Friday, April 08, 2005

Vassallo's MORE THAN GRADES Cited by Cato Institute Report

Philip Vassallo's 2000 study for the Cato Institute, More Than Grades: How School Choice Boosts Parental Involvement and Benefits Children, was cited in another Cato study demonstrating that school choice for private schools has been the modus operandi in rural Maine for more than a century. The report, Lessons from Maine: Education Vouchers for Students since 1873 by Frank Heller, referenced Vassallo’s report as follows:

Most reports find that parents in choice programs define educational excellence in terms of a combination of factors; the most important are safety, discipline, and instructional quality.

Here are the links to both reports:

Friday, April 01, 2005

Arizona a Closely Watched State for School Choice

American education is looking to Arizona for a crucial next step in the country's school choice saga. A universal voucher bill, which would allow every child regardless of income financial support to attend nonpublic schools, has already passed Arizona's Senate and awaits a decisive vote in the House of Representatives.

Publicly-funded school choice programs have become a standard practice for several states, such as Florida, Maine, Ohio, Vermont, and Wisconsin. However, they are limited to a small percentage of the population, or reserved for low-income students, or granted to rural children living at a great distance from a public school.

Arizona's program is different. It would provide vouchers of $3,500 a year for elementary schoolers and $4,500 for high schoolers. Passing this bill would go a long way toward eliminating the bias against low- and moderate-income families that cannot afford to send their children to the school of their choice.

The House vote, perhaps next week, expects to be close. A major precedent for education freedom lies at stake.

Thursday, March 24, 2005

Book Review: On Which Side Are You?

By Philip Vassallo, Ed.D.

Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for Our Nation’s Future by Michael Barone. New York: Crown Forum, 2004. 188 pp. $12.00. Paper.

In the introductory chapter of his highly readable, remarkably eclectic book Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for Our Nation’s Future, author Michael Barone reveals a problem with seeing the world in terms of polar opposites when he writes: “For many years I have thought it one of the peculiar features of our country that we seem to produce incompetent eighteen-year-olds but remarkably competent thirty-year-olds.”

The incompetents Barone refers to are schoolchildren who are victimized by the inadequate education available to them, and the competents are the professionals in offices, laboratories, hospitals, courtrooms, and universities whose wisdom, creativity, diligence, and entrepreneurialism contribute significantly to the American and world economies. What Barone never mentions in his book, however, are that many of the incompetents he refers to become those very competent adults later in life, and that many of the competents are not products of the American education system at all. This faulty premise serves as a theme of Hard America, Soft America, yet serious though the flaw may be, Barone’s narrative frames an interesting perspective of recent history.

Essentially, Barone sees two Americas: a Soft America, one in which competition and accountability are lessened, and a Hard America, one which favors them. While he ultimately sees the need for a consistently Harder America, he does not exude the ruthlessness Al Dunlap or the egomania of Donald Trump, because of evenhanded observations such as

It would be a cruel country that had no Soft niches. But it would be a weak and unproductive country that did not have enough Hardness.

How Did We Go Soft?

Throughout the book, Barone provides a veritable historical survey of America’s political, economic, military, and educational movements in the twentieth century. He does so creatively with allusions to literary classics, such as John Updike’s Rabbit is Rich, Sloan Wilson's The Man in the Gray Flannel Suit, and Charles Reich’s The Greening of America, searching for metaphors that conform to his idea of Hardness and Softness. He equates Soft America with Progressivism, the New Deal, Social Security, welfare, racial quotas and preferences on the political side; unionization and the Big Three automakers’ planned obsolescence of their cars on the economic side; and grade inflation, social promotion on the education side. Standing in for Hard America, their polar opposites, are the financial or educational requirements on recipients of programs of the Federal Housing Administration (pay your mortgage to get a federal break) and Veterans Affairs (go to college to receive aid); the aggressive American response, led by President John F. Kennedy, to the Russian early lead in the space program; the enforcement of quality of life standards established by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani; the innovation or reorganization of Bill Gates’s Microsoft, Jack Welch’s General Electric, and Fred Smith’s Federal Express; and the creation and continuance of the Milwaukee Parental Choice Program for public school students.

Barone maintains that Soft America, regardless its good intentions, creates contradictory and deleterious effects for the constituents it purports to help. He deduces that although Blacks lived in hard conditions, they were victims of Soft America, with limited entrepreneurial activity and little accountability. In such a scenario, victimization extends even to society’s more privileged members, who were deluged by images of the segregated South in the early 1960s, when Birmingham police commissioner Bull Connor unleashed water hoses and police dogs on peaceful Black demonstrators: :

White Americans came to think worse of themselves even as they made the country—and themselves—better. If you had asked white Americans in 1961 whether blacks were treated unfairly in the United States, a very large number would have said no. If you had asked white Americans in 1969 the same question, a majority would have said yes—even though blacks at that point were treated much less unfairly than they had been eight years earlier.

Hard America, Soft America asserts that Progressivism in education, with John Dewey in the vanguard, led the fight against rote memorization, traditional curricula, and teacher-centered classrooms, all of which ultimately created a Soft American school system. Add to these initiatives the phenomena of grade inflation, social promotion, the right of teacher unions to strike and to veto attempts to legitimize teacher accountability, and we have a school culture that has run amok and institutionalized mediocrity in the classroom.

How Should We Become Hard?

A common practice of many innovators when seemingly every attempt at improving one’s field has failed is to look to other fields. No reform was successful in stemming the plummeting of the national average SAT scores (from a high of 478 in verbal and 502 in math in 1963 to 420 in verbal and 466 in math nearly in the late 1970s and early 1980s), which in part prompted the 1982 publication of the watershed A Nation at Risk, which called for extreme measures to reverse America’s educational slump.

Where should we turn for exemplars of turning the tide of diminished achievement? Barone points to several examples, including imprisonment and warfare, which are more Straw Men for his argument than indicators of success. The first example concerns the decrease in violent crimes in proportion with the increase of incarcerations. In a longitudinal analysis of crime, punishment, and their connection, Barone insists that crime increased as we Softened sentencing laws and decreased since we Hardened them.

So, increase the prison population to reduce crime—is it really that simple? Then what accounts for wild increases in violent and property crimes between 1960 and 1980, which do not entirely correlate with the prison population changes, as incarceration numbers also increased during that period? In addition, what explains the incongruous aggregates: the prison-to-general-population ratio skyrocketed from 1:842 in 1960 to 1:211 in 2000, but the crime rate also skyrocketed 118.6 percent during the same period?

The second example discusses American troop casualties in various military campaigns. Barone suggests that the large numbers of American dead in the Korea War (36,574) and Vietnam War (58,209) resulted in part from a Soft stance regarding clear military objectives and a lack of political resolve, while the 1990-1991 Persian Gulf War (382 dead), Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan (158 dead since 2001), and the Operation Iraqi Freedom (over 1,500 dead since 2003) are prototypes for Hard action. Needless to say, when Barone wrote this book, Iraq might have seemed a rosier picture than it currently is. Yet one would have to wonder how he would compare these campaigns to those of 30 and 50 years earlier, whose scopes were vastly different. Also noteworthy for its omission are World War II casualties (405,399 dead), presumably because the causality rates for this Hard military engagement are consistent with his theory.

So What About Schools?

Where do these faulty premises take the reader when transitioning to America’s K-12 schools? In one misstep, Barone never adequately addresses connection between the reality of failing children and the successes, overrated though they often are, of American adults. Indeed, he spills quite a bit of ink in rehashing spectacular adult failures, such as the losing battle of the Big Three automakers against foreign competition and the impotence of government and law enforcement against Detroit rioters in 1967. Soft or Hard, adults have failed as much as children, if not more. In another error of omission, he excludes the contribution of immigrant adults working in technical and scientific fields who used their foreign education to benefit the United States.

For two reasons, however, I found it easy to finish this book. First, Barone captures the imagination with references to fine literature, even when they are not always apt, to wit his inclusion of If I Die in a Combat Zone by Tim O’Brien. Second, he often occasionally offers helpful summations which acknowledge the complexity of the issues he raises:

Hardening public-sector institutions is more difficult than Hardening private-sector institutions; a corporation cannot ignore a failure to make profits, while a public-sector institution can ignore a failure to achieve results for a very long time indeed as long as revenues keep flowing in.

Thus, read Hard America, Soft America not necessarily for insights on education policy, but for its sweep and swing.

Philip Vassallo, Ed.D., writes on education issues and specializes in writing instruction, family participation, and school choice. He accepts messages at

Monday, March 14, 2005

Great Links on School Choice

If you are new to school choice and need a quick primer on the critical issues affecting this significant movement in education history, then you need to visit the websites listed below. They offer comprehensive histories of the issue, in-depth reports on school choice initiatives throughout the United States, and current news of interest in the field. Here they are:

Other great websites covering school choice are noted on this website's entry "Important Think Thanks" (January 13, 2005), which you can find by clicking the January 2005 in the archives link.

Monday, March 07, 2005


The latest installment of THE LEARNING CLASS by Philip Vassallo has been posted on, "the Internet’s leading source of education news." The article, "On Which Side Are You?" reviews the book Hard America, Soft America: Competition vs. Coddling and the Battle for Our Nation’s Future by Michael Barone. Here is the link:

For Vassallo, this is his ninety-third LEARNING CLASS article since starting the freelance column in 1990. It is also his ninth book review and twenty-third article overall for, with which he formed an association in 2000.

Saturday, March 05, 2005

MORE THAN GRADES Cited in Another Education Report

Philip Vassallo's 2000 study for the Cato Institute, More Than Grades: How School Choice Boosts Parental Involvement and Benefits Children, continues to serve as a key source in the school choice debate. It has been widely cited in publications arguing that meaningful parental involvement, which is an indispensable component to a successful public education program, is more likely to occur in schools which parents choose for their children.

Most recently, More Than Grades was cited in A School Voucher Program for Baltimore City, a 2005 report by Dan Lips, a Senior Fellow of Education Policy Studies with the Maryland Public Policy Institute and the Goldwater Institute. The Lips report, jointly published by Milton and Rose D. Friedman Foundation and the Maryland Public Policy Institute, agrees with the Vassallo study in noting "parents able to choose their child’sschool were happier than those parents who were unable to choose their child’s school."

Here are the links to both reports:

More Than Grades: How Choice Boosts Parental Involvement and Benefits Children by Philip Vassallo:

A School Voucher Program for Baltimore City by Dan Lips:

Saturday, February 26, 2005

Book Review: Misstating the Obvious

From THE LEARNING CLASS: Essays on Education by Philip Vassallo, Ed.D. at

All Else Equal: Are Public and Private Schools Different? by Luis Benveniste, Martin Carnoy, and Richard Rothstein. New York: RoutledgeFalmer, 2003. 206, xv pp. $19.95. Paper.

Anyone who has studied education half seriously knows that public and private schools have in common many imposing tasks: structuring and managing administrative offices and classrooms, supervising physical plant problems, effecting curricular decisions, acquiring useful print and electronic instructional materials, resolving professional and nonprofessional personnel issues, coordinating teacher development opportunities, implementing efficacious teacher evaluation instruments, encouraging teacher innovations, engendering parental involvement, monitoring volunteers such as PTA members and student teachers, confronting constituent pressures within and outside the education community, and a host of other challenges. (Have I mentioned educating and disciplining the students themselves?)

All Else Equal chooses to ignore these obvious similarities in claiming that none of the school-choice innovations launched over the past generation has made a difference in improving the affected education systems. The book fashions a revisionist historical tour of libertarian initiatives such as vouchers, private scholarship programs, charter schools, and private management of public schools. Along the way, it attempts to discredit Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman’s enduring market-side view of education and John E. Chubb and Terry M. Moe’s 1990 landmark book, Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, which held that parochial school students outperform their public school counterparts. Authors Benveniste, Carnoy, and Rothstein begin their examination of voucher programs in the early 1970s with the Alum Rock school district in San Jose, California, and continue to the present day with a look at the controversial Milwaukee Parental Choice Program and Cleveland Scholarship Program. They also briefly discuss private scholarship programs for public school students in New York, Dayton, Washington, D.C., and Charlotte, as well as public school projects run by for-profit education management organizations like the Edison Schools. Their conclusion: Any positive reports of these efforts are grossly exaggerated because they are plagued by validity problems, including consistently low follow-up test participation rates and limited progress among students. They submit that achievement “differences are at best small,” which “leaves us back at square one” in righting public education wrongs.

Friedman, the authors assert, failed to consider the simple fact that schools in a greater choice environment would reject certain students (just as the authors themselves failed to state that schools in a greater choice environment would likely seize the market niche opportunity to develop programs for addressing those rejected students). In fact, Friedman focused more on economic and political theory because he knew that school management issues would be better left to educators, entrepreneurs, and government overseers in a society where every student is guaranteed an education. In trashing Chubb and Moe’s study, the writers register the tired, shallow complaint that Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools made unequal comparisons between parochial schools, which were presumably more privileged in their student selection process, and public schools, which were strapped with lower-performing students whom they were required to keep. Nowhere in this section of the book do the writers conjecture that parental choice (they are as free to pull their children out of a private school as they are to place them in one) and the motivation that springs from parental sacrifice (private schools do not come free) might have contributed in an least some measure to student achievement.

All of these attacks serve a prelude to their own study, which they acknowledge provides limited quantitative data and heaps of unreliable qualitative data. For example, no high schools were in the study and the sample included only 16 California metropolitan-area primary and middle schools. Yet, from their findings, the authors insist that public schools would not improve by adopting greater accountability to parents and flexibility in hiring and firing teachers. They add that private schools do not do a better job at responding to parents and at organizing themselves around academic achievement. One of their parting shots: “Privatization and market accountability are not necessarily the solution to improving the public education system,” clearly does not emerge from the data they present.

While the authors go to considerable lengths to find holes in pro-choice arguments, they say virtually nothing about mediocre or dangerously negligent public schools. Unfortunately, they also steer clear of the central question underpinning the school choice movement: Should all American taxpayers be free to choose their children’s school—be it one run by the public or the private sector—simply in the name of democracy?

Philip Vassallo, Ed.D., writes on education issues and specializes in writing instruction, family participation, and school choice. His books include The Art of On-the-Job Writing and The Inwardness of the Outward Gaze: Learning and Teaching through Philosophy. He accepts messages at