Mike Konczal and the Nirvana Fallacy


Mike Konczal just published a piece in the Boston Review. You can read it here.

The piece concerns the dangers of applying market principles to government institutions.

Mike discusses education and in doing so draws from Dana Goldstein’s The Teacher Wars. Mike’s argument is as follows:

1.Government institutions are being remodeled to adopt the principles of business; namely, competition and profit motive.

2. This leads to (1) “facilitative” arrangements where government officials are paid based on their ability to serve a customer, and (2) “bounty” arrangements where government officials are paid for rendering justice on lawbreakers.

3. Both of these types of arrangements lead to corruption and the overall undermining of public institutions.

4. Education suffers from an excess of facilitative strategies, most of which tie rewards and sanctions to student test scores.

5. The adoption of facilitative strategies have transformed public education into a provider / customer industry that has undermined the collective aims of public education.

6. These facilitative arrangements should be either ended or reduced (Mike does not put forth a specific affirmative vision).

Where I Agree with Mike

Facilitative Arrangements are on the Rise

The last thirty years of reform have led seen an increase in facilitative arrangements. My preferred method of reform, charter schooling, is explicitly facilitative: a charter gets four to five years to deliver results or it loses the opportunity to receive public funding and serve students.

Facilitative Arrangements can Lead to Corruption

Mike is right: corruption is a risk of facilitative arrangements. District cheating scandals and charter school creaming are both real negative consequences of facilitative arrangements (Mike mentions both in his piece).

The Major Flaw in Mike’s Argument

Mike Gives Almost No Evidence to Support his Conclusion

Mike’s main argument is that facilitative arrangements are decreasing the public nature and aims of schooling. This may or not be true (I don’t think it is), but Mike doesn’t even attempt to make the case.

The only evidence Mike sites is a survey that found that the percentage of teachers who reported being “very satisfied” with their job fell from 62 to 39 percent between 2008 and 2012.

This is very weak evidence for two reasons: first, it surveys teachers right after a string of budget cuts that were caused by the great recession; second, this drop occurred twenty-five years after the accountability movement was launched in 1983.

Causation is difficult to prove here, but if you read the survey that Mike sites you’ll find that the least satisfied teachers were those in schools that underwent budget cuts. Budget cuts, and not a twenty year delayed reaction to testing and accountability, seem to be the proximate cause of the decline of teacher satisfaction.

And, even if teacher satisfaction had dropped, is that the sole data point we should be looking at?

Mike may feel that an increase in facilitative arrangements has decreased the collective aims of public education, but he provides zero reliable evidence that this is actually true.

Evidence That Mike is Wrong

A couple points are worth mentioning.

First, the United States spends more money on education than almost any nation in the world. Perhaps this spending is not done with the public spirit that Mike would like to see, but if a budget reveals a nation’s true priorities, education remains a high priority in our country.

Second, rigorous studies have demonstrated the charter schools are more effective than traditional schools in serving students in poverty. It is the traditional public schools, and not the schools most predicated on facilitative arrangements, that are failing their civic duty to serve our most at-risk children.

Third, New Orleans stands as an extremely strong counterpoint to Mike’s argument. The city is the epicenter of facilitative reforms (95% of students attend charter schools), and the system’s transformation has been undoubtedly good for students living in poverty, as well as the city as a whole.

Moreover, New Orleans has achieved these results while better serving students with special needs and maintaining an expulsion rate below the state average. Sound regulatory policies have reduced the real risks inherent in facilitative strategies.

The Nirvana Fallacy

Ultimately, Mike succumbs to a version of the Nirvana Fallacy. The Nirvana Fallacy occurs when you criticize one set of polices and but then make unrealistic assumptions about the implications of your own preferred policies.

Mike criticizes facilitative education arrangements by pointing out their risks. And he is right to do so.

Hopefully, the regulatory principles and systems that have been developed in New Orleans can mitigate these risks.

But Mike applies no such critical analysis to the non-facilitative arrangements that he prefers.

Unfortunately, the traditional school system structure: (1) stifles innovation by monopolizing school operation (2) utilizes property values to segregate students by race and class (3) creates dysfunctional labor relations between the leaders of the monopolies and the teacher’s unions (4) prevents families from selecting schools based on their own children’s needs and (5) perpetuates corruption by placing political officials in charge of massive contracts.

School districts are not Nirvana. In fact, at least in urban districts, the data clearly shows that they are inferior to facilitative arrangements of charter schools.

“Facilitative” is one way to describe it. “Better for children in poverty” is another.

2 thoughts on “Mike Konczal and the Nirvana Fallacy

  1. Mike Konczal

    Thanks for this comment. I didn’t want to wander into the weeds of the performance and scalability of charters, of which the evidence can be all over the place (and I’m not in a position to referee) and would have been off-topic to the review.

    However I do use Goldstein’s book to note that school reform downplays “the public nature and aims of schooling,” as you put it. Goldstein is convincing here, and I don’t think this in controversial in the sense that I mean it. No doubt there are exceptions, but charter advocates usually downplay, say, poverty or community control as determinate of education. Whether this is strategic, ideological, or practical, is a good question, but it does point to a thin conception of education here.

    1. nkingsl

      Mike, good to hear from you. A couple of thoughts.

      1. The data for charter schools and low income students is not all over the place. There is a large body of evidence that shows that charters are serving low income students better. I would not view this as “in the weeds.” It’s direct evidence against your argument. If you’re in no position to referee, then I would avoid writing about the issue until you’ve familiarized yourself with the research.

      2. I agree that the charter community sometimes employs over the top rhetoric. This is unfortunate. But I think it’s a reasonable reaction to the traditional system, which often has been guilty of the opposite rhetoric: blaming their dysfunction on poverty.

      3. I fully believe poverty matters a ton, and schools are only part of a larger solution. And I would say most charter operators themselves would agree. The educators doing amazing work on the ground are fully aware of how poverty affects learning.

      4. I suppose you could argue that charter schools are achieving gains with low income students, but the rhetoric they are using will undermine long-term support for public education. I’m highly skeptical that this is true, but it’s possible, I guess.

      5. But, overall, I care much more about the education children are receiving than the rhetoric used be either side. This is why I reacted negatively to a piece making sweeping claims about education without even considering academic outcomes.

      Thanks for your note. I have a lot of respect for your thinking, but I remain unconvinced about your arguments on education (I’m much more sympathetic to your arguments on policing).

      Take care,



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