Tag: free enterprise system

Actually, Big Mistakes Are to Be Expected…

Cognitive scientist Dan Willingham has a helpful column on the WaPo’s “Answer Sheet” blog. In it, he notes that DC Public Schools advises its employees to teach to students’ ”diverse learning styles” (e.g. “auditory learners,” “visual learners,” etc.) despite the fact that research shows these categories are pedagogically meaningless.

But what really grabbed my attention was this comment: “a misunderstanding of a pretty basic issue of cognition is a mistake that one does not expect from a major school system. It indicates that the people running the show at DCPS are getting bad advice about the science on which to base policy.”

As cognitive scientists have been collecting and analyzing evidence on “learning styles” for generations, social scientists and education historians been doing the same for school systems. What these latter groups find is that it is perfectly normal for public school districts to be unaware of or even indifferent to relevant research and to make major pedagogical errors as a result. Furthermore, there is no evidence that large districts are any better at avoiding these pitfalls than smaller ones. If anything, the reverse is true.

Not only are such errors to be expected of public school systems, we can actually say why that is the case with a good degree of confidence: public schooling lacks the freedoms and incentives that, in other fields, both allow and encourage institutions to acquire and effectively exploit expert knowledge.

Districts such as Washington DC can persist year after year with abysmal test scores, abysmal graduation rates, and astronomical costs. That is because they have a monopoly on a vast trove of  government k-12 spending. In the free enterprise system, behavior like that usually results in the failure of a business and its disappearance from the marketplace. So, in the free enterprise sector, it is indeed rare to see large institutions behaving in such a dysfunctional manner, because it would be difficult if not impossible for them to grow that big in the first place. Long before they could scale up on that level, they would lose their customers to more efficient, higher quality competitors.

So if we want to see the adoption and effective implementation of the best research become the norm in education, we have to organize schooling the same way we organize other fields: as a parent-driven competitive marketplace.

Houston DA: Help Us Get Rid of Customers at Successful Schools!

The Houston District Attorney’s office has apparently sent out this notice:

Schools: If you have any information on someone who is attending a Houston County public school who either resides out of Houston County or out of their zone, please give us as much information as possible. Your contact information is not required; but, we will contact you if you desire. You may call 478.—.—- and leave a message or use our form below. All information provided is confidential.

Apple wants to sell more iPods. Facebook wants to sign up more members. In the free enterprise system, the incentives are aligned so that what’s good for consumers (access to things they want) is also good for producers. Not so in public schooling. Good public schools can’t get paid for serving kids outside their catchment area, so when folks try to escape lousy local schools by sneaking their kids into better ones, it actually hurts the better schools financially. So, rather than encouraging good schools to grow and take over bad ones, the status quo encourages good schools to stay as small as they can, and serve as few kids as they can. Great, huh?

Can we break up the monopoly now? Please?

We Can No Longer Afford an Education Monopoly

In an IBD op-ed today, I point out that we’re spending twice as much per pupil as we did in 1970, despite no improvement in achievement at the end of high school and a decline in the graduation rate over that same period.

What difference does that make? If public schools had just managed not to get any less efficient over the past 40 years, we’d be saving $300 billion annually.

Our education monopoly is a luxury we can no longer afford. When the economy was booming, it didn’t matter that it cost us more and more every year for the same or even inferior results. These days, it’s becoming imperative that we find ways for our education system to enjoy the same relentless increases in efficiency that we take for granted in every other field.

This, for instance, would be a good start.

Economic urgency isn’t the only good reason to bring education back within the free enterprise system, but when the school monopoly starts bringing entire states to their financial knees, it’s certainly one we should take seriously.

Duncan Balls

It seems U.S. education secretary Arne Duncan and British schools secretary Ed Balls disagree on the merits of national standards. While Duncan has said that homogenizing educational standards nationwide is his single most important goal while in office, Balls has just pulled the plug on the U.K.’s 10 year experiment with national reading and math strategies. He told the media:

I think the right thing for us to do now is to move away from what has historically been a rather central view of school improvement through national strategies to something which is essentially being commissioned not from the centre but by schools themselves.

The problem with saying that every 5th grader in the nation should learn the same things at the same time is that all 5th graders are not created equal. Some are better at math than reading. Some the reverse. Some are quick learners across the board. Some are slower. To deny this is ridiculous, but to acknowledge it is to admit that homogenized standards in a system that groups students rigidly by age is educational malpractice.

Even if kids were all identical automatons, national standards wouldn’t drive excellence. It is the incentive structure of the free enterprise system that has driven progress in all the fields that have actually progressed – not externally-imposed standards.

What America needs for an educational renaissance is to release schools and families from the shackles of monopoly, and re-inject the freedom and incentives that kindle innovation and efficiency. Sitting 50 million Jills and Johnnies down on a conveyor belt that drags them all through their studies at the same pace makes no sense.

Checker Finn Is 99.44 Percent Right

Fordham Foundation president Checker Finn notes today that recent upticks on the National Assessment of Educational Progress cannot be reasonably credited to the No Child Left Behind act (hat tip to Bill Evers). The NCLB, President Bush’s signature education initiative, was supposed to improve student achievement through bureaucratic accountability measures.

But after noting that NCLB’s proponents can’t back up their claims that the law is working, Finn suggests that we need an “education-achievement ‘audit agency’ to sort out the claims and counterclaims about student performance.”

Maybe. But Amazon.com didn’t have to be told by a federal product quality audit czar to allow its customers to rate the products it sells. They’ve done it because it’s good business. In fact, no matter what product or service you’re interested in, there are resources on the Web to find out virtually anything you could possibly want to know about it. Reviews by users, professional reviews, criticism from competitors…. As a result, consumers are better informed than ever before.  Except in education, which operates outside the free enterprise system.

Sure, we could add a bureaucratic audit agency and hope that it will make our bureaucratic education accountability law accountable, and that that, in turn, will make our bureaucratic education system efficient and innovative.

Or we could just do what we know already works in every other sector of the economy: let consumers choose, and make it easy for a diversity of public and private schools compete to serve them.

You Don’t Have to Be a Nuclear Engineer to…

…support market solutions in education, but apparently it helps.

Keith Yost, a grad student in MIT’s Department of Nuclear Science and Engineering and the Engineering Systems Division, has a great piece in his school’s newspaper. He explains that public schools have enjoyed a dramatic increase in per-pupil resources over the past 40 years, but ultimately failed to improve student achievement. He also explains why: resources are misallocated because of a lack of systemic incentives for their proper allocation — incentives that are inherent in the free enterprise system.

Unfortunately, Yost’s rationalist, systems approach is very different from that of most policymakers — perhaps because so few policymakers were trained as engineers. So maybe one way to accelerate the process of effective reform of American schools is to encourage more of our engineers to go into state politics. Think about it, Keith.

Alternatively, as Mothers’ Day is around the corner, perhaps the trick is for moms to encourage their kids to pursue science and engineering rather than go into that one career field that produces so many of our politicians (apologies to Waylon Jennings):

Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be lawyers.
Don’t let ‘em pick gavels or watch 12 Angry Men.
Buy ‘em some Lego and a protector for pens…