One of the most influential and most cited books in social science in the past 50 years is economist Albert Hirschman’s Exit, Voice, and Loyalty.
Hirschman’s book discusses how individuals respond to a situation in which the services on which they rely are deteriorating. As such, Exit provides valuable conceptual tools for analyzing the design of the Common Core national curriculum content standards.
Hirschman points out that the two basic responses to deteriorating services are “exit” and “voice,” where exit means turning to a different provider or leaving the territory, while voice means political participation.
The Importance of Exit and Voice
In America, political participation plays an important role. America is a constitutional republic, where power rests with the consent of the governed and elections elevate individuals to public office and where elections also function as way of legitimatizing the political system. We as men and women on the street see that participatory democracy and deliberative democracy are lovely in theory, but are also often dirty in practice.
Social scientists tell us about Arrow’s Theorem and the impossibility of non-dictatorially lining up voters’ preferences. They tell us about agenda-setting and log-rolling. There are entrenched special interests, “concentrated benefits and dispersed costs,” and influential, established elites. Social scientists also affirm that it is quite difficult to organize opposition to the current state of affairs when the uninvolved can take a “free ride” and reap the public benefits, if any, that organizers might gain. Nonetheless, we value our political freedom.
Likewise, in our culture, we have quite a few symbolic examples of the importance of exit. We have the story of the Exodus of the ancient Hebrews from the bondage of pharaonic Egypt. We had the Pilgrims and other religious refugees who left the Old World for the New. We had pioneers who left the Atlantic Coast for the frontier. We had the farmers and industrial workers who came from Europe and Asia through Ellis Island in New York harbor and Angel Island in San Francisco in the 19th century and the early 20th century. Hirschman says that this mass migration from Europe to the New World was an instance of exit being used as “an avenue of self-defense” for the “voiceless.” We have blacks who moved North before and after slavery ended. We have escapees, refugees, and exiles from national socialism and communism.
As Hirschman himself noted, political scientist Samuel E. Finer wrote a superb essay which pointed out that the absolutist states of 17th-century and 18th-century Europe were “obsessed by the demon of exit” and how to prevent it.
America itself has long been a place of refuge and the prospect of losing skilled and productive citizens to America has long been recognized as something of a check on despotic or predatory governments elsewhere. Hirschman himself quotes the overly optimistic French Enlightenment-era economist Turgot:
The asylum which [the American republic] opens to the oppressed of all nations must console the earth. The ease with which it will now be possible to take advantage of this situation, and thus to escape from the consequences of a bad government will oblige the European governments to be just and enlightened.
The modern-era “brain drain” into the United States is just the most recent manifestation of that effect.
Exit usually has lower costs than voice for the individual. But here we should add the limiting case: Exit can have high costs when individuals are loyal to institutions—thus the third component in Hirschman’s trio of “exit,” “voice,” and “loyalty.”
With exit, you can (at less cost than the long slog of politics entails) turn to a different provider or move to a different place (sometimes quite nearby, sometimes afar). Such a move is sometimes called “voting with your feet.”
“Loyalty” can be strong in politics, but it can also be lost. Think of the American Revolution and the breaking away of the United States from the British Empire.
America’s History of Local Engagement in the Public School System
In the 1830s, when Alexis de Tocqueville visited America from France, he found Americans intensely loyal to, and participating in, their public schools. These Americans saw the public schools as extensions of their families and neighborhoods. They viewed public schools—even though public schools in those days were usually fee-charging—as akin to voluntarily supported charities and as part of what Tocqueville then, and social scientists today, call “civil society.” The public in those days saw public schools as something quite separate from distant political elites in faraway state and federal capitals.
Describing 19th-century American society, Tocqueville spoke of township school committees that were deeply rooted in their local communities. In those days, state control of local public education took the form of an annual report sent by the township committee to the state capital. The state could require that there be public schools, but the local township built the school, paid for it, and directed it. There was no national control.
Large sums (much of it taxed from laborers and farmers) were spent by these school committees, and their efforts reflected, Tocqueville thought, a widespread American desire to provide basic schooling as a route to opportunity and advancement. He admired the fact that in self-activating America one might easily chance upon farmers who had not waited for official permission from above but were putting aside their plows “to deliberate upon the project of a public school.”
Tocqueville feared that if ever Americans neglected their participation in associations or local government entities like school committees, the tendency would be toward a loss of liberty and surrender to what Tocqueville called the “mild despotism.”
The Perils of Centralization of Information
In The Strange Liberalism of Alexis de Tocqueville, Roger Boesche, a noted Alexis de Tocqueville scholar, writes about the perils of “‘centralization’ of information.” Boesche says that, according to Tocqueville, once centralization of information is “entrenched,” once a democratic nation relies on a few sources for information, then “freedom of opinion” becomes “illusory.” For Tocqueville, this problem is peculiar to democratic regimes, and perhaps their greatest challenge.
Under these centralized conditions, opinion does not develop freely, but is “hierarchically formed.” “Centralized sources tend to give everyone the same opinion.” Among Tocqueville’s greatest fears for democracy was conformity of thought of its citizens. Tocqueville was thinking specifically of a nationalization of the newspaper industry, but his insight applies to education as well.
Today, many years after Tocqueville, public sentiment about the public schools still retains much of the feeling of “loyalty” that people had in Tocqueville’s day, and the current passion for local control is fueled by that feeling. Yet, increasingly, parents and taxpayers view the public schools as an unresponsive, declining bureaucracy carrying out edicts from distant capitals. In sum, regarding the public schools, we as members of the public are faced with the situation that Hirschman addressed: We are dealing with a poorly performing institution—an institution that is supplying services which are perceived to be disintegrating.
The Monopoly Problem
A social scientist like Hirschman would point out that we can make use of exit or voice or a combination of them to respond to the deteriorating situation in a declining institution, namely widespread ineffective instruction in the public schools. In this time of perceived inadequacy, Common Core came to the fore—precisely at a time when social scientists say that civically active individuals care much more than they usually do about exit, voice, and loyalty.
But the Common Core designers have taken the existing bureaucracy and increased its centralization and uniformity. By creating the Common Core national curriculum content standards, behind closed doors, the designers have increased the alienation of the public from schools as institutions worthy of loyalty. The general public had no voice in creating or adopting Common Core.
In times of a deteriorating public service, however, there is another approach: offering better exit options. In the case of schools, this would mean greater availability of parental choice. The choice dynamic would lead to rejuvenation of schools, greater inventiveness of education providers, and better service options for parents and children. But the strategy of the Common Core’s proponents is suppression of an important exit option; it is to create an almost inescapable national cartel.
This design of no-exit, no-voice is not that unusual historically. Often clampdowns on exit and voice that are orchestrated by governments occur together. Hirschman observes that since exit and voice are basic and complementary components of constitutional liberty, we should not be surprised that “on the whole” they have been “enlarged or restricted jointly.”
People will seek out exit and voice even when there are restrictions—and sometimes governments will allow such efforts and sometimes they will not. For example, people will choose to exit even when there are government-sponsored monopolies (when there is not full government control of substitutes). In fact, the intellectual spark which led to the writing of Exit, Voice, and Loyalty was Hirschman’s puzzling over the government-owned railroads in Nigeria. Hirschman recognized that although these government enterprises delivered poor service, they would go on functioning (supported by funds from the taxpayer), even if some customers moved from shipping by public rail to shipping on private trucks.
Indeed, Hirschman himself recognized that the American public schools were not particularly different from the Nigerian government’s railways. Public schools are likewise—because of government support—able to survive even when they are losing pupils.
This monopoly problem in public school education was precisely why economist Milton Friedman called for opportunity scholarships (also known as vouchers) to create a powerful exit option. But even in the absence of opportunity scholarships and charter schools, we had some exit options in the past because of competitive federalism.
Competitive federalism is horizontal competition among jurisdictions. We know that it works in education at the inter-district level. Economist Caroline Hoxby studied metropolitan areas with many school districts (like Boston) versus metropolitan areas contained within one large district (like Miami or Los Angeles). She found that student performance is better in areas with competing multiple districts, where parents at the same income level can move—at the margin—from one locality to another nearby, in search of a better education for their children.
We have seen competitive federalism work in education at the inter-state level. Back in the 1950s, Mississippi and North Carolina were at the same low level. Over the years, North Carolina tried a number of educational experiments and moved well ahead of Mississippi. We have likewise seen Massachusetts move up over the years from mediocre to stellar. (Though under Common Core, Massachusetts is sinking back again.)
A goal, however, of those who promote Common Core is to suppress competitive federalism. Common Core’s curriculum guidelines and its rules are the governing rules of a cartel. The goal of Common Core’s designers and proponents has been curricular uniformity, as opposed to having a variety of state and local curriculums.
They and their federal facilitators wanted a cartel that would override competitive federalism and shut down the curriculum alternatives that federalism would allow. The new Common Core–aligned national tests, whose development was supported with federal funds, are to police the cartel. All long-lasting cartels must have a mechanism for policing and punishing those seen as “shirkers” and “chiselers,” in other words, those who want to escape the cartel’s strictures or who prefer increased flexibility.
The College Board is now led by David Coleman, one of Common Core’s chief architects, and is being used to corral Catholic schools, other private schools, and homeschooling parents into the cartel. The proponents of Common Core have now established a clearinghouse for authorized teaching materials to try to close off one of the remaining avenues for escape.
The “Race to the Bottom” Myth
Central to the rhetoric and rationale used by the advocates of Common Core on education reform was the idea that state performance standards were already on a downward slide and that, without nationalization, standards would inexorably continue on a “race to the bottom.” The name given to the Obama Administration’s signature school reform effort, the Race to the Top program, reflects this belief. The idea is that to prevent states from following the supposed natural dynamic of a “race to the bottom,” the federal government needs to step in and lead a “race to the top.”
The evidence, however, does not support the claim of a “race to the bottom.” For policymakers, the logic of pursuing a race to the bottom does not make sense either. While providers of public education certainly face the temptation to do what might look like taking the easy way out by letting academic standards slip, there is also countervailing pressure in the direction of higher standards (especially, as long as there are competing standards in other states).
If policymakers and education officials let content standards slip, low standards will damage the state’s reputation for having a trained workforce. Such a drop in standards will even damage the policymakers’ own reputations.
In 2007, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute looked empirically at state performance standards over time in a study called “The Proficiency Illusion.” The study showed that while states had a variety of performance standards (as would be expected in a federal system), the supposed race to the bottom was not happening.[39 ]The proponents of Common Core are wrong (or, sometimes, even intentionally misleading) in their claims that state performance standards were inevitably and everywhere on a downward slide.
Why is this important? Because a principal argument for national curriculum content standards is that without nationalization there will be a race to the bottom and that only national standards can reverse a supposedly already existing slide. But the facts suggest otherwise. This topples a principal argument for national standards.
To some extent with Common Core, federal officials have commandeered state curriculum content standards and tests and substituted national standards and tests; to some extent, some state officials embraced the national standards and testing cartel as a relief from political pressure within their state and a relief from competitive pressure from other states.
The scholarly literature in social science says that officials in sub-national governments may well seek centralization in order to impose homogeneity (at their level of government) and thus to tamp down interjurisdictional competition.
Richard A. Epstein and Mario Loyola write that as the distinction in law between local and national activities has eroded, federal and state officials have an incentive “to collude in blocking competition.” The effect can all too easily be—when state and federal education officials, for example, make use of this tempting ploy—“to eliminate the discipline” that programmatic and accountability competition would “impose on multiple governments.” That competition would have had a chance to work in a true federalist system “when each is confined to its distinct sphere of authority.” But if state and federal officials collude, they “replace” competition between the states (in this case, in educational offerings) with an “anti-competitive cartel.”
Common Core Stymies Competition, Undermines Exit, and Silences Voice
Nationalizing standards and tests would, according to this analysis, eliminate them as differentiated school-reform instruments that could be used by states in competition over educational attainment among the states. Sonny Perdue (Governor of Georgia at the time Common Core was created) did not like comparisons of the low-performing students of his state with students in other states that had different standards from Georgia’s. He became the lead governor in bringing the National Governors Association (NGA) into the national standards effort.[43 ](In 2013, the governors’ association acted in similar fashion to create a cartel of states in order to suppress competitive federalism and make online retailers collect taxes from out-of-state customers.)
Common Core undermines the “exit” option and undermines competitive federalism. Indeed, in part, it was designed to do so. It likewise evaded and negated the voice option during the adherence process—and continues to do so. The designers of Common Core wanted nationwide uniformity. States have to adhere to the Common Core in toto because of boilerplate memorandums of understanding. A few topics can be added, but none can be subtracted or moved to a different grade.
Thus, by design there is no way to cure the perceived substantive ills of Common Core—for example, some would say, “multiple strategies” arithmetic; using the “rigid motions” approach to solving problems of similar and congruent triangles; or too much “informational text” in English literature. States under Common Core are not allowed to take anything (no matter how flawed) out of the standards, and the national tests will test each topic in the full array of standards at the grade level at which that topic is listed.
There is no feedback loop and no process to consider and put in place proposed changes. Any proposed nationwide fixes would have to be negotiated between the NGA and the Council of Chief State School Officers jointly and each of the adhering states. Such a process is prohibitively difficult to put into practice. Therefore, frustrated constituents who have complaints about the merits of Common Core have no place to exercise their voice in a way that would lead to repair or—what Hirschman would call—“recuperation.” Instead, critics are driven to oppose the curriculum content of Common Core as a whole.
But as Lenore T. Ealy writes, “regardless of the merit” of the Common Core national standards, “it still matters…whether there are rights of exit.” The policymakers of this malign utopia forgot a few things. They forgot that the desire for voice—the desire for political action—can become particularly intense when people are faced with the prospect of “nowhere to exit to.” They forgot that hemming in parents and teachers would create a demand for political change, alternatives, and escape routes.
Alternatives to the national tests have arisen. Organized parents are pressing for repeal of Common Core and the dropping of the national tests that support it. Some states are already rejecting the national tests. States are also struggling to escape the Common Core cartel itself. Parents are opting out of the Common Core tests. There has been what Hirschman calls an “intimate fusion of exit and voice.”
By trying to block exit and deny voice, the designers of Common Core and the policymakers who put it in place have caused blowback: A large parent-, teacher-, and community-based movement has arisen to oppose Common Core and its national tests.
Public response to the imposition of Common Core may bring about what Hirschman calls “a joint grave-digging act.” As of this writing, exit and voice are working hand in glove against Common Core. Perhaps, to use another of Hirschman’s metaphors, “exit” and “voice” will “explode jointly” and “bring down the whole edifice.”—Williamson M. Evers is a Research Fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution and a former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education for Planning, Evaluation, and Policy Development. This essay contains considerable material from longer research projects on the history of efforts at establishing a national curriculum in America (sponsored by the Pioneer Institute) and on the history of conservatives and the public schools in America (sponsored by the Hoover Institution). A condensed version of this essay appeared in Education Week, January 14, 2015.