Ed. Feds to Reinvent Wheel, Ignoring Pi

Education secretary Arne Duncan testified before Congress today on the president’s 2010 budget for the Department of Education. One of the first things he said was this:

We also plan to work very hard at scaling up success in our education system. Under our 2010 budget, the Department would continue to use the Innovation Fund created by the Recovery Act to identify and replicate successful models and strategies that raise student achievement. We know that there are many school systems and non-profit organizations across the country with demonstrated track records of success in raising student achievement, and our 2010 request would help bring their success to scale.

Duncan and President Obama are so, so right to focus on this challenge. Sadly, their efforts will so, so utterly fail, just as those of all their predecessors. Here’s why:

For a long time, observers of U.S. public schooling have wrung their hands over a pernicious problem: there are many isolated and transitory examples of excellence within the system (think “Stand and Deliver”), but efforts to scale these models up on a lasting, nationwide basis have always failed.

One early and notorious example was the federal Follow Through experiment of the late 1960s and early ’70s. At a cost of over a billion dollars, it demonstrated that one instruction method, “Distar,” clearly outperformed 21 others. Distar was #1 not just overall, but in each of the subcategories of reading, arithmetic, spelling and language. It placed a close second in promoting advanced conceptual skills, and was even the most effective at boosting students’ self-esteem and responsibility toward their work. Nothing else came close.

So what happened? The public school system failed to follow through on Follow Through. Not only was Distar NOT widely adopted around the country, most of the schools that had used it during the experimental phase subsequently dropped it. Their performance dropped commensurately. End of story.

Then there was the billion-dollar Annenberg Challenge of the 1990s, which was meant to identify and replicate successful education models around the country. The project was funded by TV Guide mogul Walter H. Annenberg, launched by then-president Bill Clinton, and overseen, in its Chicago operations, by Barack Obama. And it was another utter failure. Some good schools were created here and there, but the lasting, system-wide improvements that Annenberg had been hoping for never materialized. Why?

The reason is simple: the incredible progress we’ve witnessed in virtually every aspect of life for the past two centuries is the product of freedoms and incentives that do not exist in public schooling.  After spending most of their adult lives writing an awe-inspiring 11 volume history of the world, Will and Ariel Durant remarked that:

The experience of the past leaves little doubt that every economic system must sooner or later rely upon some form of the profit motive to stir individuals and groups to productivity. Substitutes like slavery, police supervision or ideological enthusiasm prove too unproductive, too expensive or too transient. (The Lessons of History, 1968, p. 54-55).

And while the Durants learned this lesson from their study of history, others learned it from personal experience. Michael Manley, leader of the People’s National Party and Vice President of the Socialist International, looked back on his time as Prime Minister of Jamaica and observed in New Perspectives Quarterly:

The fact is we all seriously miscalculated the capacity of the state to intervene effectively. Despite the enormous sincerity we brought to the task, our nationalist and statist approach didn’t work… When one tries to use the state as a major instrument of production, one quickly exhausts the managerial talent that can be mobilized in the name of patriotism. Absent the profit motive, it was truly amazing how few managers one could find that were motivated solely by love of their country, and how quickly these noble souls burned out. I call this idea the “Guevarist myth.” (1992, p. 46-47).

The automatic process by which useful innovations are encouraged, identified, disseminated, perpetuated, and finally superseded relies on innovators being free to do whatever they think is best for their customers, and having powerful incentives to constantly improve on the state of the art. That is why dramatic progress has been the norm under the free-enterprise system over the past 40 years, while public school productivity has plummeted.

Great educators and great schools can and do appear within the public school system, but they do so in spite of that system, not because of it. They never scale up in the way that Google, iPods, or the Kumon tutoring chain have scaled up, because they lack the combination of freedoms and incentives essential to doing so. Trying to get a bureaucracy with a state-protected funding monopoly to reliably scale up excellence in the way that markets do is like trying to reinvent the wheel with an alternative value of pi. It simply cannot be done.

True education markets are the ONLY system that will do what Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and the American people wish.