Sunday, March 8, 2009

The End of Public Education

I've chosen the title of this article as I have, because I intend to address several points relating to the "end" of public education. First, what is the "end", or goal, of public education? Second, I intend to address the failure of public education as it nears it's practical end, or finality. Finally, I want to address the benefits of fully-privatized education and why we should advocate it's adoption as well as what we will need to consider in the conversion period. For the most part I don't think these arguments are new, and I don't believe they were originated by me. But I do believe in their validity, their urgency, and their relevance. I will do the best I am able to do justice to these arguments, but like always, I urge people to go back to the original sources and check the arguments for themselves. I am not an expert in most of the fields concerned, although I do have credentials and experience in education and finance, and have personally studied philosophy for most of my life. So, I am not an expert, these are simply the views of one man trying to express them in as clearly and concisely a manner as possible. I will be the first to admit that there is still a lot I don't know. But based on what I do know, I have confidence in the validity of my stances on these issues. I welcome any critiques, and I will respond to any valid criticisms with as reasoned a response as I am able. If I am wrong, please try to prove me so. Perhaps we can learn something together.

In that interest I would first like to clear up a concern that Keahou has brought to my attention in a comment here.

First of all, the advice that Pinochet decided to follow resulted in the "Miracle of Chile". That is, that a military junta adopted free-market reforms which drove Chile's economic growth and laid the foundations for a strong democratized society that eventually ousted Pinochet. Pinochet was a murderer and a despot. But he happened to have some good economic sense, which put his nation into a leading role in South America. Now, it can't be said to have been a free government at the time, because free governments don't allow the government to go around murdering people. But comparatively, in that Chile was more laissez-faire than other South American countries, it proved that the freer the market, the stronger economic growth. But as China has also proved, economic growth is not necessarily specific to democratic systems. The long-term democratizing effects of free-market reforms on the social status of China will, however, be interesting to observe. I don't think they will be able to oppress human rights with impunity forever. I would bet that, like Chile, the source of their prosperity will ultimately lead to the dissolution of their centrist government. Either that, or they will choose to crush the source of that prosperity and fade into the background like we are doing in America. The miracle of Chile is that the military junta opted for it's own obsolescence to preserve the country's economic prosperity, something which would seem to defy expectations.

Now that has been cleared up, we can get on with the privatization of education. What is the goal of public education? Simply put, it is to ensure a uniform standard of education to all students from elementary to post-secondary education. Now this hinges on two critical points. What do we mean by education? Also, has public education been effective in meeting that stated goal?

Education has several meanings depending on its context. The dictionary doesn't provide much more than a circular definition, although this is largely due to what Rand pointed out was the epistemological errors of lexicologists who try to define a word independently of its referents. Practically speaking, there are two basic interpretations of what is meant by education. One has as its goal the accumulation of a certain list of facts and formulae. The other has as its goal the acquisition of skills and processes. The former measures its success by the ability of students to answer questions correctly. The latter measures its success by the ability of its students to actually do things with their knowledge. The former is relatively simple to test quantitatively. The latter can only be assessed qualitatively by analyzing the child's productions. For ease of reference, then, let's define the former interpretation of education as the Textbook & Testing Approach (TNT) and the latter as the Cognitive Development Approach (CD).

Now regardless of whether a school system is public or private, teachers can tend to be attracted to either of these approaches. However, in a public, standardized system, the emphasis is systematically placed on the standardized testing, which means that the emphasis is consequently placed on the list of facts presented in the test. Now, the criteria that the test-makers use to select those facts is largely irrelevant. If the standard of measurement is simply a list of facts and formulae, then the success of teachers, schools, and methods are based on a measure of the ability of children to have memorized those facts. Whether or not they can actually use that information is not as clearly testable in a quantitative format. If school funding is based on quantitative performance measures, then schools which are the best at TNT will be the most funded schools. While it can be successfully argued, I think, that CD approaches would result in ultimately higher attainment on TNT measures, the practical upshot is that unless a school has at the very least a mixed system of CD and TNT, students still won't do very well on the quantitative tests. (They will still have to remember the specific facts and formulae on the given test.)

The problem with qualitative tests is that they don't produce results which can be easily assessed by non-specialists in education. A public system is ultimately responsible to the least specialized authority, the elected government official. Their interpretation of test results is bound to be based on the number crunching of quantitative assessments. Especially, the less autonomy schools and teachers have in making relevant educational decisions, and the more dependent they are on government for support, the less they can afford to concentrate on their students' cognitive development, if it will risk even a marginal decrease in their performance on TNT testing. If you doubt this, please come to Japan and visit a junior high school English class.

Japan is the model of top-down education. All the things I've just proposed are, in Japan, a stark reality. Despite the awareness of teachers that the methods they are constrained to use are widely accepted as being ineffective, the pressure to conform to and produce quantitative standardized results in the testing system, prohibit them from initiating the very innovations that would serve their students best. Japanese students are very good at memorizing a certain list of terms, short-term, for the purpose of passing a test, without understanding the rhyme or reason very well. But, even after 6+ years of English study under this methodology, most Japanese adults can't speak more than a few words that have been incorporated into Japanese as loan words or some memorized set phrases. If anything, it teaches students that they can't ever understand the subject, that it is hopeless, and that the best they can do is to try to stuff as many of the facts and formulae into their heads as possible so that they can pass the entrance exams into high school and college, facts which are promptly forgotten. Everyone involved understands this, and yet nobody can or will change it, because the people in charge of those decisions are the ones most removed from the process, the politicians. The people sacrificed? The children.

But of course, it's only appropriate to view the children as being sacrificed, if the standard of success of education is functional ability. If the standard of success is simply obedience and rote memorization, then these public schools would seem to be a great success. Or are they?

Even in a system of largely TNT dependent teaching and increasing standardization, the measure by those testing standards indicate that public schooling costs more per student and produce a lower quality of education. Just look at what's happening in Washington, D.C. since they instituted the voucher system. Of course, since the democrats are on the rise, that'll soon be eliminated. After all, who wants the ugly evidence of the comparative ineffectiveness of socialist educational practices to hang around under the advent of a socialist regime?

I don't think the failings of our current educational system are debatable. Pretty much everyone understands that private schools offer better education (even Obama's children aren't going public) and that maintaining teacher quality standards is well nigh impossible in a system that doesn't adequately reward competent teachers (watch the second part). The main objection to privatization, I think, is the potential cost.

So, what, really, would be the cost to parents of phasing out public education into privately run schools? As it is, parents are all taxed to pay for education. For example, in Washington D.C. the cost per student for education was about $12,979 a year making it #3 out of the top 100 largest school districts in the nation. Despite this fact, they ranked pathetically low compared to the national averages. 33% is the national average for 4th graders who lack basic skills in math, in DC, the percentage was 62%. 49% is the average nationally for 8th graders who lack those same basic skills, in DC it was more like 74%. That's why they instituted a voucher system to try and get these kids into higher quality educational programs. Those vouchers are good for $7,500. The average cost of going to a private school in the DC area is currently $4,500. Only 39% of private schools in the DC area are more expensive than $10,000. That means that, if the tax burden for parents was reduced by the amount the government would no longer need if the system was privatized, parents could easily afford the price of private education.

Students would receive better quality education. Teachers would also have to be more accountable, because private enterprise will be less tolerant of teacher incompetence then socialized unions. Standards will have to produce children who are capable of using their knowledge to further their goals, because that will be the product that parents and children will notice the most. Parents will be more involved in school, because they will want to make sure they're getting their money's worth. If anything, parents would be saving money, getting more for it, and everyone would be happier.

Vouchers are not an end in themselves. They are a means of privitizing the educational system without causing a massive system shock. As public schools become progressively outmoded in pace with the development of a private infrastructure, the schools could be absorbed into private organizations. Once the public funding and relevant taxes have been replaced by a privitized system, then there will be no more need for vouchers and no more need to make it a political issue.

Inner city schools are suffering as it is, and a critical problem is the lack of incentive for talented teachers to go to those schools, or for people to send their children there. People who can afford to move to a more affluent region, already do, taking their tax money with them. If the government's coercive monopoly on education was relaxed so as to stimulate private investment in education and the efficiency of free markets, then private schools could be instituted to compete with the faltering inner city schools for those temporary vouchers and thus raise the standard of education for all who live in those areas. It would effectively remove one of the constricting influences which drives money out of those areas. As education improves, the social climate will improve, and those abandoned areas will become revitalized.

As Keahou says, there are indeed "so many practical issues to be considered".

So, to sum up, privatized education should be cheaper, more efficient, allow teachers to develop innovative techniques in an environment that will offer incentives for efficiency, effectiveness, and innovation, will encourage the revitalization of impoverished areas and increase the competitiveness of our children in the global market place by effectively raising their comprehensive abilities in reasoning skills (the foundation of math and the sciences.) Either that, or we can continue to squander money on the floundering system that we have now, where everybody recognizes that the emperor has no clothes, but love Obama too much to tell him. I wonder what practical considerations I'm leaving out? Well, I hope somebody will let me know so we can continue this discussion.


Keahou said...

Rather than sit here spend time coming up with an involved, lengthy counter argument loaded with Naomi Klein or Thomas Friedman quotes, I'm going to go tend to my own practical issues, like worrying about my risk analysis job at one of those companies whose stock price has dropped by 60%, finding a good public school to put my 5 year-old in, and volunteering to teach English at an adult English learner program . One thing I will say is that Michelle Rhee is doing some work in Washington D.C., but there has not been enough time and she has not received a whole lot of national attention, and no, I will not go hunting for statistics, practical issues and all.

Best Wishes

American Anti-theist said...

Yeah, I think it's funny that given how busy you are you have time to lay judgment on my views, but somehow don't have time to justify yours. There's time enough to manufacture statistics from thin air to justify your points but not enough to actually validate your opinions. And the final capping glory is that you use your personal situation as an overriding justification of your views. Given the seriousness of the nation's problems, what exactly is it we should be spending our time on instead? If anything is a signal of how desperately our nation needs educational reform, it is the prevalence of the notion that a cry for pity is sufficient in itself to justify any proposition.

I'll just say that I commend Rhee's committment to personal freedom. I quote from the WSJ:

"That same desire for innovation in the schools has been behind the success of the District's Opportunity Scholarship Program--the country's first federal voucher program. Signed by President Bush in 2004, the program gives around 1,900 students from low-income families up to $7,500 to attend private schools of their choice. The five-year pilot program is up for renewal next year, but Ms. Rhee doesn't see school choice as a threat to her mission in the public schools. She shakes her head. "I would never, as long as I am in this role, do anything to limit another parent's ability to make a choice for their child. Ever."
Instead, she sees the competition presented by school choice and charter schools as part of the process of raising standards in the public school system at large. "We have an excellent choice dynamic for parents here. . . . I'm a huge proponent of choice, but I'm also an unbelievably competitive person, and my goal is . . . to create schools within the system that I believe are the most compelling choices."

People have tried to get her to commit to a ratio of public schools to charter schools. Ms. Rhee won't play that game. "I don't enter this with defensiveness, about protecting [D.C. public schools'] share of the market. I believe we should proliferate what's working and close down what's not. Period." "

Perhaps if you took the time to see what people actually believe before you appropriate their name to back up your agenda, you would have a better understanding of the ideas involved and could make a stronger case.

Anyways, best of luck with the job and everything. I really do understand what it means not to have work and to have responsibilities that cannot be shirked. I think this blog is one of those responsibilities, which is why I will always find the time to explain my views in detail for anyone who asks, or challenges them. As for my other personal responsibilities...that's my burden and nobody's business but my own. These ideas do not need an appeal to your pity to find justification.

Best of luck