Reforming American Education: Further Thoughts

I recently wrote a glib, throwaway post on Five Quick Steps for reforming education. While the list was made partially in humor, it has sparked a substantive debate and I would like to wade in with more detailed thoughts. 1. We should not overly federalize education. The federal government, bastion of bloat and incompetence, cannot address education issues as well as the various States. The federal government is crucial for legislating on issues that are national or interstate, such as environmental regulations. That is where they are most useful. Education is primarily a local issue. Therefore, it is more appropriate for the States to control education, since they would be able to craft solutions that address the specific needs of failing schools. While one school district may have crumbling infrastructure that needs to be addressed, another may have a teacher shortage. The federal government does not have the time nor the energy to address such specific issues and their attempts at reform, such as the No Child Left Behind Act, have been deleterious rather than ameliorative. 2. The teacher's union has a stranglehold on the school system. In New York, it is so difficult and costly to remove a teacher, even when there is proof that they have sexually solicited a student, that the school system created something called Rubber Rooms. These are rooms where teachers that are clearly unfit to teach are placed during the day, away from children, while still receiving their salaries. This is a grotesque situation, but we cannot blame the administrators because they are behold to an overly powerful union. Teachers have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo and suppressing any sort of educational innovation that may threaten their jobs. The countervailing interest of making sure children have good educations does not act as a counterweight, because the teacher's union is abnormally strong. As long as the union remains in its present form, any true educational experiment will be strangled in the cradle and go the way of GM. 3. Instituting a voucher system will give power and choice to parents and the resultant market pressures will force schools to adapt. In my earlier post, I implied that all government controlled schooling should be eradicated. While I still think this would be better than the current regime, I realize that it is politically infeasible. A compromise could be to incentivize the creation of nonprofits, for-profits, parochial, and other types of schools to exist along side public schools. This is already the case, as with the maligned charter schools, but there is no real competition available and voucher systems are hampered either legally or through delibertae misinformation spread by teachers' unions. I can imagine an educational landscape with a multitude of various types of schools, each competing for children. This would destroy the socializing function of public schooling, which inculcates a shared intellectual and social baseline across the union. I believe this to be a good thing, as independent thinkers are more important to me than uniform citizenry. A thousand schools booming, combined with a true voucher system, would enable parents to decide what type of schools are best for their children and the brutal market will weed out the institutions that are not performing. Here, the federal government could play a role by subsidizing the voucher system, either directly with grants or through the States with subsidies. This would be preferable over current federal attempt to control schooling, like the execrable No Child Left Behind Act. Jason expressed concern about information asymmetry in the educational market. I don't believe this is a real concern. Parent's that care about their child's education will do the research to utilize their voucher. Parent's that don't care, just don't care and wouldn't do anything anyway. But even in the latter case, a rising ride raises all ships, so the disinterested parent's child would still be benefited. Perhaps we can resurrect the Department of Education and turn it into something similar to the GAO. It can require, oversee, and audit extensive disclosure from every school, like the SEC does with public companies. This would create a database of reliable and current information about schools, enabling parent's to make educated choices. Either the government or nonprofits could then disseminate the information in easily digestible portions for parents who do not want to take the time to comb the raw data. 4. Start slow using limited geographic areas to make sure that reforms are working. I agree wholeheartedly with Jason that the key to any reform is start slow and utilize the scientific method. One benefit of devoving control over education to the States is that it creates 50 little laboratories in which we can observe how various changes affect schools. The corollary to this is that we need to buckle down for the long haul. Like with health care, there is not a simple or quick solutions. The fate of America rests with each new generation and their contributions to society. An educated and scientifically-literate population keeps America competitive with the rest of the world. An uneducated and superstitious population signals the waning of American and our quality of life. It is worth laborious, expensive, and time-consuming efforts to ensure that we create the former, rather than the latter. There are some curricula reforms I would like to see and some legislation I would like to see repealed as well, but we will save that for a future post. NOTE: I've edited this post for clarity and completeness.

  1. Todd, I second the motion: teacher’s unions must go. I say that not as an outsider pundit, but as a former member. Unions exist for one reason and one reason only: to propigate the need for a union, they stopped serving the teacher long ago. Without unions schools would be able to offer teachers a salary based on how competent they are instead of how long they have spent festering in a classroom. Unions are actually reason number two of why I quit being a teacher. And not to toot my own horn or anything, but as someone who was nominated for a national teacher recognition thing-y in only my second year of teaching I have a feeling that unions are driving out some damn fine teachers, because I have no doubt that I’m the only one that’s felt this way .. I’m just not that special. Anyway, not that I’m trying to poop on anybody’s solutions, especially since I agree with them, but it’s practically a pipe dream to get rid of unions: too many bad teachers out there realize that they might actually have to earn their pay if they go and too many uninformed teachers have been hearing since their first education classes that the union is the real right hand of God.

    tracy n
    October 20th, 2006 at 6:09 pm
  2. Additionally, NCLB is the work of the devil. Even the unions agree.

    October 20th, 2006 at 6:12 pm
  3. About the teachers’ unions: I don’t have any direct experience with the teachers’s unions, so I can only make general comments. It’s quite possible they are a brick and kids are drowning slowly (oops, wrong metaphor).

    Traditionally this is staged as a battle with the free market, capitalism, and corporations on one side and unions on the other. I think in reality they are really just two sides of the same coin. Investors, rationally pursuing their own self interest, organize themselves and their capital into a company and then hire workers. Any one worker can only harm the company a small amount by quitting, but the company can harm any worker significantly by firing. Workers, rationally pursuing their own self interest, organize themselves into unions.

    Perhaps the same tools used to control companies that have become anticompetitive could be used on overgrown unions as well?

    October 20th, 2006 at 7:39 pm
  4. Unions create contractual rights with their employers which is one reason why it can be difficult to effect changes. Some unions have created such strong contractual rights, which combined with their ability to strike, that they create a resevoir of immense power. The creation of unions back in their heyday, while shot through with socialist bunk, were necessary to secure workers’ rights and in many cases they still are necessay. The difference here is that education is a public good and everyone has a vested interest in its regulation and implementation as part of the commonweal, unlike an autoworker’s union, yet a specific class of workers have inordinate control over those aspects. The only plausible solution is to create statutes that diminish or cabin the ability of teacher’s unions to contract. That would prove exceedingly unpopular and would be a stark departure from the norm, although there are special limitations on other professions which are part of the public good like police officers and fire fighters, so it is not without precedent.

    October 21st, 2006 at 2:17 am

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