Would breaking up "large urban districts" fix The Achievement Plateau?
Is smaller better?
Howard Husock, who writes for Education Next, recently published a piece calling for the dissolution of large urban districts.
Husock’s basic thesis is this: breaking up large, urban districts would blunt the “out of control” influence of teachers’ unions and improve school quality through competition. His piece stems largely from his belief that powerful teachers’ unions fought to keep schools closed to in-person learning for far too long. He writes, “Heading into the fall of 2020, the Center for Reinventing Public Education found that ‘one in four school districts plan to reopen entirely remotely, but four in five urban school districts are set to, making them twice as likely as suburban districts and six times as likely as rural districts to do so.’”
He argues that unions have less disruptive power in smaller districts, since a strike that keeps just a few thousand students home is less impactful than a strike that keeps hundreds of thousands of students home. This power gives unions in large cities disproportionate clout, according to Husock.
Education Next is supported by Harvard’s Kennedy School. Its mission statement boasts, “Bold change is needed in American K–12 education, but Education Next partakes of no program, campaign, or ideology. It goes where the evidence points.”
Following the evidence is a bold assertion, and I wonder if Husock’s evidence-GPS lost its satellite connection.
The evidence cited here does indeed show that large urban districts were slower in returning to in-person learning than smaller, suburban districts. The evidence also shows that large, urban districts also fall victim to union-led teacher strikes more frequently than smaller, suburban districts.
In public education, though, we are ultimately interested in producing a high-quality product with taxpayer dollars — basing policy on the frequency of strikes or a speedy return to aging buildings after a global pandemic seems to ignore that ultimate goal. And while we often struggle to measure the quality of our product, we generally lean on measures of student achievement. And that’s where the evidence is murky at best.
Husock’s claim that cleaving urban districts into smaller units would benefit student achievement comes from a 1994 paper by current Stanford economist Caroline Hoxby. [The paper seems to have been written during her PhD work at MIT and then republished in 2000 when she was an appointed professor at Harvard]. Per Husock’s interpretation, “Areas with greater opportunities for choice among public schools have lower per-pupil spending, lower teacher salaries, and larger classes. The same areas have better average student performance, as measured by students’ educational attainment, wages, and test scores.”
Critically omitted from his evidence, though, is Hoxby’s own admission in the abstract to her nearly 30-year-old paper that, “Improvements in student performance are concentrated among white non-Hispanics, males, and students who have a parent with at least a high school degree.” That alone is concerning, and it just scratches the surface of the issues in both pieces.
Husock also fails to explain what the appropriate size for an urban district should be. If New York City and its 980,000 students is too large, should it be broken up into seven districts the size of Philadelphia — or 20 districts the size of Oakland or Columbus?
Husock also conveniently ignores the real-world experiment of smaller, urban districts who still struggle to produce top-notch student achievement. Those districts surely have less-dominant unions — and yet student achievement still lags. In addition to Columbus and Oakland, we might also look at ultra-small urban districts like Chester-Upland and Camden, which surround Philadelphia, serve 3000 and 8000 (respectively) mostly black and hispanic students, and indeed struggle with producing a high-quality public education.
Finally, when it comes to equitably funding urban districts, Husock casually mentions that any divisions should be carefully drawn to ensure an “adequate property tax base.” Visit most urban districts and you’ll see what this is complicated task: wealth is concentrated in neighborhoods that also tend to be racially segregated. Husock’s proposal might be viewed as an effort to create even more segregation — and inequity — in our public education system.
Hoxby has written extensively about market-based education reforms like school choice and limiting the power of teachers’ unions. In 2001 she wrote, “Market enthusiasts have always argued…that competition will improve the public schools, just as the entry of Federal Express and DHL into the package-delivery market forced the U.S. Postal Service to lower its costs and offer new services, such as Express Mail.” Twenty years later, with the U.S. Postal Service struggling mightily after “market enthusiasts” hamstrung its ability to run its business, one has to wonder if market-based reforms for education would have similar effects.
Thanks for reading, and have a great week.