit and school district is synonymous with good. Yet in practice there is wide variance in quality within all three sectors and the highest performing ventures across all three sectors have much more in common with each other than they do with their low-performing peers. In other words, tax status doesn’t necessarily tell us much. And to the extent this is ideological, anyone arguing that for-profit ventures shouldn’t be involved in education has no idea how school districts operate or procure a variety of goods and services.
Or consider research. We constantly have debates about whether research from academic institutions or from certain kinds of organizations is inherently more reliable. It’s a stupid debate. In fact there is wide variance in the quality of research across all sectors and consumers have to be able to make discerning choices and put information in context. For instance while the NEA or AFT, rightly in my view, come in for criticism because of some of their policy positions it would be a mistake to dismiss their research efforts out of hand because they collect some important data. Conversely, not every federal study offers strong explanatory leverage on the questions it is examining. And Lord knows university research and think tank research are mixed bags and just because something comes from a university hardly makes it bulletproof. Again, the superficial cues are pretty useless.
Here, in my view, is where the common standards push offers the most promise. It won’t actually solve most of the problems many of its adherents claim it will. But it could do one very powerful thing: Help rationalize the field by creating a common framework for evidence of effectiveness that transcends geography. The implications of that — in a $600+ billion industry where right now any claim goes and there are hardly any cues for quality — are powerful.