Tag: James Tooley

TED Goes to School

In this new TEDx video, University of Newcastle (England) lecturer Pauline Dixon takes viewers on a tour of schools serving some of the poorest people on Earth. Private schools … that charge fees … that are paid for by the poor parents themselves … and that outperform local government schools spending far more per pupil. I know. You’ll just have to watch it.

If your curiosity is piqued afterwards, check out her colleague James Tooley’s wonderful book, The Beautiful Tree, which tells the story of their travels and research. It will blow your mind.

Schools on Film

AEI’s Rick Hess worries that school choice advocates are moving into the public messaging arena with “brazenly manipulative” flicks that rely on shallow “sound bites.” He cites the screening of five documentaries at an upcoming national conference in San Franscisco to argue his point.

I can’t comment on them as a whole–I haven’t seen them all–but I would like to point out that there will actually be at least eight screenings at next month’s conference. Among them will be a brief sample of a proposed six-part documentary series called School, Inc.  Taking Educational Excellence from Candle to Flame. This series, inspired by James Burke’s Connections and Carl Sagan’s Cosmos, would take viewers on a world-wide quest to answer one very important question: why is excellence routinely replicated and spread on a massive scale in every field except education?

The series hasn’t been shot yet, and perhaps distributors today won’t think viewers are still interested in the kind of challenging, thought-provoking documentary series that so captivated me (and millions of others) in my teen years. But the project’s advisory board includes Jay Mathews, Paul PetersonJames Tooley, and Michael Horn, my co-producers and co-writers (Patrick Prentice and Tim Baney) have more than half-a-century of documentary filmmaking experience between them, and I’ve been studying school systems around the globe and across history for the better part of two decades. We’re confident that this series will be both substantive and entertaining, and think that American (and foreign) audiences are very interested in the subject matter. As we start to pitch to distributors in the coming months, we’ll find out if they agree.

Stay tuned….

A Severe Irony Deficiency

Tomorrow night at 8:00pm, Fox Business News will air a John Stossel special on the failures of state-run schooling and the merits of parental choice and competition in education. I make an appearance, as do Jeanne Allen and James Tooley.

News of the show is already making the rounds, and over at DemocraticUnderground.com, one poster is very upset about it, writing:

When will these TRAITORS stop trying to ruin this country?

HOW can AMERICANS be AGAINST public education?

Stossel is throwing out every right-wing argument possible in his namby pamby singsong way while he “interviews” a “panel” of people (who I suspect are plants) saying things like preschool is a waste of money and why invest in an already-failing system….

I hate Stossel and I hate all of those who think the way he does.

This poster goes by the screen name “Live Love Laugh.” I guess there wasn’t enough space to tack “Hate” onto the end.

What this poster–and many good people on the American left–have yet to grasp is that critics of state monopoly schooling are NOT against public education. On the contrary, it is our commitment to the ideals of public education that compels us to pursue them by the most effective means possible, and to abandon the system that has proven itself, over many many generations, incapable of fulfilling them. I wrote about this crucial point more than a decade ago in Education Week, in a piece titled: “Are Public Schools Hazardous to Public Education.”

Fortunately, a small but steadily growing number of American liberals have already grasped this pivotal difference between means and ends, as the growing Democratic support for Florida’s school choice tax credit program evinces. Giving all families, particularly low income families, an easier choice between state-run and independent schools is the best way to advance the ideals of public education.

Fear of Freedom Leaves Only Faith Healing for Our Schools

Historian Diane Ravitch drives me nuts. She has written numerous, terrific books chronicling the ills of government control of education, including the wrenching social conflict it has caused; the ejection of meaningful content from textbooks and tests it has required; and the dominance of educrats over parents and children it has enabled. She has been, essentially, the official historian of government-schooling’s failure. And yet, in a new blog interview with journalist John Merrow, she appears not to comprehend the most important lesson her copious works have to offer: that government education is doomed to fail.

Why the huge disconnect between her historiography and willingness to act on its clear implications? Because, it appears, as much as she knows that government schooling fails, she fears educational freedom even more. “Privatization,” in her mind, is simply too dangerous:

I remember your saying in an interview years ago that you favored public schools but not the public school system that we have.  In New Orleans Paul Vallas has called for ‘a system of schools, not a school system.’  What’s your ideal approach?  Are we moving in that direction?

If “a system of schools” means that the public schools should be handed over to anyone who wants to run a school, then I think we are headed in the wrong direction. Privatization will not help us achieve our goals. We know from the recent CREDO study at Stanford that charter schools run the gamut from excellent to abysmal, and many studies have found that charters, on average, produce no better results than the regular public schools. Deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade, and we better be careful that we don’t destroy our public schools too.

Unfortunately, while Prof. Ravitch knows a gigantic amount about education history, she exhibits precious little understanding of freedom or its economic subset, free markets. For one thing, charter schooling – a system by which public schools are given a right to exist and largely held accountable by government – isn’t even close to “privatization,” if by that we mean taking control from government and giving it to free, “private” individuals. Worse, Ravitch evinces a reflexive and, frankly, simplistic fear of free markets in hyperbolically asserting that “deregulation nearly destroyed our economy in the past decade.” I’d strongly suggest that she explore some non-education history – for instance, that of government-sponsored institutions such as Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac; federal laws such as the Community Reinvestment Act; and federal regulation – before making any such over-the-top declaration again.

Ultimately, it seems likely that Prof. Ravitch fails to grasp – or, perhaps, to intuitively feel – how freedom works, and hence she fears it. Like many people, maybe she’s just not comfortable with seemingly ethereal spontaneous order, and needs to have some higher power pulling the strings to feel safe. Perhaps she fails to see how freedom, by fostering competition and innovation, produces all of the wonderful things we take for granted. Maybe she doesn’t really understand that it is due to freedom that we have an abundance of computers, coffee cups, cars, houses, package delivery services, miracle drugs, and pencils, not to mention religious pluralism, marketplaces of idea, and even happiness.

And then there’s the flip-side: government failure. While she has done more than perhaps any other historian to detail government failure and damage it has inflicted in education, Ravitch seems dead set against applying what she knows to public policy. She knows, for instance, that government often works precisely for the powerful special interests it’s supposed to keep in check. She doesn’t, though, seem to know why that is, and why it is the rule in government. She doesn’t appear to realize that the people who would be regulated, or who are employed by government, have by far the greatest motivation to get involved in the politics of their narrow areas, and hence exercise by far the most influence over them. And she doesn’t realize that it is only when special interests control government – not when they are in free markets – that they can exert unchecked power, because it is only then that they no longer have to get others to voluntarily do business with them.

Unfortunately, Ravitch’s apparent fear of freedom forces her to deny the only hope for making American education really work:  to empower all parents to choose, and to set educators free. Only then would schools be able to specialize in the needs of our hugely diverse children, and would children be able to attend them. Only then would educators have to compete for their money, forcing them to respond to the people they are supposed to serve rather than exercising political control over them. Only then would we see in education the kind of powerful innovation and progress we take for granted in everything from consumer electronics to restaurants.

And yes, freedom works in education, just as it does in almost every field of human endeavor. Despite much of the world having adopted the government-schooling model, we have ample evidence of this. For instance, James Tooley’s hugely important research reveals how private, for-profit schools are educating the world’s poorest children much more effectively than “free” government schools. And Andrew Coulson’s recent review of education research reveals that the more free an education system, the better its results.

Freedom, quite simply, works, and government, typically, does not. Which might be exactly why, after Ravitch has bashed “privatization” and “deregulation,” the only prescription she has left is blind, reality-ignoring hope: “At some point, we will have to get the kind of leadership that can figure out how to improve our public school system so that we have the education we want for our children.”

We should wait, in other words, for a miracle, a healing of that which is inherently broken. It is, of course, no solution at all, but both knowing the history of American education, and fearing real freedom, Ravitch has nothing else to offer.

Want to Know Why the U.K. Tory Party Is Revamping its Development Policy?

If so, just pick up a copy of James Tooley’s The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves.

The Tories have looked at the evidence amassed by James and his colleagues (see p. 36 of their new report) and concluded that the best way to advance education in developing countries is to encourage and support existing entrepreneurial schools that are already serving the poor. And if the polls are any guide, that will likely be official government policy in the U.K. before too long.

Congratulations to James, Pauline Dixon, and their wonderful team for bringing sanity to the development policy debate.

A Tree Grows in Washington

The front-page of the Washington Post’s latest Outlook section features a review of James Tooley’s wonderful book The Beautiful Tree: A Personal Journey Into How the World’s Poorest People Are Educating Themselves. From the review:

The officials Tooley encountered in his travels often denied the existence (much less the superiority) of private schools for low-income children. “There are no private schools for the poor,” a bureaucrat in China’s Gansu province told Tooley, “because the People’s Republic has provided all the poor with public schools. So what you propose to research does not only not exist, it is also a logical impossibility.”

Undeterred, Tooley spent years surveying private schools across the developing world. He found that, on average, they had smaller class sizes, higher test scores and more motivated teachers, all while spending less than public schools…. Tooley blasts development experts for recognizing the problems with public education and still insisting that more investment in public schools is the way to go. “Why wasn’t anyone else thinking that private schools might be part of a quicker, easier, more effective solution?” he asks.

… Tooley, meanwhile, with a Rough Guide in one pocket and an endless supply of exclamation points in the other, drowns readers in local color, detailing every “bright-eyed” school child and every “thin drifting smog” above a shantytown.

Still, Tooley’s passion comes off as genuine.

People Are Discovering A Beautiful Read

I’m a bit ashamed to admit it: I just finished reading The Beautiful Tree, Professor James Tooley’s new book recounting his remarkable travels through some of the world’s poorest slums discovering for-profit private school after for-profit private school. I’m ashamed because The Beautiful Tree is a Cato book and I should have read it long before it became publicly available. Fortunately, it seems many people outside of Cato caught on to the importance of Tooley’s work the moment they heard about it.

Yesterday, the Atlantic’s Clive Crook blogged about Tooley’s book, calling Tooley “an unsung hero of development policy” for bringing to light — and refusing to let others blot that light out — how mutual self-interest between entrepreneurs and poor families brings education to the world’s poorest children. And there’s the companion story: How billions of government dollars have erected some relatively nice public school buildings but have created an utterly dilapidated public school system, one that enriches government employees while leaving children — sometimes literally — to fend for themselves.

In addition to the blogosphere, the national airwaves have begun carrying the uplifting story of Tooley’s findings. On Wednesday, ABC News NOW ran a lengthy interview with Prof. Tooley in which he laid out many of the book’s major themes. And the book was only released, for all intents and purposes, that same day; much more coverage is no doubt forthcoming.

It needs to be.

The Beautiful Tree, quite simply, contains lessons applicable not only to slums or developing nations, but to all people everywhere, and they need to be learned. In the United States, whether the subject is  government-driven academic standards or the desirability of for-profit education, this book offers essential insights. But many readers will find the overall lesson tough to take: The cure for what ails us is not more government schooling — providing education the way we think it’s always been done — but embracing freedom for both schools and parents.

Whether or not this lesson is tough to stomach, it must be acknowledged by all who honestly seek what is best for our children. For as Tooley’s work makes abundantly clear, denying reality — no matter how unexpected or politically inconvenient it may be — only ends up hurting the people we most want to help.