Topic: Education and Child Policy

War of the Amateur Education Analysts

Here’s Apple’s Steve Jobs on education policy:

“I believe that what is wrong with our schools in this nation is that they have become unionized in the worst possible way,” the Apple CEO told a school-reform conference in Texas on Saturday. “This unionization and lifetime employment of K-12 teachers is off-the-charts crazy.”

But it’s not a news story.  This is from a column by Wired’s Leander Kahney, who goes on to say: 

Jobs knows a lot about schools; he’s been selling computers to them for more than 30 years. But don’t you love it when a billionaire who sends his own kids to private school applies half-baked business platitudes to complex problems like schools? I’m surprised Jobs didn’t suggest we outsource education to the same nonunion Chinese factories that build his iPods.

It’s amazing to see a thoughtful technology writer heap derision on education reform as if the innovation and creativity in the highly competitive technology field somehow can’t happen elsewhere.  Schools have “complex problems” … .  Designing and marketing consumer electronics is pat-a-cake?

Luckily, Tim Lee is on the case.  Writing at Technology Liberation Front, he says:

In his conclusion, Kahney chalks up our poor educational performance to “enormous economic inequality and the total absence of social safety nets.” I wonder if it’s occurred to Kahney that one of the major contributors to economic inequality is our quasi-feudal education system, in which access to a good school is tied to your parents’ ability to purchase a home in a good school district (or to afford tuition at a private school)? The whole point of school choice is to give low-income parents the same opportunities that wealthier parents now enjoy—to send their children to the school that works best for their own child. If Mr. Kahney is concerned about inequality, supporting school choice should be a no-brainer.

The Economist or The Statist?

A blogger at The Economist has been furiously scratching his head in response to my earlier posts on evolution, trying to understand how an evolutionist such as myself could oppose government mandated instruction in this (and every other) field. I’d like to offer some answers, and at least one factual correction.

First, the correction. The anonymous Economist blogger writes: “We live in a democracy, and most people want their children to be taught scientific truth, or more properly, scientific method.”

In some areas, like elementary physics, that’s undoubtedly true. And I’d be delighted if it were true across the board. It is not. As the polling data I have previously cited demonstrate, either a plurality or an outright majority of Americans (depending on the poll) believe human beings were created by God, in their current form. Most of the rest believe we evolved under God’s guidance. Furthermore, a strong majority of Americans would like to see, at the very least, creationism taught alongside evolution (many probably do not want evolution taught at all – but that option wasn’t offered in the poll question). These beliefs and preferences are not consistent with the teaching of evolutionary theory as understood by the overwhelming majority of biologists.

So the first of my earlier points remains: instruction in a purely naturalistic view of evolution is NOT desired by the majority of the American public, and because the majority has considerable influence over school policy, the teaching of evolution has been hobbled and sidelined in many public schools for generations.

Next, The Economist blogger devises an imaginative but mistaken explanation for my position:

The only way I can make sense of Mr. Coulson’s position is as a form of surrender to fundamentalist Christians: “I don’t agree with you, but I don’t want to upset you, so here’s a compromise whereby I contort my views to support your position.”

The Economist confuses respect for liberty with “surrender.” Recognizing the right of our fellow citizens to disagree with us is a pillar of free societies. That is the insight behind Voltaire’s famous line: ”I may not agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it.” To anyone who grasps the importance of that principle, no ideological “contortions” are necessary to defend the right of families to make their own educational decisions.

It is troubling that so much of today’s intellectual elite seems to have forgotten the crucial role of individual liberty.

There is also a gross contradiction between the lip service given to the limits of scientific knowledge and the desire to see such knowledge established like a state religion.

While the blogger catches himself in the quote above, moderating the term “scientific truth” with “or more properly, scientific method,” he slips later on, rhetorically asking: “Should the teaching of the truth not be compulsory in education?” [emphasis added]

Here he leaves “the truth” unmodified. We KNOW what the truth is, he seems to say, why SHOULDN’T we force everyone to listen to the Good Word?

But anyone serious about science understands that scientific knowledge is provisional. Induction, on which science rests, is incapable of identifying Truth with a capital ‘T’. Science is by far the best tool we have for making sense of the world, but it isn’t a Truth machine. The rational thing to do is to treat what we learn through science as useful working assumptions – as the best approximation to Truth that we can find. Science, well practiced, is humble.

Statist rationalists are not. They want to compel everyone to be taught the methods and provisional conclusions of science, and that is precisely the opposite of what scientist and philosopher Jacob Bronowski so wisely encouraged us to do. Bronowski exhorted us to imbue politics with the empiricism – and more importantly, the humility – of science. He felt that by keeping in mind the imperfection of all human knowledge we could avoid the absolutism and totalitarianism that brought so much death and suffering in the mid-20th century.

But instead of moderating governments by injecting them with the circumspection of science, rationalist statists seek to inject the absolutism and compulsion of government mandates into the teaching of science.

Before continuing down that unsavory road, I hope that The Economist will pause to consider how a free market in education could advance quality science instruction, show greater respect for the limits of scientific knowledge, and comport better with the founding principles of the United States.

And if they’d like someone to do that, or to debate Dawkins on the merits of compulsory instruction in evolution, I’ll be happy to help. There are areas in which the state must demand conformity, such as adherence to a body of basic laws, but uniformity in the teaching of human origins serves no such essential role in the perpetuation of a free society. On the contrary, granting the state the power to decide and proselytize the “Truth” is a danger to free societies.

Utah Vouchers: What Should We Expect?

I’ve got an op-ed in the American Spectator today about Utah’s newly passed, and nationally unprecedented, statewide voucher program.

The upshot is this: it is the most significant school choice legislation ever passed in the United States, but it isn’t going to create a vigorously free market in education overnight, and it will have to be stalwartly defended if it is to preserve the independence of participating private schools.

So let’s all sing along with George Harrison:

It’s gonna take patience and time, ummm
To do it, to do it, to do it, to do it, to do it
To do it right

NYC Parents Need Actual Power

Probably only because it involved “privatizing” education, on Saturday the New York Times ran an editorial criticizing the Bloomberg administration, and new deputy schools chancellor Chris Cerf, because Cerf failed to quickly and fully disclose that until very recently he held stock in for-profit Edison Schools. Lamented the Times:

Mr. Cerf should have provided this relevant public information. It may seem like a small matter, but it adds to the perception of many parents that they are not being taken seriously, despite the creation of parent groups in every school.

“Perception”!? It’s a cold, hard fact that parents aren’t being taken seriously, and that’s because they have no serious power. Until they can take their children – and the money attached to them – out of the public school system, no public school or bureaucrat has any reason to take them seriously. Unfortunately, the Times seems to think that the solution to the problem is just for education officials to spruce the “we care what parents think” window dressing up a bit, not empower parents to leave a system that all too often holds them in contempt.

The School Choice Revolution Continues

The teacher unions are not having a very good year. Utah is on the verge of a sweeping school choice plan, and South Carolina may be next.

The Wall Street Journal explains:

South Carolina could be next. Legislation is now being drafted to allow nearly 200,000 poor students to opt out of failing public schools by giving them up to $4,500 a year to spend on private school tuition. Middle class parents would be eligible for a $1,000 tax credit.

Governor Mark Sanford, a Republican, also wants to create more choice within the public system by consolidating school districts so students who can’t afford to live in a certain zip code aren’t forced into the worst public schools — a system that now consigns thousands of African-American students to failing schools. In his State of the State Address last month, Mr. Sanford branded the current districts a “throwback to the era of segregation.” The comment drew hardly a flutter in the legislature, he told us, because “everyone knows it’s true.”

Despite a 137% increase in education spending over the past two decades and annual per pupil spending that exceeds $10,000, South Carolina schools trail the nation in performance. The state ranks 50th in SAT scores, only half of its students graduate from high school in four years and only 25% of eighth graders read at grade level. The Governor’s budget puts it this way: “The more we expose students to public education, the worse they do.”

In last year’s elections three legislators paid for their opposition to school choice with their seats. One freshman reformer is Representative Curtis Brantley, an African-American Democrat from rural Jasper County who defeated a white incumbent in a June primary. He told us he supports school choice because something must be done to shake up the status quo.

It’s the Epistemology, Comrade

In recent posts, I’ve argued that it is not only ineffective but undesirable for the state to compel all children to be taught evolution. [Standard disclaimer: my personal views on human origins are essentially those of Richard Dawkins.]

This opposition to government-mandated instruction in evolution does not sit well with many of my fellow evolutionists, and there have been several lengthy and thoughtful dissents. I’d been planning to dedicate this current post to a point-by-point response to evolutionary biology grad student Joshua Rosenau, but after thinking about it a little more, and looking at some of the other responses to my earlier essay, I think there may be a way to short-circuit the debate and get right to the nub of the issue.

The arguments for imposing evolution instruction by government fiat often boil down to an idea presented here by Rosenau:

Teaching [read “imposing”] empirical results of our shared reality is different from imposing untestable beliefs on others. Teaching [imposing] empirical results of the scientific method does not prevent anyone from having beliefs in the supernatural, and the only liberty it takes away is the liberty to believe things that are false, or to treat nonscience as science. In short, to lie.

Note that I had to correct Rosenau’s language. We’re not debating the merits of teaching evolution, we’re debating the merits of using the government’s monopoly on the use of force to compel its teaching.

You have to pay taxes to support the public schools. If you don’t, you go to jail. The public schools, because they are constitutionally prohibited from proselytizing students, cannot teach anything but a naturalistic view of evolution. Hence, all American taxpayers are compelled to fund the teaching of a non-theistic account of human origins, at least to the extent human origins are taught at all.

So Rosenau is arguing that it’s okay to impose instruction in the scientific consensus view of evolution, because science is true.

In other words, Rosenau is saying that the government is in possession of absolute truth, acquired through science, and that it is the proper role of government to spread the Good Word. This is a government establishment of rational empiricist epistemology.

There are a host of problems with this view of the role of government, but the one that many of my fellow evolutionists have the greatest difficulty grasping is that not everyone shares our epistemology, and that establishing an official government epistemology is every bit as harmful as establishing an official government religion.

When parents teach their children the Biblical creation story as literal truth, they are not “lying” to them as Rosenau imagines. They are passing along the “truth,” as they think it should be acquired, on the subject of human origins. Their epistemology, when it comes to this particular issue, is an epistemology of religious faith. As a result, they do not want their children taught an account of human origins based purely on science because they think science is the wrong epistemological tool for that job — any more than Richard Dawkins would want his children taught creationism.

Ramming an official epistemology down the public’s throat has the same effect as establishing an official religion. It leads to never-ending conflict. Even if this kind of indoctrination were consistent with America’s political ideals (which it most certainly is not), and even if it actually resulted in the widespread understanding of evolution (which it does not), there is no justification for doing it that could outweigh the costs in social Balkanization and animosity.

A related point that many rational empiricists seem unable to internalize is that their official epistemology can be hijacked by people with differing views on what the evidence shows. Proponents of “Intelligent Design” maintain that their views are more scientific than those of the consensus of biologists.

The mandate-evolution crowd thinks that their ideas are safe because they are in the majority among scientists. But we live in a democracy, not a scientocracy. Any government-mandated epistemology, and its fleshing out in the form of government curricula, will likely reflect the views of the majority of the people, not the majority of scientists. And, as the polling data I’ve previously cited show, the majority of the people do not see eye-to-eye with the scientific consensus on the subject of evolution. That is why evolution is taught so sporadically, and poorly, in so many public schools around this country.

Utah House Passes Nation’s First Universal School Voucher Bill

A couple of hours ago, the Utah House of Representatives passed the nation’s first universal school voucher bill (HB 148) in a nail-biting 38-37 vote. From what I hear coming out of Utah, it’s going to pass the Senate next week as well, and be signed by the governor. 

If it is signed into law, it will be an unprecedented step forward for educational freedom in this country. The media, as well as school choice advocates and critics, will be watching Utah intently to see what happens, and there are some caveats that I think are very important for everyone to keep in mind. 

First, dramatic results should not be expected overnight. In other nations that have adopted similar school choice programs (e.g., Chile, Sweden), it has taken five or 10 years for large numbers of new schools to be created, and for the good ones to be weeded out from the bad. Competition and consumer choice work wonderfully well in education, but their effects are not instantaneous. Part of the reason for that lag is that potential school founders have to be convinced that a newly passed school choice law is on firm legal and political ground, and not likely to be overturned by the courts or repealed by a subsequent legislature. And you can bet this law will be challenged.

Second, the maximum value of Utah’s school vouchers would be $3,000, only about half of what Utah spends per pupil in its public schools. So Bill 148 would still leave private schools at a considerable financial disadvantage compared to their state-run counterparts, and that would inhibit competition between the public and private sectors and retard innovation. 

Those caveats aside, this is a momentous day not just for Utah families, but for our entire nation. What Utah’s legislature has figured out is that school choice is a much better way of fulfilling the promise of public education than is the one-size-fits-all factory school system we inherited from the 19th century.