A group of CEOs called on the nation's governors this week to raise U.S. business standards. Speaking at the National Press Club in Washington, DC, the CEOs declared that state governments have been misleading consumers about the quality of the goods they're buying. One retired Fortune-500 CEO declared that:
America’s standing as the most innovative and prosperous nation on earth depends on our ability to boost business' productivity. As business leaders, we are pledging to stand with governors who commit to high production and product quality standards in scientific and technological fields.
Even today, most readers probably recognize the preceding paragraphs as satirical (I hope!). The idea that it would be helpful to have bureaucrats set production volume and quality standards for high-tech industries is ludicrous on its face. How tragic it is, then, that this event actually took place... with one small twist: the CEOs were calling for more central planning in science and technology education.
Having spent nearly 20 years studying the relative productivity of different types of school systems, it is hard for me to understand how such brilliant business leaders could have arrived at such a profoundly mistaken conclusion. If they care at all about the goals they have set out to achieve, they would be well advised to stop listening to those who are currently advising them, and to look at the evidence on what actually does raise educational productivity. I've summarized that evidence in a short piece for the Washington Post, in a journal paper reviewing the past 25 years of worldwide research, and in a book surveying 20 centuries of school systems.
Distilling the findings of that work into a single sentence: it is the freest and most market-like education systems that, throughout history, have done the best and most efficient job of serving both our individual needs and our shared ideals.
Teachers, it turns out, are people. And like other people, they respond to the freedoms and incentives of their workplaces. As a result, the same structures and conditions that optimize the operation of other industries also optimize the operation of school systems. Xerox makes good copiers and Intel makes good chips because they have competitors who will eat their lunch if they don't; because they have the freedom to explore new and better ways of serving their customers; and because they are rewarded very handsomely for innovations that successfully serve those customers.
Want education standards to rise? Give educators those same freedoms and incentives — and stand back.